Thursday, December 22, 2005

C. S. Lewis on What's Helpful in Devotion

Since Sunday I'm reading Green and Hooper's C.S. Lewis: A Biography (New Yoirk: Harcourt, 1974) and this morning, unable to sleep from 3 to 4, I copied this passage into my journal:

The truth is that Lewis never got on well with purely devotional books. What he infinitely preferred were solid works of theology that he had to work at to understand. His attitude towards the two kinds of books is summed up in a preface he wrote some years later for a translation of St. Athanasius's The Incarnation of the Word of God. 'For my own part, I tend to find the doctrinal books often more helpful in devotion than the devotional books, and I rather suspect that the same experience may await others. I believe that many who find that "nothing happens" when they sit down, or kneel down, to a book of devotion, would find that the heart sings unbidden while they are working their way through a tough bit of theology with a pipe in their teeth and a pencil in their hand'." (115)

While I may not be clenching a pipe in my teeth, I've often found Lewis's experience my own. For example, reading an essay by Stanley Hauerwas (e.g., "Story-Formed Community," "Ten Theses on Christian Social Ethics," "Jesus as The Social Embodiment of the Peacable Kingdom," "The Servant Community: Christian Social Ethics," "The Church as God's New Language.") frequently provides me with the spirituial grist I need for a good chewing. But is this a more or less universal experience among us? Is Lewis's experience yours too? If not, what devotional books--apart from the Bible!-- do you find helpful?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

St. Thomas, December 21

Today the Lutheran and Episcopal/Anglican churches remember the life and ministry of Thomas the Apostle. (The Roman Catholic calendar has moved St. Thomas to July 3, the date of his commemoration in the Syrian Church. The Eastern churches observe Oct. 6. )

In a Lutheran community, at home privately or with fellow believers at the parish church, we listen to three readings from the Bible:

  • Judges 6:36-40 (Gideon finds the fleece first wet, then dry.)
  • Ephesians 4:11-16 (The Lord Jesus Christ equips his "holy people" for the work of ministry.)
  • John 14:1-7 (When Thomas asks Jesus, "How can we know the way?" Jesus says, "I am the Way; I am Truth and Life."

For this day Grant Mauricio Gallup provides a thoughtful and challenging sermon for your head, heart, and hands. Here is a prayer you might slowly murmur today:

Everliving God, who strenghened your apostle Thomas with firm and certain faith in your Son's resurrection: Grant us so perfectly and without doubt to believe in Jesus Christ, our Lord and our God, that our faith may never be found wanting in your sight; through him who lives and reigns with you the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

Monday, December 19, 2005

More on what to do when Christmas falls on Sunday

As you may well know, since our December 10 post, “Churches Close Doors on Christmas Day,” there’s been a vibrant—and sadly, sometimes acerbic—conversation among Christians about the wisdom of churches (mostly mega-) deciding not to worship on Christmas Day when it falls on Sunday. For example, at Jesus Creed, I read some 39 pages of conversation containing Scot McKnight’s original posting and dozens of responses. In his initial post on December 8 , McKnight, in response to Ben Witherington’s blog, takes the view “that we should be a little more charitable in the discussion,” dropping “some of the caustic, belletristic, and condemnatory language.” I agree. McKnight then proceeds to list nine observations, most of which are worth our attention:

1. After asking if the New Testment teaches a Christmas Eve or Christmas Day worship service, he answers with an obvious “no”; after all, the topic never came up for discussion. In context, however, it may be good to remember that in the Old Testament because “God thought a bundle of days were so important for the Jewish calendar that he gave alws both on the necessity of their annual celebration[s] and he told them just how to celebrate those days,” the Old Testament people of God “did just that.” Nevertheless, “the same God didn’t think the same of Christmas, for there are no legislations about keeping but one ‘holiday’: the Lord’s supper.” As a consequence, we cannot argue that mega-churches are violating any Biblical injunction about Christmas.”

2. McKnight asks about question, more “at the heart of the discussion: does the New Testament teach a Sunday morning worship service? He answers that “there is no clear text legislating that Christians are to meet for worship on Sunday morning.” Admittedly, there are “clear indications that Christians met on Sundays (Acts 20.7; I Cor 16.2, and perhaps Rev. 1.10) and the author of the Letter to the Hebrews encourages Christians to meet regularly with other believers, but such texts only demonstrate that such Sunday gatherings are precedents for us to consider; as Joe Thorn rightly says, “The precedent is there; there is, however, no commandment.”

3. Assuming that most of the bloggers in the conversation are “low-church Protestants,” McKnight reminds them that their manner of church governance privileges the “local pastor and board of delders/deacons” with decisions about days and times of worship services. “If we believe in such a theory of church government,” McKnight notes, “then we get decisions like this and we have to trust those elders and pastors and church to make good decisions.” McKnight likes Craig Lee’s comment: we might at this point just trust our brothers and sisters to do what is good.

4. McKnight then gently pokes “some in the eye” by noting that he often senses “too much identification of ‘worship’ with ‘Sunday morning’ and ‘being the church’ with ‘attending a Sunday morning service’.” He reminds us that “church” is something we are (not something done on Sunday) and we are the church “all through the week—climaxing,” he says, “at the Lord’s table and in Sunday worship.”

5. We should also consider that first-century “messianic Jewish Christians would have naturally transferred their view of what to do on the Sabbath from the Sabbath to the Lord Jesus Christ.” Because of the paucity of evidence, however, we don’t know the details of their weekend arrangements for worship.

6. By the time of Ignatius of Antioch (Epistle to the Magesians, 105-115) some Christians had given up Sabbaths for the Lord’s Day; moreover, Justin Martyr (Apology, 1.67)150-160) is clear: it’s on Sunday that Christians worship as a community.

7. Skipping some nearly two thousand years of intervening history, McKnight next jumps into a consideration of some modern "pragmatics." Frankly, it’s apparent that the mega-churches simply cannot handle the logistics of “having everyone gather at once” on Christmas Day. Willow Creek, for example, has had about 60,000 attend Christmas services, somehow managing by holding a series of services to get them all, service after service in an auditorium that holds about 7500. It’s simply a logistical nightmare, McKnight implies to expect a church, year after year, to service such crowds on Christmas Day.

8. Realizing the above, we ought not unfairly insult our brothers and sisters by suggesting that somehow they are “consumeristic and selfish,” focused on “getting” rather than “serving.”

9. If, however, their Christmas Eve services are “so intense” that “there is nothing left for another service” and if their “performance[s]—productions of cantatas, musicals, theatricals, and so on—are exhausting their energies, then it might be possible to “argue that [such performances]” are worth examining to see if they are worthwhile.

In conclusion, McKnight asks everyone to be “a little more charitable in light of what the New Testament does and does not say. Let’s permit,” he says, “our brothers and sisters, once every seven years, to make decisions that we might not approve of but know that they answer to God, that we answer to God, that it is about worship of God and incarnating the gospel in our world for the good others and the world.”

I agree with much of the above as did others who posted comments running nearly forty pages when I printed them for examination. Importantly, however, many thoughtful Christians raised important qualifications and additional issues. Mark Perry, for example, writes:

Scot, thank you for a very well argued piece. My reaction has more to do with historical, liturgical church practice. Granted most mega-churches are not practicing a high church liturgy, so perhaps you could comment on historical church calender practice as it relates to this “controversy”.

My overall concern is not with mega-churches but the state of the American church that treats God as something to be consumed. I know I am being a bit simplistic and general; there are always exceptions. The American church (for the most part) does a good job of getting people in the door and many are coming to Christ, but how do we move people from a consumption mindset to being willing to deny oneself and take up their cross? It seems if we were doing a better job of that, the nature of church would change. We would be a counter-cultural entity reflecting more of the values of the Kingdom. Cancelling church on Christmas doesn’t seem to fight those consumption tendencies.

McKnight replies:

Mark, the entire liturgical issue is up front and center to this issue, but no one seems to be focusing on it. If Sunday worship is leitourgia, and that means sacramental and liturgical readings of Scripture, then there is not one argument left for cancelling services — or for productions and performances for Christmas Eve.

You may wish to read the entire document (be sure to start with the December 8 posting in Jesus Creed) to see the breadth and depth of the full conversation. For those of you who have read Ben Witherington’s original post, you may be interested in reading his reply to McKnight:

Hi Old Friend:

Well its clear enough we disagree on this one. And I think I have figured out why. I disagree with the theology that thinks we are the church all through the week. We are Christians all through the week to be sure, but frankly we are not the church unless we are doing something Christian together as the body of Christ.

Furthermore, since worship is the prime mandate,though not all ‘church activities’ involve worship, nevertheless we are not being the church unless we are ‘having church’, gathering together in worship every week. In light of the praise worship movement over the last decade which has taught us a lot about the yearning to praise God, a yearning I would suggest that has been programmed into us by God, I would have thought we had learned by now how important it is, especially while the world is watching closely as it is at Christmas, to be holy examples of those who show what true worship is, especially on a day like the ‘Feast of the Incarnation’.

Now I admit to being a high church Methodist and I love the Christmas celebration especially. Some of my own most spiritually formative moments have come in Christmas services, including Christmas eve ones. And so it is hard for me to imagine that not having a Christmas service while the world is watching closely is anything but : 1) laziness; 2) self-centeredness; 3) a failure to take into account what sort of witness it gives,4) capitulation to cultural agenda and so on.

Perhaps I am wrong, but it also seems to me that the Bible implies and certainly early church history suggests that there was and ought to be a particular day of worship each week, that day being resurrection day, the Lord’s Day (not necessarily the day the Lord’s Supper was served though perhaps that as well). And there is a double reason to be present when Christmas Day comes on a Sunday.

I would rather stand with the second century Christians who were incarcerated in Asia Minor and tortured for meeting on the first day of the week and singing songs to Christ, than with those who would rather spend more time at home unwrapping gifts for themselves. Going to church is of course voluntary, no one is holding a gun to anyone’s head especially not if they went to one or more Christmas eve services. My prime concern here is not with Christians who choose one service over another. My prime concern is with ministers and churches who decide to close on Christmas rather than offering a service for those who would like to come.

I am thinking as well of my many friends in Russia, who have fought so hard to have Christian worship on Sunday openly without persecution. They would not think of closing on Christmas Day or any other Sunday. Celebrating Jesus’ birth on that day is a right too recently won. I was with them on Pentecost Sunday last June with 4,500 folks in the old Commmunist Convocation building praising God for about four hours non-stop. It was clear to me that this was the heartbeat, this was what God had in mind for us, especially as we celebrate the crucial moments in Jesus’ story.

Blessings on this blog,

Ben Witherington


Perhaps it’s time to stop here now that you have some sense of where the conversation has been and will likely continue to go. Over Christmastide I will be musing over all that I’ve read, asking the Holy Spirit to guide my thinking and heart’s pondering; then I’ll post again to share with you some discernments. Why don't you do the same in the days ahead.

In the meantime, wherever you are in worship during Christmastide, I wish you a blessed celebration of our Lord’s Nativity--in your personal life, within the life of your Christian community--and whenever and however you and your friends introduce Jesus to the world.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Infinite Wonder of the Divine

Living in the country where no street lights provide so-called “sky pollution,” I’m often see the stars and the Milky Way at night. Awake early this morning, I went out to look at the pre-dawn sky. Although overcast, here and there I could see a few stars flickering where the clouds had drifted apart. At such times I often wonder about the age and size of our expanding universe and our place in the vast scheme of things. It’s good to know that others share my thoughts. The Tablet has recently published a marvelously thoughtful piece, “Infinite Wonder of the Divine,” by George Coyne, director of the Vatican Observatoryat Castel Gandolfo and Arizona. Coyne begins this way: "Creationist notions of intelligent design diminish God. Instead we should see his love for the infinitely evolving universe as like that of a parent allowing a growing child to make its own choices and go its own way in life."

And ends with this observation:

It is unfortunate that, especially in America, creationism has come to mean some fundamentalistic, literal, scientific interpretation of Genesis. Judaic-Christian faith is radically creationist, but in a totally different sense. It is rooted in a belief that everything depends upon God, or better, all is a gift from God. The universe is not God and it cannot exist independently of God. Neither pantheism nor naturalism is true. God is working with the universe. The universe has a certain vitality of its own like a child does. It has the ability to respond to words of endearment and encouragement. You discipline a child but you try to preserve and enrich the individual character of the child and its own passion for life. A parent must allow the child to grow into adulthood, to come to make its own choices, to go on its own way in life. Words that give life are richer than mere commands or information. In such wise ways does God deal with the universe – the infinite, ever-expanding universe. That is why, it seems to me, that the Intelligent Design Movement, a largely American phenomenon, diminishes God, makes him a designer rather than a lover.

If now and then you too lean back to look at the stars, you might like to look over “Infinite Wonder of the Divine” and muse along with me over Coyne's observations and thoughts.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

December 18: Mary, the Lord's Servant

Realizing that perhaps most of us will welcome December 18 as the Fourth Sunday in Advent, some Christians will find it a day during which they ponder Mary's role in salvation history. Perhaps you'd like to join them and ask yourself:

How do I understood Mary's place in the Gospels?*
What might we gain from the particular emphases of the Orthodox, Catholic and Protestant traditions about Mary?
What do I take from the following sonner, John Donne's poem about Mary's relationship to Jesus?

Salvation to all that will is nigh;
That All, which always is all everywhere,
Which cannot sin, and yet all sins must bear,
Which cannot die, yet cannot choose but die,
Lo, faithful virgin, yields Himself to lie
In prison, in thy womb; and though He there
Can take no sin, nor thou give, yet He will wear,
Taken from thence, flesh, which death's force may try.
Ere by the spheres time was created, thou
Wast in His mind, who is thy Son and Brother;
Whom thou conceivst, conceived; yea thou art now
Thy Maker's maker, and thy Father's mother;
Thou hast light in dark, and shutst in little room,
Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb.

If you interested in musing over the questions and the import of Donne's sonnet, visit Journey with Jesus for a thoughtful commentary on the day. And then let us know what you're saying to youself, to us.

An Ecumenical Calendar

Inasmuch as our emerging Anthrakia Community is somewhat ecumenical (and wishing to be more so always), I’m going to publish an ecumenial calendar of sorts that will highlight what we Christians in various traditions are thinking about and praying for as we move through the days of our lives. Realizing that I may not be fully aware of important dates, commemorations, and festivals that are important to you ( I know next to nothing, for example, about important days Mennonites hold special), I ask that you supplement the calendar with what you think important for all of us to know and share with one another. Admittedly for a while, I'll be "calendaring" from a Lutheran heritage, but I will do my best to be as inclusive as possible. Just recently, for example, I discovered that a number of Christians are marking their calendars on November 12, 2006, as an "International Day of Prayer for the Persecuted Church." That, it seems to me, sets aside a day and a concern worth taking seriously. As I develop our awareness of who’s doing what when, right now I’m relying on what I can gather from published calendars, hymnals, parish notices, and so on. As I find more resources, I'll share them. Please join in by making our shared sense of “sacred time” as complete as possible.

In late December, in addition to the Advent Sundays and Christmas Eve and Day, many traditions make a special effort to note and/or provide worship for the following remembrances associated with the life of Jesus and the mystery of our redemption.

December 18, Mary, the Lord's Servant
December 21, St. Thomas, Apostle
December 26, St. Stephen, Deacon and Martye
December 27, St. John, Apostle and Evangelist
December 28, The Holy Innocents

As we come closer to each of these days, I post a few words about each of them. Once again, if you know of a day or series of days that's important for you Christian life, worship, and service, create a post and let us know!

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Growing up in a Lutheran family whose parish observed the liturgical calendar of the church's year, I remember with gratitutde that my family and friends postponed any "real" celebrations of Christmastide until Christmas Day itself. That is, we observed the preparatory season of Advent with some rigour. Hence, the Christmas tree was put up on Christmas Eve, and we celebrated the Twelve Days of Christmas, taking down the Christmas tree on the Feast of the Epiphany (January 6), cutting it up, and saving the wood of the trunk for making the Lenten cross that would be hung on the dining room wall during Lent. To this day I don't listen to a whole lot of Christmas music through most of December, and I feel a tad uncomfortable with the church's pushing Christmas up a couple of Sundays just because our consumer-oriented culture wants a pre-Christmas profit. Moreover, I'm saddened that the "tide" has been taken off Christmas so that the celebration lasts for only twenty-four hours. The church, it appears, has little more to say about the Incarnation, after December 25. Have any of you come from similar liturgical tradtions and do you have something of the same reflections?

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Gonna See Narnia? Read It?

I read The Chronicles of Narnia years ago (about fourty!) to my kids, but am reading The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe now and plan to read the whole thing in January. There's a good bit of discussion about it. Anyone planning or wanting to do anything with it, here or elsewhere?

Here's a question I often find myelf asking: why don't we pray in church services for our enemies? I hear lots of petitions for our "troops in harm's way," but only once in the past year have I been asked to pray for our enemies (terrorists, insurgents, the Bath-ists, Al-Quida, and so on). It's a curious phenomenon because Jesus asks us specifically to pray for them. Maybe we don't because someone will think that sort of stuff is a bit too "liberal" for worship. Got any thoughts on the matter?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Wright, Romans and the Theology of Paul

In the introduction of "Romans and the Theology of Paul," Wright spend several pages "On Reading Romans Theologically" and in the first paragraph tells us what he plans to do: "This paper addresses these puzzles [the ones his Roman readers encountered] by means of a theological reading of the letter; that is, a reading of the letter drawing out its main theological line of thought, and a summary of the theology that thus emerges, showing how, and perhaps why, it was deployed in this fashion. This, I take it, is my assigned topic; I have not forgotten rhetorical analysis, narrative criticism, historical setting, and so, but I canot give them full measure here." What is puzzling about the letter? Have we got any genuine ideas as to what Wright means by "rhetorical analysis" and narrative criticism"? Might we want to take a look at Romans in some detail, perhaps with Wright?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Churches Close Doors on Christmas Day

It's a good thing Mary and Joseph aren't looking for a place to stay on Christmas Day. As you might know, they'd have no place to stay in several Lexington mega-churches. The reaction to this Bad News has been wide-spread. Here, for example, is what Ben Witherington, professor at Asbury Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky, has to say: Well I suppose it had to happen. The mega-church in Lexington (Southland Christian) consulted with other mega-churches like Willow Creek and decided that they would close on Dec. 25th, even though its a Sunday and even though its Christmas Day! The rationale given in our local newspaper The Lexington-Herald Leader was--- people are so busy and Christmas is supposed to be a family day, so this decision was made as a family friendly gesture. But wait a minute--- whose birthday is it anyway? And which family is supposed to be serving which--- the family of faith or the physical family? Talking about putting the EM-Phasis on the wrong syl-LABLE. Our culture does not need any encouragement to be more self-centered and narcissistic or to stay at home on Sunday. It is already that way. Christmas above all else should be a day when we come together as the body of Christ to worship and adore the Lord Jesus. Christmas should be the day above all days where we don't stay home and open all those things we bought for ourselves INSTEAD of going to church. Christmas should be the day when we forget about ourselves for a few hours and go and honor the birthday of the great King, our Savior. What we are dealing with here are churches whose priorities are so askew that they somehow think it is more important for the church to serve the wants of the physical family than the other way around. This is a far cry from the pattern of the original disciples of Jesus who were seen leaving homes, relatives, jobs to come and follow Jesus. What kind of message does it send to our culture when churches close on one of its highest holy days? That it is o.k. to stay home and do one's own thing even on Jesus' birthday? It is past time that these sorts of churches be called to account. It is time for them to realize that they have simply capitulated to the larger culture's agenda on issue after issue, in this case in supporting the worship of the idol called family in place of the worship of Jesus. The church does not exist to serve the world, but rather to save the world. The church does not exist to serve the physical family but rather to redeem it and make clear that if it is a Christian family it has a larger and more primary obligation to the family of faith and to its Lord. Christmas is one of two days in the year when we should especially make that clear to our culture and our country. Shame on you mega-churches--- repent and believe the Gospel, starting with the birth stories of Jesus.


Welcome to Anthrakia, a place in the cold to warm yourself. Anthrakia, is the Greek word for a "a pile of burning charcoal," used twice in the Gospel of John: first, to describe the charcoal fire, where Peter warmed his cold hands and, when asked, denied knowing Jesus three times(18.18); and second, to describe another charcoal fire Jesus lit and upon which he was preparing breakfast for his disciples by the Sea of Tiberias after His resurrection (21.9). Here, by this anthrakia, you're invited to to warm your hands and eat of something Jesus prepares for you.

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