In a Complicated World, the Spirit Is with Us

 

At one of the most pivotal moments in the history of the early apostolic church—an inflection point recorded in the book of Acts—we read:

While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” Then after fasting and praying they laid their hands on them and sent them off. So, being sent out by the Holy Spirit, they went down to Seleucia, and from there they sailed to Cyprus. (Acts 13:2-4).

This was an extraordinary development—an initiative coming not from Jerusalem but from Antioch, where the elders of that younger congregation recognized that the Spirit was doing a new thing—a new venture that would eventually transform the face of global mission given that it led to the establishment of congregations made of up Gentiles. And in Acts 15 we have the affirmation of the Council of Jerusalem that Gentiles could become Christians without first becoming Jews.

What is striking, of course, is the immediacy of the Spirit. Clearly, the vision and mission of the church were being implemented with an intentional response to the presence and guidance of the Spirit. A great hymn opens with this line: “The Church of Christ, in Every Age, Beset by change, but Spirit led . . .” (lyrics, Fred Pratt Green). This captures a fascinating dynamic. The life of the church is one of change. it takes for granted that change is a given. But more, God is fully present by the Spirit to guide the church through this time of change. This catches our attention in an era or season in the life of the church when it would seem that church leadership is defaulting to two rather different approaches to decision-making around missional engagement. First, there is the assumption that the key to congregational flourishing is strategic planning—borrowing from the approaches that one might find in the business and entrepreneurship section of the local bookstore. And the second is what we might speak of as “franchising,” by which we mean that a congregation might scan the horizon and see a congregation that is seemingly flourishing and then choose to attend a seminar or workshop so that they can learn how it is done and how that approach could be replicated in their neighborhood. So, complete church boards and pastoral teams will head off to an all-day seminar in South Barrington, Illinois, to learn the “Willowcreek” model.

Now, to stress: We have so much to learn from and with one another. It makes complete sense to attend a seminar where we learn how other congregations are navigating the challenges of what to means to be the church in our day. And we must be strategic in our thinking and approach to congregational life. That is not what is at issue here. Rather, the question is rather there is a significant limitation when our default mode is to franchise—to seek to replicate an approach to congregational life that seems to be working—or, to lean into the analysis that goes with strategic planning.

Could it be that there is no substitute for the leadership of each congregation to do their due diligence—asking specifically: In this time and in this place, what does it mean to be the church, or to be this organization? And do this recognizing that no one else can do this work for you?

While this may lead to a strategic initiative, the heart of the matter is the immediacy of the Spirit in the leadership of the church. That is, might the experience of the church in Antioch provide guidance and encouragement for each congregation or Christian non-profit agency? Can we, through worship and prayer, come to clarity about the call of the ascended Lord? Could it be that two churches in the same neighborhood—perhaps even on the same street corner, kitty-corner from each other—discern differently, such that a Lutheran congregation has one particular call to this time and place and the Baptist church across the way, but in the same neighborhood, discerns a complementary, not competitive, call to ministry in that time and place?

This way of thinking assumes that local matters—this place and the work of God in this place and that our calling is always particular. It assumes, further, that we live and work and serve the ascended Lord in a fluid environment and that as our context changes, we need to be in tune with how the Spirit is calling and empowering us. Thus, we ask: What does it mean to be the church in this time and this place, and what might this mean now that, perhaps, we live and work in a pluralist and secular context or situation? What are the possibilities of grace—yes, we are strategic—and what can we learn from others, so that we are faithful in our time and place? Can we discern the prompting and initiative of the Spirit that is particular to our context?

And then, also, the church is facing a remarkable set of moral and ethical challenges. And here our default tends to be: What is “biblical”? What verses do we reference to resolve this issue? Without a doubt, the Scriptures are the definitive reference to the conversation, it is appropriate to ask: If the Spirit is constantly teaching the church (see John 16:13), could it be that, with the Bible in hand, we can ask, “Oh Spirit of the Living God, how would you call us and guide us as we read the text and respond to the issue that we are facing?” Can we do this? Can we read the Scriptures through the lens and with an active engagement with the Spirit?

Yes, of course, we can. But then, how and what will it take to cultivate this capacity? In this regard, there is no authoritative text or guide—Scripture or otherwise—that outlines what it means to discern, together, the call of God on this community or organization or church. And yet, we are learning. What is emerging is a growing and shared wisdom—a recognition that there are several key markers or indicators that we are on the right path. Four in particular:

First, discerning the particular calling of God, in this time and in this place, means that we accept the particular—this time and this place: no nostalgia for an earlier era, no wishful thinking, but rather, a full and courageous engagement with our time and place, where we unreservedly name our reality, recognizing that discernment is always specific and particular. Yes, we will be agents of change and redemption, but we begin with the situation that presents itself. And we view the changes in our world and our situation not as a threat or a problem but as an opportunity to lean into the counsel, wisdom, and guidance of the Spirit.

Second, let’s also recognize that no one person has the special insight or inside track to the Spirit. The witness of the Spirit will come through the collective. We are all in over our heads. The wisdom we need will come through the give-and-take of a deliberative process. We will learn with and from each other. We need a good moderator (witness Acts 15). And we need grace-filled conversation where we listen twice as much as we speak. We need the humility to defer to one another. The process of deliberation cannot be rushed. But we do need to come to closure, which means that we need to be alert to those who assume they have veto power on any potential outcome. Do not assume that unanimity necessarily means we have it right and know the mind of the Spirit. Do not assume the consensus means we have chosen the right course of action. Yes, there will likely be a collective leaning or a weight, but good decision-making and discernment often have a significant minority voice and perhaps even opposition.

Third, I will take openness—the disposition of those who do not need to control the situation or only tend to what seems obvious. We will receive oversimplistic solutions or old paradigms or assumptions or reminders that “we have always done it this way” as the Spirit calls the church to new models and vistas and approaches to life and mission. Thus, discernment requires an open mind and an open heart, a capacity to see the new ways in which the Spirit is calling the church to act, to engage its time and place. We will see that the Spirit’s guidance will be one of faithfulness to the historic witness of the church but ways of seeing that may well come as a surprise. But we also need to affirm the vital place of what older spiritual theologians spoke of as “holy indifference”—where, with open hands and open hearts, we accept the will of God and the will of those that we live, work, and worship with. We do not demand our own will be done. In all of this, there will be this sense in our company and conversation that the Spirit is present bringing new life, new growth, new possibilities—thinking here of the benediction of Ephesians, “Now to him who by the power at work within us is able to accomplish abundantly far more than all we can ask or imagine … “ (3:20).

And fourth, courage. We resolve to do what needs to be done. We are alert to the insidious power of fear. The greatest threat to discernment—to choosing well and doing the right thing? Fear. As Paul emphasizes with Timothy, “for God did not give us a spirit of cowardice . . .,” which, in some translations, comes through as timidity or fear. We will consistently find that the new venture to which the Spirit is calling us is one that calls for inner resolve, conviction, and fortitude. There will likely be naysayers who will feed our fears and worries, so it is imperative to name our fears and points of anxiety so that their influence and power are limited by such a naming.

But the bottom line remains: In the challenges we face in the church today, we need to learn what it means to lean into and depend on the guidance of the Spirit. This leads not to presumption but to a humble willingness to do the right thing. And wisdom demands not only humility but also accountability (see Acts 15). Wise women and men lead with an intentionality toward the Spirit but also an accountability within Christian community for what they are learning and seeing.

On Friendship

Three of my best friends and I sat on a bench at the back of the chapel after vespers, after an evening of sunset canoeing and the kind of day that makes me expel an exhausted and contented sigh as I collapse in a heap. We were volunteering together as cabin counselors at the camp where we used to work. That night we sat together in the chapel and listened to our former camper, now all grown up, and the summer’s assistant director, sing the night’s lullaby. We leaned into each other, as Lucas sang, “If . . . your cup starts dryin’ up . . . And your best is not enough . . . Just remember where you came from/And the joy that follows pain/You’ve got people in your corner/And a God who knows your name” (“Burn Together,” Andrew Shuford). I was sitting with the people in my corner, in a place where it is clear that God knows my name. These were the people who had seen me through hard things, and we were together in the place where we came from. The moment sparkled with grace.

My students talk to me a lot about feeling lonely and homesick. They tell me a lot of things that they should be telling their friends, but it sounds like none of them really know how to listen to one another. Even my social and gregarious students don’t seem to have friends in their corner, friends who are with them, friends who point them to God’s love. I could go on about the ways that social media and other screens have kept my students from learning how to make real friends and even generally how to be in relationships with other human beings, but that feels like beating a dead horse. Let me instead extoll the virtue of friendship in hopes that my students might find inspiration and courage to try making friends.

Friendship is a divine gift. God mediates God’s self to us through material things in the day-to-day, and a great deal of those mediations are through people. Yes, God can and does come to us through strangers who might happen to help us at the right time, or sometimes God comes to us through family, sometimes even through an enemy. So much mediation of God’s love, though, comes from friends. These are the people who choose to love us even when we’re frustrating. Families are supposed to love us regardless of how we mess up, even as we know families who don’t. Friends, however, choose to love and keep right on loving through our worst moments. We keep right on choosing to love our friends through their worst moments, too. What could be a better imitation of God’s love for humanity? When I am selfish and my friends see it but choose to stick with me, I have a glimpse of the way God sticks with me and the rest of humanity. When my friend has a life crisis and we stay with her through it, she has an actual experience of God’s love and steadfast presence in us.

Sometimes it’s the friends who are least like me with whom I have the most in common. On the outside, my friend Chris and I could not be more different, but we share deep parts of our souls with one another, and Christ binds us together in friendship and love. In her I see aspects of God I wouldn’t notice otherwise. Friends who are older than me give me wisdom and perspective; younger friends keep me joyful and full of life. In this I see God restoring all of humanity to harmonious relationship with one another again.

Even better than this incredible human friendship, Jesus calls us friends. In the farewell discourse in John, Jesus tells his disciples, “I don’t call you servants but friends” (John 15:15). Then, just to drive it home, after the resurrection when Jesus sees his disciples fishing, he calls out, “Friends, don’t you have any fish?” (21:5). Friends. We have friendship with God! Sonship and daughtership, yes, but friendship too. When was the last time I thought of being God’s friend? Someone God confides in, someone God loves by choice, even though he sees me in all my idiosyncratic glory, someone God delights in spending time with, someone God would want to frolic through meadows or paddle a canoe with. Or when did I think of what it means to be God’s friend: remaining always faithful to God, wanting to go for a hike with him, listening to whatever is on God’s heart?

Making and being a friend takes courage and commitment, but we are not alone. God makes us friends with himself and with one another, and in doing so comes to us himself. Who are the people in your community who need friends? Who might you choose in friendship that you don’t seem to have a lot in common with? Where can you give yourself to friendships that will lead you into the very heart of God? Where can you encourage friendships that will lead us all into the very heart of God? Wherever that is, I’ll meet you there, friend.

Building a Theological Library: Historical Theology

St. Vladimir’s Popular Patristics Series

Building a historical theology library must begin with primary sources. I know that many of you are looking to this series for recommendations of recent scholarship to keep your library and your knowledge up to date, but in historical theology, if you have to choose between buying a primary source or a secondary source, almost every time you should buy the primary source.

The people we read—from Irenaeus to Augustine to Macrina to Julian to Luther to Wesley—are also Christians. They’re studied Christians and, especially in the cases of ancient and medieval Christians we’ve bothered to keep around, recognized as faithful Christians. We believe in the same God. They are trying to witness to us about the same God we know. Further, because of the communion of saints, we can treat them like friends on our shelves who have wisdom to offer us. Finally, because we are temporally distant from them, they can often open us up to another way of seeing God. They invite us to think and see differently because their own culture has different blind spots and assumptions than our own. They can call us to question our own time in ways our contemporaries cannot.

So, if you’ve made it this far and are willing to buy some primary sources, begin with the St. Vladimir’s Popular Patristics series and the Classics of Western Spirituality series. Both are excellent and accessible translations of major (and some minor) works in Christian thought, and both are affordable series. Plus, as a bonus, the St. Vlad’s volumes are pocket-sized!

If you need a place to begin with primary sources, start with Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Rule or John Chrysostom’s On the Priesthood. Both are standards in pastoral theology, laying out how to do this work and why it is important, as well as the great responsibility it is.

Introduction to World Christian History, by Derek Cooper (IVP Academic, 2016)

If your church history class was anything like mine, you focused on Christianity in the Western world, especially prior to the Reformation. Yet there was so much more going on in the world. Christianity began in the Middle East and the Mediterranean basin, including North Africa. It spread to Ethiopia and the Sudan as well as east to India, central Asia, and China within the first few centuries. The story of Christianity in these places is just as important as the story in Europe, especially as we try to recognize the breadth of the Spirit’s work and look for ways Christians practice now in different places.

Cooper’s Introduction to World Christian History is an accessible, digestible introduction to this story. He writes more as narrative than as textbook and keeps footnotes to a reasonable number, even as it is thorough and scholarly. Using the general chronological categories of ancient, medieval, and modern, Cooper then writes chapters on geographic areas in each chronological period. This allows you to easily find and brush up on the stories of God’s work in whichever places you’re less familiar with.

If you want to read more deeply in this area, check out this two-volume series instead: History of the World Christian Movement, by Dale T. Irvin and Scott W. Sunquist (Orbis, 2001, 2012).

Scripture as Real Presence, by Hans Boersma (Baker Academic, 2017)

Any list of important books on historical theology needs to include at least one volume on premodern exegesis. Our ways of reading Scripture since the Enlightenment, especially since the advent of historical-critical exegesis, are the ones taught in seminary. These methods are essential, to be sure, but they often forget the methods of the earliest Christians. Premodern readers of Scripture knew that the Bible was alive, a witness to Christ himself, and they read in such a way that they could see Christ on every page so that they could get closer to Christ and therefore be transformed by Christ into Christ’s own image.

Boersma’s Scripture as Real Presence offers a look at the various methods of patristic exegetes and shows how all the methods work together because of and toward the goal of seeing Christ. Their exegesis comes out of their understanding of what Scripture is. Boersma argues that even the best historically grounded theological exegesis of today forgets that our earliest Christians understood Christ to be already present in the Old Testament. When we do this, we forget half the story, and we do not fully understand Christ or Christ’s work. This is essential reading for pastors who read Scripture, who preach from Scripture, and who lead Bible studies.

Along with this book as an introduction, I cannot recommend highly enough the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and Reformation Commentary on Scripture (IVP Academic) series. These series put snippets of commentaries from ancient authors in Scripture order for ease of use. When I preach, I look up the passage here and discover what premodern exegetes had to say. Often it opens my preaching and asks me to consider aspects of the passage I hadn’t noticed before.

Retrieving Nicaea: The Development and Meaning of Trinitarian Doctrine, by Khaled Anatolios (Baker, 2011)

This is a standard work that needs to be on everyone’s shelves. Understanding how Christians came to believe the fundamental things we do is essential for all other theology, for pastoral care, for preaching, and for any other task a pastor needs to do. Anatolios not only walks the reader through the development of Trinitarian doctrine but explains what that doctrine has to do with being a Christian today. Looking especially at Athanasius, Gregory of Nyssa, and Augustine, Anatolios demonstrates that the development of doctrine was always an attempt to make sense of the Christ and the Scriptures people knew. If you need a refresher on early doctrine or have questions about how to interpret that doctrine anew for today, this book is the one to read.

Christian Women in the Patristic World: Their Influence, Authority, and Legacy in the Second through Fifth Centuries, by Lynn H. Cohick and Amy Brown Hughes (Baker, 2017)

In addition to needing a broader picture of global Christian history, there has been a reevaluation of the role of women in church history lately. Though the story has largely been told by men and about men, women have had significant roles and positions of influence from the time Mary and women were the first witnesses to the resurrection. Cohick and Brown Hughes provide a picture of women in the early church, each chapter detailing the life and influence of one particular woman—Thecla, Perpetua and Felicitas, Macrina, and Paula, among others. Through these portraits, they explore what women taught and how they were perceived in their own time. Christian women had an unusual role in being both radical in society as well as marginalized. This book will keep your understanding of the narrative of Christian history broad, which is essential for spotting the Spirit’s work among people today.

If you want to read further about women in other centuries, check out The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, by Beth Allison Barr (Brazos, 2021); Women and the Reformation, by Kirsi Stjerna (Wiley-Blackwell, 2008); or pick up any book on mystics in the Middle Ages to read some primary sources. I especially recommend Julian of Norwich’s Revelations.

Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, by Kristen Kobes Du Mez (Liveright, 2021)

Du Mez offers a thorough and accessible account of the rise of evangelicals in the US during the twentieth century and the ways this movement became entwined with politics, white supremacy, and patriarchy. It is an important read to understand our current moment in US history, both secular and theological. Her thesis is that Donald Trump’s election by evangelicals in spite of his not being a church-goer of any kind is not an aberration but the culmination of decades of historical and ideological development. If we have any hope of moving forward in healthier theological veins, we have to understand this history.

Removing Blocks to Reading Scripture for the Love of God and Neighbor

In On Christian Doctrine, Augustine wrote, “So anyone who thinks that he has understood the divine scriptures or any part of them, but cannot by his understanding build up this double love of God and neighbor, has not yet succeeded in understanding them” ([Oxford University Press, 1997], 27).

For Augustine, the goal of biblical interpretation is the ongoing conversion of the Bible’s readers into persons who love God and others. Most of us likely desire this transformation. We want to be perfected in love. We intend to live fully as the people who God created us to be.

We also recognize that being filled with love is central to the work of the Holy Spirit. In Rom 5:5, Paul writes, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.” In Gal 5:22–23, Paul lists the fruits of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Arguably love is the principal fruit, and the others are facets of love.

Augustine’s model seems simple. But it is not easy to implement. At least, it hasn’t been easy for me. If it were easy, we would not witness the ongoing failures of many Christ-followers to uphold the character of Jesus. Likewise, we would not see the struggles of the church especially in the formerly Christian West to reach emerging generations with the gospel. Too many people equate Christians with hate and exclusion rather than love and inclusion.

Yet the Bible describes a world in which God has created a holy people for himself for the sake of the world. How is it that sometimes Scripture appears ineffective in creating a deep transformation that allows the church consistently to be known by love?

From my personal experience as well as my engagement with students, pastors, and spiritual leaders, I believe a principal obstacle to achieving Augustine’s vision is our inability to move past our biases and blind spots. We may read Scripture, but I wonder if we allow it to read us. Are we really open to the work God desires to do deep within?

Most of us would instinctively say, “Yes.” But the true mark of openness to Scripture is how we respond to those parts of the Bible that question our way of life rather than someone else’s. What might we be missing simply because our eyes and ears are trained to see and hear only certain truths and to pass over others?

Let’s go back to Augustine. He advocated a beautiful intention for our engagement with Scripture: growth in love for God and neighbor. But there’s a catch. To grow in love for God and neighbor we must be willing to face the parts of ourselves that don’t align with this intention. It’s easy to see this lack in others, but it’s painful to discover it inside ourselves.

To grow in love for God and neighbor we must explore its opposite. The opposite of loving God is not hating God. It’s indifference or apathy. Any cursory reading of the Bible will awaken us to the difficulties God’s people had in remaining faithful. By indifference, I don’t mean that we don’t care about our relationship with God. It’s more subtle. We have a space in our hearts that belongs fully to God, but there are plenty of rooms inside that belong to competing ideas. But anything that competes for our allegiance with God is a form of idolatry. So, to grow in love for Jesus we need to be willing to allow God through the Spirit to probe our hearts with Scripture to show us areas where we do not truly love God.

The same is true for growth in love for our neighbor. The opposite of loving neighbor is not hatred; it’s a lack of concern for others. Most Christians don’t openly desire evil for others. More often it is a subtle turning of our heads or closing our eyes to injustice.

Loving our neighbor involves a desire to do right for them. It’s a commitment to justice. It’s easy to love those who love us. But what of those who don’t? Jesus tangibly extended love even to those who crucified him. What more powerful demonstration is there than Jesus’s words on the cross: “Father, forgive them for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). Moreover, Jesus always seemed to have the ability to see those in need around him. Scripture wants to stretch us by helping us to develop eyes to see the invisible other in our lives. Are we willing to be challenged anew by the question that Jesus asked in the parable of the Good Samaritan: “Which … was a neighbor to the man?” (Luke 10:36).

To allow Scripture to do its work we must hear the positive descriptions of love for God and neighbor in the texts we read. But we must also consent to allow the Spirit to reveal to us areas where we don’t truly love God and neighbor. Then we must find the courage to pray the ancient prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner”; and realign with the values of Jesus and his kingdom.

Are you ready to get started?

 

[This essay is adapted from the introduction to my book Astonished by the Word: Reading Scripture for Deep Transformation (Invite Press, 2023); used with permission.]

On Spiritual Idolatry

Concern for idolatry permeates the Scriptures. If idolatry is understood as turning away from God and placing one’s trust in someone or something else, it appears as early as Gen 3. John Wesley addresses it in many sermons and essays, but perhaps nowhere more directly than his 1781 sermon “Spiritual Idolatry.”

Taking as his text 1 John 5:21 (“Little children, keep yourselves from idols”), Wesley says the idols in question were not those of the pagans. Neither Jews nor Gentile Christians would have been tempted to worship them. These idols are more subtle, and in that way more dangerous. They are also the same idols that draw us away from God today.

To offer a concrete example of what he is referring to, he describes a wealthy businessman now seeking to enjoy his retirement. He does this through elegant dining and enlarging and redecorating his home and estate. “But in the meantime,” Wesley asks, “where does God come in? He did not think about him. He no more thought of the King of heaven than of the King of France. God is not in his plan. The knowledge and love of God are entirely out of the question. Therefore this whole scheme of happiness in retirement is idolatry from beginning to end” (§I.4)

To provide a more thorough analysis of the various ways we all can be drawn away from God he turns to 1 John 2:16, which identifies three “species” of spiritual idolatry.

The first is “the desire of the flesh,” a seeking of happiness through pleasing the senses. This can be through intemperance, gluttony, or through a kind of “genteel sensuality” and self-indulgence, as in his opening example. But this type of idolatry is not only the province of the wealthy. “Thousands in low as well as in high life sacrifice to this idol; seeking their happiness (though in a more humble manner) in gratifying their outward senses” (§ I.5–6).

We can only imagine what Wesley would make of our contemporary consumer-driven culture in America. Shopping malls are its temples, advertising its call to worship. We can now worship this consumerist idol online from the comfort of home. What was a concern of 1 John in the first century and of Wesley in the eighteenth is idolatry on steroids in our day.

The second species of idolatry is “the desire of the eye,” our “seeking happiness in gratifying the imagination,” through “such objects as are either grand, or beautiful, or uncommon” (§I.7). The scope of this form of idolatry is wide. It includes art, nature, architecture, clothes, furniture, music, and such academic disciplines as history, philosophy, and science. These are not bad in themselves, but when they become the center of our happiness, they become idols.

Wesley notes that among “grand objects, it seems they do not please any longer than they are new.” If you lived in Egypt near the pyramids, or where you daily saw the ocean, their magnificence would soon wear off (§I.7). Our quest for novelty is also found in our seeking “diversions and amusements” as well as “collecting curiosities” (§I. 10). The siren call to have new experiences and acquire new things is endemic in American culture today.

The third species of idolatry is “the pride of life,” which is seeking the esteem of others. Certainly, we should value a good reputation only a little less than a good conscience, Wesley says, but if we look for happiness in the opinion of others rather than that of God we have fallen into idolatry (I.16)

To this trio of temptations, Wesley adds two other forms of idolatry that either overlap or do not fit into the categories. The first is the love of money as a means to procure any of the three forms of gratification. But money can also be pursued as an end in itself. This Wesley says, is “the lowest, basest idolatry of which the human soul is capable” (§I.17). It too is prevalent in our contemporary culture in America.

The final category of idolatry is “the idolizing any human creature.” We are called to love one another. But we are “neither commanded nor permitted to love one another idolatrously!” “How frequently,” Wesley asks, “is a husband, a wife, a child, put in the place of God? How many that are accounted good Christians fix their affections on each other so as to leave no place for God!” (§I.18).

This is the most subtle form of idolatry, and it is not limited to family. There are so many other good things Wesley could have listed that we put in place of God, including the church. With God at the center, all these can be loved deeply and appropriately, but if they move to the center in place of God our love for them becomes not only disproportionate but harmful to us and them.

How do we keep from idols? Wesley says, first, to “be deeply convinced that none of them bring happiness” (§II.1). Second, “come to your senses,” and “break loose from this miserable idolatry.” “Steadily resolve to seek happiness where it may be found—where it cannot be sought in vain. Resolve to seek it in the true God, the fountain of all blessedness” (§II.3).

We cannot do this on our own strength. Cry out, Wesley urges, to God for strength. Cry out for repentance. Cry out for a “thorough knowledge of yourself” (§II.4). And then cry out for faith in Jesus Christ who enables us to know the inexpressible love of God. “And as the shadows flee before the sun so let all my idols vanish as thy presence!” (§II.5).

What Use Is a Pastor?

Just recently, in my eighth year as a pastor, serving my fourth congregation, for the first time, I found myself in one of the most stereotyped pastoral circumstances: the middle of the night phone call to tell me that a congregation member had died. Truthfully, I was grateful to the member’s daughter who called me. Usually when someone dies, I am an afterthought. This is generally true regardless of how active a church member the deceased was, or how involved in a church the surviving family members are. I have often learned of someone’s death days later; in one case, it was nearly six months after the death. Frequently I am relegated to the role of one more service provider in the bereavement industry, awaiting the much more common “Can you do this Friday at 11” call from the local funeral home—and I have learned not to take even that little for granted.

None of this is personal. It reflects various cultural shifts over the last few decades: changes in both secular society and congregational life concerning everything from how people grieve to how they view faith to how they find help in times of crisis. The social role of the pastor has been displaced by the celebration of life director (formerly known as the funeral director, formerly known as the undertaker), the personal growth coach (or YouTube, etc.), and the therapist. Why go to a pastor when there are so many professionals, specialists, who are trained to offer customizable, individualized care? What use is a pastor these days?

I wouldn’t dream of offering a thorough apology for pastoral ministry here, but two key points can be summarized. The first and most important point is that the decline of the traditional social role of the pastor is an opportunity for the renewal of the ecclesial role of the pastor. More and more, pastoral work makes less and less sense outside the church, and maybe that’s how things should be. The proclamation of the gospel, the celebration of the sacraments, the curacy of souls—all of this is work that presumes the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. In communities where that truth is not affirmed or is regarded as one possible truth among many options, the pastor will always be something of an outsider. Rather than worrying too much about where we are seen as outsiders, pastors can intensify our efforts in the place where our work makes the most sense.

If the border between this place (the church) and other communities was clear, then this first point would also be the only one worth making, but that is not the case. Martin Luther famously said that the line dividing saint from sinner passes through every heart; similarly, the boundary between ecclesial and secular communities crosses through every life. So a second point in defense of contemporary pastoral ministry is that pastors provide an essential social good that is otherwise disappearing. And the nature of that social good can be found in that middle of the night phone call.

Professionals, from nurses and doctors to funeral home workers and therapists, do excellent work in providing care, but none of these professionals is expected to represent or provide a bridge to the wider community, or even have a presence in that community. Occasionally it happens. I have seen hospice nurses and in-home caregivers at visitations and services. Most professionals most of the time, however, cannot get involved in that way, and, for many professionals, to become too socially intertwined with care recipients could be a breach of ethics. Meanwhile, members of the wider community are generally absent from hospitals, hospice centers, nursing homes, etc. Visits are rare, and covid has only exacerbated the situation.

When the daughter called me during peak sleeping hours, she was not just reaching out for care in a time of loss. She was, consciously or unconsciously, grabbing a lifeline that connected her father, and by extension her family, to a wider community of people who knew and loved him. As her dad’s pastor, I belonged to that wider community and represented it; I was also a bridge to the rest of that community. At the same time, I could offer the comfort and support the community has in Jesus Christ. In other words, as a pastor I could unite what is increasingly divided: care and communal belonging. And in many cases, if I or another pastor am not providing that social good, no one is.

Death, as well as life crises and major health issues, not only kills; it isolates. And our society’s ways of handling, or, really, avoiding, death and suffering exacerbate this isolation. Pastors combat this isolation because it is contrary to the gospel of Jesus Christ, and in so doing we build up the church, while offering an essential good to the world.

Centering Prayer and Deep Formation in Christ

“In a revealed religion, silence with God has a value in itself and for its own sake, just because God is God. Failure to recognize the value of merely being with God, as the beloved, without doing anything, is to gouge the heart out of Christianity.” (Edward Schillebeeckx, The Church and Mankind [Paulist Press], 118)

The practice of centering prayer changed my life. In a dark time, I discovered the power of silence. Or more truthfully the silence discovered me. Sitting in silence before God brought me back from the brink of deconstruction and awakened me to the depths of God’s unconditional love previously unknown to me. Over the last decade or so, those closest to me have witnessed positive transformations as God has used my time in silent meditative prayer to help me grow even deeper in love for God, neighbor, and self.

I first learned about centering prayer in my mid-40s. The old proverb, “When the student is ready, the teacher appears,” captures the moment well. In the spring of 2011, I was in the midst of a painful divorce after twenty years of marriage. My emotions were in tatters. My faith was hanging on by a thread. Fear gripped me. I wondered if I’d lose my job as well as daily contact with my daughters. Stress and anxiety kept me wired enough that sleep was difficult.

One day, during a phone conversation with a friend, he told me that I sounded as though I were losing my mind. I always talk rapidly but that day I was in hyper-drive. Hearing the concern in my friend’s voice prompted me immediately to go outside and take a walk. Fortunately, it’s beautiful in central Florida during the spring. I headed out without an iPod. It was just me and my thoughts. As I walked along the sidewalk through my neighborhood where I’d walked many times before, something happened that changed the trajectory of my life. I heard a bird singing.

The sound broke the thought loops that had me walking in a trance-like state. I looked up and time froze for a moment. I noticed the sheer beauty of the flowering tree where the bird perched. I experienced a peaceful stillness as my soul quieted momentarily. In the silence, I sensed God’s love in a new way. I also perceived inwardly that God’s love was enough for me and that there was enough abundance in the world to get me through my time of darkness. I look back on this moment as my initiation and invitation to embrace silence and solitude practices.

Soon thereafter another friend introduced me to centering prayer. I’ve been sitting daily in silence ever since. By 2018, I began a series of reflections on what I had learned in silence and this body of writing slowly grew into what became Centering Prayer: Sitting Quietly in God’s Presence Can Change Your Life (Paraclete Press, 2021).

What Is Centering Prayer?

If you are unfamiliar with centering prayer, it is best described as a type of silent meditative prayer. It is prayer without words, thoughts, feelings, or images. It doesn’t replace the need for regular types of prayers. Its principal human component involves our sitting in silence with the sole intention of surrendering our thought loops to God and a willingness to abide quietly and openhanded in the presence of the Triune God who created us and loves us. We’ll get more specific about the “how-to’s” of centering prayer shortly.

Centering prayer as a contemplative practice dates to the early 1970s when three Trappist monks—Thomas Keating, Basil Pennington, and William Menninger—began to teach a method of silent prayer that could be used by priests and laypeople outside of a monastic setting. But the foundations of centering prayer are ancient and find their origins in the silence and solitude practices of the fathers and mothers of the desert traditions. Keating, Pennington, and Menninger also drew on the writings of later medieval Christian mysticism, including the works of Teresa of Avila, John of the Cross, and the anonymous Cloud of Unknowing, as well as on their close contemporary Thomas Merton. According to contemplative outreach, the practice is named centering prayer after Thomas Merton’s description of contemplative prayer as being “centered entirely on the presence of God.”

How to Practice Centering Prayer

Centering prayer is a type of silent meditative prayer. To begin, set your intention to sit silently and wait for God. The biggest impediment to the silence will be your thought stream. You’ll find yourself constantly distracted, interrupted, or even disturbed by your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations. Our only action is to surrender whatever captures our attention to God. The goal is to sit in silence with God and perhaps, God willing, to experience the real presence of God apart from your conscious thoughts. The experience of God’s presence praying within us is called contemplative prayer. However, we cannot control whether we experience God’s presence. It is always God’s gift to us. Our part is to show up and surrender whatever distracts us from waiting on God.

To facilitate centering prayer, choose a short prayer word. We will use it to recenter whenever we become enamored with the tapes playing inside our minds. I encourage practitioners to use “Jesus” or “Father” or “Spirit.” The prayer word is not a mantra that is rapidly repeated. Rather it serves as a way of breaking up the thought loops in our minds whenever we realize that we are lost in a thought. The surrendering of our thoughts (whether they be profound, beautiful, mundane, or difficult) is our sole contribution. God does the rest.

Within the Christian tradition, centering prayer involves a journey on the via negativa. It rests on the foundations of the beliefs and images of the Christian faith as established through Scripture, the Rule of Faith, the sacraments, and the other ordinary means of grace. But as part of the via negativa, centering prayer has a purifying function. It strips away idolatrous ideas about God and illusions about the self. As Wesleyan Christians, we confess that God is holy love. God is a purifying light that illuminates the darkness and unconditional love. I’ve found that my time in centering prayer has made visceral my understanding and experience of God. As I wrote in Centering Prayer,

[F]or too long the God I’ve worshiped has been more a construct in my mind than the lover of my soul and the object of my own soul’s affection. I’m not confessing the harboring of some heretical belief. I’m not suggesting that I’ve lived in rebellion against God. I’m simply sharing the growing edge of my spiritual life. As I’ve grown in grace in recent years, I’ve experienced new depths of God’s love for me. Sensing God’s love for me has been so transformational that it almost feels as though I’ve experienced conversion all over again. (7)

The work of God’s Spirit in the silence strips away ideology and superstition. It becomes more difficult to make God an object rather than the subject. Through centering prayer, God unites our head, heart, and hands into an instrument through which God prays love into us and ultimately into others through us.

Some Simple Instructions

  • Set a timer for fifteen to twenty minutes. The precise time is less important than your intention to be in silence for a season. Thomas Keating suggested a baseline of twenty minutes, but you can start with three to five minutes. Or you can stay in silence for as long as you have time. My advice is to honor your commitment using whatever time is available.
  • Sit in a comfortable place, close your eyes, and be still.
  • Whenever you find yourself lost in a thought, silently utter your prayer word to gently return to the silence. You will likely use your prayer word multiple if not dozens of times during a session. It is not a mantra to be repeated mindlessly. You use it whenever you become aware that you have become too attached to a narrative or film running in your head.

Centering Prayer and Our Thoughts: The Four R’s

The four R’s are the classic advice to practitioners of centering prayer on how to think about and surrender our thoughts while in silent prayer. They go back to Thomas Keating. They are reminders of what to do when we recognize that we are in a stream or loop of thoughts.

  • Resist no thought.
  • Retain no thought.
  • React to no thought.
  • Return ever so gently to Jesus with our prayer word.

The Four R’s are full of wisdom. They assist us in operationalizing the core principles of centering prayer—the surrender of our thoughts and our return to the intention to sit in silence before God. We cannot control our thoughts. They may be beautiful. They may be embarrassing. They may be random. They may be traumatic. Regardless, when we recognize that they’ve grabbed our attention, we release them and return to the silence with our sacred word.

  • Resist no thought. Recognize that we spend most of our days lost in loops of thought. Our minds bounce endlessly from one thought to another as if we live in a trance. Buddhists call this the “monkey mind.” To practice centering prayer does not mean fighting against thinking. The goal is not to erase our minds. This is impossible. You will likely have hundreds of thoughts during a centering prayer session. The key is recognizing when this happens and then surrendering anew. This leads to the next “R.”
  • Retain no thought. During centering prayer, we release our thoughts whenever we find ourselves paying attention to one without allowing it simply to float through our awareness. It’s fairly easy to let go if it’s a random thought about dinner or about a sound from outside. But, if we generate a helpful solution to a problem we’ve struggled with or have an idea for a sermon, it is harder to let go. But let go we must. Good or bad or neutral, we surrender each thought and return to the silence.
  • React to no thought. Thoughts are just thoughts. We have little control over what moves into our conscious mind. We may encounter beautiful thoughts or disturbing ones. A painful memory may emerge from the depths of our souls. We may get caught up in a fantasy. Regardless, the practice of centering prayer involves our commitment to make no judgments regarding our thoughts. Instead, we release them to God.
  • Return ever so gently to the sacred word. The elegance of centering prayer is its simplicity. It’s all about our intention to spend time with God in silence. The sacred word serves as a means of breaking our attention to thoughts, words, images, and feelings so that we can return to the silence.

The Deep Healing of Centering Prayer

Let me give an additional warning about not reacting to a thought. The thoughts most likely to incite a negative reaction are those carrying trauma, guilt, shame, and fear. Evagrius Ponticus (5th century) recorded eight evil thoughts that he observed in himself and in the early monastics under his supervision. These evil thoughts are greed, gluttony, lust, anger, sloth, sadness, vainglory, and pride. Evagrius’s list became one of the foundations of the “Seven Deadly Sins.”

Read over the list again. If you spend enough time in silence and solitude, you will be confronted by several if not all of these desires. They are common to all of us but lay buried often in our unconscious. They are the hurt and disordered parts of ourselves. They are the result of our inward bent to sin. When we become aware of these types of disordered desires, our tendency is to run and hide as Adam and Eve did in the garden (Gen 3). But remember God’s word to his lost image bearers: “Where are you?” When we encounter the broken parts of ourselves in silence, we must not run or even try to deny these aspects. Instead, we hand them over to the God who loves us through their conscious surrender with our prayer word. The good news is that the Spirit’s ongoing work of sanctification slowly roots out these dark crevices inside of us. Over time I’ve seen the darkness hiding within my cold heart slowly being brought into God’s healing light and replaced piece by piece with a warm love for God, neighbor, and even myself. This is the deep work that has changed me. I’m pretty sure God can do the same for you if you are willing to risk a posture of surrender in silent meditative prayer.

The Missional Formational Possibilities of Centering Prayer

The pandemic has demonstrated the need for the Christian spiritual formation tradition. Now is a real moment for the church to help its members find renewal as well as offer spiritual depth to a world desperate for the peace, healing, and justice that only God can provide.

Christ-followers have an open door to the culture through spiritual practices such as centering prayer. Reintroducing silent meditative prayer provides the church a moment to dust off millennia-old Christian practices and begin offering them to believers and seekers. The wider culture is looking for spiritual depth. Our divided world longs for practices that tangibly transform men and women. Christians today struggle with meaning and hunger for more of God’s love and grace. The church already has these resources. What would it look like if churches offered group weekly centering prayer sessions and even weekend spiritual retreats that teach centering prayer as well as contemplative approaches to Scripture like lectio divina?

Thank you for the privilege of sharing my experience and understanding of centering prayer with you. Let me end with this challenge. Experiment with centering prayer (or some other contemplative practice) for the next thirty days. Be consistent. But be careful—it may just change your life too!

On Traffic Circles and Theological Education

“To teach is to create a space where obedience to truth is practiced.”
(Parker Palmer, To Know as We Are Known)

Despite all anecdotal evidence to the contrary, traffic circles do not exist to test the skill of drivers or the agility of their vehicles, or to cause the premature greying of any passengers within those vehicles. Whether they are called circles, roundabouts, or rotaries, a traffic circle is designed to facilitate multiple streams of traffic occupying a single juncture, allowing vehicles to change direction and stay on their intended course without forcing a yield or halting the flow of traffic as it moves through the circle.

Likewise, despite the old joke that seminary equals cemetery, graduate theological education is not designed to kill the faith of those who enter their hallowed halls (whether they be onsite or virtual), run up student loans, or hold back people from entering the ministry. Whether they are called seminary, divinity schools, or theological colleges, the purpose of Christian theological graduate studies is to educate persons in matters of Christian faith so that they might better engage the world around them. Most seminaries today offer multiple degree and certificate programs that can be earned in a variety of ways (onsite, online, and hybrid) so persons can be more thoroughly equipped to pursue God’s calling into Christian ministry.

Neither traffic circles nor formal theological education is for the faint of heart. A driver approaching a traffic circle not only needs to know where they are headed along with the rules of the road to navigate the circle, but they also benefit from a certain confidence in their driving abilities, combined with a healthy respect for other vehicles so that they might successfully navigate the circle. For those contemplating a formal theological education, it is helpful to have an intended goal for their chosen degree or certificate program as well as commitments or a plan for managing resources (time as much as money) as they navigate coursework. And for all the confidence they need that their seminary pursuits are worthwhile and achievable, students also benefit from an awareness that they will encounter ideas that will help them think in new ways, which may, in turn, alter their understanding of the world that they might better serve God and the world as a result. Whereas vehicles exiting traffic circles are meant to be in the same roadworthy condition as when they entered the circle, a person who has completed seminary has hopefully encountered the profound truth of God in deeply penetrating ways so that they are changed as a result.

Of course, Christian seminaries want such a change to be positive—one that builds up both the church and the academy for the sake of God’s kingdom. Seminary education is positioned to do just that: host a space in which the things of God are not simply known cognitively but encountered and experienced. When such encounters and experiences happen in community, we are afforded greater insights into the deep truth of the goodness of God. Our experience of the eternal truth of God’s love will always be finite, but our perspective for understanding the wideness of God’s mercy is increased when we include others.

At the beginning of each course, I ask my seminary students to write down their personal goals for the class. Most share that they are looking forward to the opportunity to read and study a particular theologian or explore a tradition that they might discover relevant applications for their ministry setting. Then, toward the end of class, I ask them to reflect on those goals and evaluate them. The answers vary, but I can regularly anticipate a cadre of students who have invested themselves in the class and in one another throughout the semester to report that they have learned something they hadn’t expected. Often, this new insight is illuminating and exciting, especially helpful because they see more clearly or expansively than before because of engaged conversation with one another. And when this insight is complimented with practical application within their ministry context, whether it be preaching preparation, a pivotal conversation with a congregant, or evaluating a community event, the experience is particularly rewarding for both student and teacher as they have seen how learning serves the church. I seldom know where their learning is going to lead them—or what new insights and avenues will open up for me—but I trust that our encounter with God isn’t over when final grades are posted.

Graduate theological education is a formal opportunity for faith to seek understanding. It is a faithful act of discipleship for those called to lead others in Christian ministry. No doubt, there are alternative routes that avoid seminary and traffic circles. But the opportunity to navigate through them affords us insights, skills, and understanding about God that will have residual returns as we continue the journey.

Practicing Truth Together

When I first drafted my proposal for the book that would become Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community (Baker Academic, 2022), my literary agent had some feedback. I shouldn’t say the book is about “epistemology,” he advised, because no one knows what that word means. My editor heartily agreed, and I soon found, as I explained my new book idea to friends and family, that they were right: I had to define “epistemology” every time I said it, because, indeed, no one knows what that word means.

That’s exactly the problem I’m writing to address: We’ve spent forty years dramatically increasing how much information the average person encounters daily, and we made no effort to equip ourselves to handle that shift. In some times and places, you might not need to think consciously about epistemology. Ours is not one of those contexts, nor is there any sign it will become one in our lifetimes. Absent some catastrophic change in our society, our information environment is unlikely to become any calmer or more manageable. The confusion may ebb and flow, improve here, worsen there, but I’m not optimistic that we’ll find large-scale fixes for our epistemic crisis. I don’t think we’ll solve our knowledge woes by tweaking Twitter’s content moderation algorithms or forcing cable news to comply with equal time regulations or firing experts who get things wrong.

Debates around policy, whether legal or corporate, have their place and value. But they can’t and won’t get us out of this mess, because the problems that policy might conceivably address are less the cause of the crisis than its symptoms. The real cause is deeper than bad tweets or sensationalist news or expert mistakes and the like. It’s in our own thinking, our own behavior, our own vice. “The problem isn’t that there are liars,” as author Freddie deBoer has argued, for “there will always be liars. The problem is that people believe them.” Whatever policy progress we can make, we’ll never be free of deception, ignorance, error, and confusion in this age, but, as deBoer adds, “you can produce a populace wise and caring enough to reject them. … It has to start with the believers, not with the belief” ( “Nitro Edition: None of This Is New,” Freddie deBoer, April 5, 2021).

The resolution of an epistemic crisis, then, requires epistemology. It requires understanding not only that we’ve believed untrue things but also why they made sense to us and where we went wrong. It requires epistemological self-awareness: noticing how we gain knowledge and form beliefs, as well as whether that process is prone to error and how it might be improved. It requires, crucially, the development of intellectual virtues.

These virtues were once epistemology’s central focus, writes philosopher W. Jay Wood in Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous. This was philosophers’ concern, Wood says, “for the simple reason that your very character, the kind of person you are and are becoming, is at stake. Careful oversight of our intellectual lives is imperative if we are to think well, and thinking well is an indispensable ingredient to living well” (Epistemology: Becoming Intellectually Virtuous [IVP Academic, 1998], 16–17).

Building intellectual virtue isn’t a formulaic thing. It isn’t something you can do once and for all. It doesn’t guarantee you’ll always be right in your beliefs. Rather, developing these virtues can make you a characteristically trustworthy person. It can equip you to discern truth, gain knowledge, and communicate well what you’ve come to understand (Wood, Epistemology, 47). Responsibility in one moment of belief formation will make it ever so slightly more feasible to be responsible in the next (Wood, Epistemology, 26). “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much” (Luke 16:10). All your small decisions accumulate.

Unlike academic epistemology, the development of epistemic virtue isn’t optional for us as Christians who live in a chaotic, complex information environment. You have a duty here. We all do. We have a duty to forge these virtues in ourselves—to become, with God’s help, the sort of people who are trustworthy now and suited for complete knowledge in the age to come (Wood, Epistemology, 19). Without epistemic virtue, “we cannot succeed in the moral life,” Wood argues, and we will find it difficult to hold onto even the truths we manage to rightly grasp (Wood, Epistemology, 19).

Following Wood, I’ll outline three epistemic virtues—studiousness, intellectual honesty, and wisdom—then I’ll turn to a few practical suggestions for their nurture.

To be studious is to seek knowledge and to seek it rightly. In the classical model of virtues as a happy medium between opposing vices, we find it distinct from vicious curiosity, on the one side, and gullibility and obtuseness on the other. The studious person wants to know truth, but not by any means or at any cost. She interrogates herself about why she wants to know something and whether her path to learning it is moral (Wood, Epistemology, 55–61).

A studious person is both teachable and willing to share what she knows. She “must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful” (2 Tim 2:24). She realizes her own limits and knows she cannot be well informed about everything. She keeps silent when she is ignorant. A studious person is attentive to others’ thinking and confident—not certain—of her own (James K. Dew and Mark W. Foreman, How Do We Know? An Introduction to Epistemology [IVP Academic, 2014], 160). She actively strengthens her theory of mind: her capacity to understand that other people have different perspectives, values, information, and goals, and that this will affect their reasoning and moves in perhaps unexpected but still intelligible ways.

While studiousness is largely concerned with how we seek knowledge, intellectual honesty is about our response to the truth we find (Wood, Epistemology, 61–66). It stands apart from the vices of intellectual dishonesty, which knows the truth but denies or suppresses it, and willful naivete, which knows the truth is there but refuses to look.

An intellectually honest person is always sincere and deals in good faith, though he may not be able to expect sincerity and good faith in return (Rom 12:17–21). He isn’t cynical, and he doesn’t meet serious argument with trolling. When he’s wrong, he holds himself accountable, “put[ting] off falsehood and speak[ing] truthfully to [his] neighbor” (Eph 4:25). He is always on the lookout lest his own self-interest distort his thinking.

An intellectually honest person is also courageous. Accountability needs courage, but beyond that, he will defend his best understanding of the truth even when it is unpopular. He never dissembles. This does not make him uncivil, but it does require him to be resolute, to refuse to be dishonest even when it is the path to acceptance.

After gaining and responding well to knowledge, wisdom should determine how we use it. Wisdom is about good judgment and discernment, and it stands in contrast to folly in its many forms. A wise person’s life is “marked by deep and abiding meaningfulness, anchored in beliefs and purposes that offer lasting contentment,” Wood says. She is interested in knowledge “of ultimate significance—knowledge that explains the most important features of our world, especially as they bear on human happiness” (Wood, Epistemology, 66–74).

The wise person is circumspect and prudent. She resists taking offense (yes, this is a choice; cf. Prov 12:16). She thinks through her decisions (14:8) and can foresee trouble before it comes (27:12). She acts with humility and restraint, recognizing her own weaknesses and accurately appraising the extent of her own knowledge and power. She does not seek conflict, chaos, or pointless and petty argument.

For Christians, wisdom is something we can foster in ourselves but also something we can request from God in prayer. “We are not alone in our efforts to cultivate life-characterizing concerns and the virtuous emotions and behavior that stem from them,” Wood writes. “God is ready to assist us. We can hardly do better than to recall the words of James: ‘If any of you lack wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you’ (James 1:5)” (Wood, Epistemology, 196).

That acquisition process, however, is not so simple as a single prayer. We need habits. A metaphor I find helpful here is a gothic cathedral, all spires and stained-glass glow. The virtues are like the windows. They let in light; through them, we gain knowledge and identify truth. But the windows, of course, can’t stand on their own. They’re held in place by great walls of stone, and this is the function of habit. To form habits conducive to studiousness, intellectual honesty, and wisdom is to create a framework of automatic behavior in which virtue can cast its truthful light.

We tend to think of this relationship the other way around. We try to put up the windows and expect the walls to materialize around them. That’s not how it works. A passing fancy for virtue doesn’t make you virtuous. Acquiring knowledge is an integral part of Christian maturity, but sanctification doesn’t happen by information transfer (James K. A. Smith, You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit [Brazos, 2016], 4–7). We don’t think our way to virtue any more than we think our way to liking a new food. Intellectual assent to a truthful proposition is not enough to make that truth evident in your life. Truth must be practiced (Justin Whitmel Earley, The Common Rule: Habits of Purpose for an Age of Distraction [InterVarsity Press, 2019], 15–16). “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder” (Jas 2:19). As “faith without deeds is dead” (Jas 2:26), so virtue without habit is dead.

What sort of habit do we need? Well, that depends on your specific temptations, your characteristic failings and misuses of time and attention. Three common themes, however, of my broader discussion of habits in Untrustworthy, are worth highlighting in brief. First, we need limits. We need limits on our screen time and news consumption and useless worries. We can never build virtues if our heads are always full of tweets. Second, we need worship. Limits on misuses of our time and attention do little good unless we replace them with something better, otherwise “the final condition of that person is worse than the first” (Matt 12:45). That foremost includes worship “in the Spirit and in truth” (John 4:24). And third, we need Christian community as a place of mutual edification in the building of habits and virtues alike. As Christians, truth is something we practice together.

[Adapted from Bonnie Kristian, Untrustworthy: The Knowledge Crisis Breaking Our Brains, Polluting Our Politics, and Corrupting Christian Community (Brazos Press, a Division of Baker Publishing Group, 2022); used with permission.]

Liturgical Mission: The Work of the People for the Sake of the World

When most Christians think of worship and liturgy, mission is not the first thing that comes to mind. We mostly agree that worship is central to who we are and that it is an essential aspect of what it means to be a believer. But while we may agree on the centrality of worship for the Christian life, we don’t all agree on its role in connection with mission.

Many contemporary Christians have viewed liturgy with suspicion and seen it as irrelevant to the church’s mission today. The old traditions may be beautiful, the thinking goes, but they’re too insular, focused primarily on worship and on the interior life of the church, and not looking outward to evangelism and good works. On the other end of the spectrum, many liturgical Christians are suspicious of those in the evangelical movement and see them as somehow compromising the historic Christian faith for the sake of mission.

In an attempt to show that they are both incomplete perspectives, I recently finished a book entitled Liturgical Mission: The Work of the People for the Life of the World (InterVarsity Press, 2022). I argue that the church’s liturgy and sacramental life are in fact deeply missional. The book seeks to offer a holistic framework for everyday Christian discipleship and mission in the twenty-first century. To demonstrate the vital link between liturgy and mission, I explore various interrelated themes that can lead to renewal in the church’s worship and witness. In the process, I draw on various disciplines such as theology, liturgy, ecclesiology, missiology, ecumenicism, and spiritual formation. It is intentionally written from an ecumenical and global perspective, drawing from various Christian traditions to show the rich diversity that is in the body of Christ.

Rediscovering the Missiological Orientation of the Liturgy

Our mission is directly connected to our worship. Mission is not just doing something for God but begins and ends with rich and joyful worship of God. So, if worship and mission belong together, why don’t more Christians understand this vital connection? Sadly, for too many Christians, the words “worship” and “mission” together represent a paradox.

Both liturgists and missiologists are at fault for not making this essential connection between worship and mission. Commenting on this false dichotomy, theologian Robert Webber says, “It is interesting that people who are experts in the area of worship seldom connect worship with mission, and people who are experts in mission seldom connect mission with worship” ( Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community [Baker, 2003], 161).

To better understand the essential connection, let’s explore the meaning of the word “liturgy.” The English word “liturgy” comes from the Greek word leitourgia, which is composed of two words—ergon (work) and laos (people). “Liturgy,” then, actually means “the work of the people,” and thus designates every action of the laity. The word “liturgy” had originally been used as a secular term that referred to “public service” or a service rendered (Donald McKim, Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms [Westminster John Knox, 1996], 163). In other words, it originally carried the idea of doing good for the common good of society—as, I believe, relating to the concept of mission.

Today, the word liturgy generally refers to a corporate act of worship by the people of God, in contrast to those who do not follow a formal structure. In particular, liturgy refers to the historic shape of worship, which includes the liturgy of the Word and the liturgy of the Table. While liturgy often represents more formalized services, every church has its own liturgy, no matter how unstructured its worship service may seem. The real question is not whether a church has a liturgy, but does it lead the church to mission in the world?

Liturgy prepares us for how we live in the world and ends with the command to go into the world. Week after week, the prayers and words of the liturgy and the tangible elements of the sacraments ready us for our work and witness. Liturgy is for living. It is the “work of the people.” What we believe influences our worship, and how we worship influences how we live, work, and witness for Christ in both public and private. Author James K. A. Smith reminds us, “The capital L-Liturgy of Sunday morning should generate lowercase-l liturgies that govern our existence throughout the rest of the week” (You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit [Brazos, 2016], 113). In other words, our worship should influence the practices of our everyday lives. I would argue that this includes our mission, as well.

At the conclusion of the traditional Eucharist service of the ancient church, the priest would pray the benediction, “Ite, missa est, “Go, you are sent.” The word missa is the Latin word for “mission”; from it, we get the modern term “mass,” often used in reference to a Roman Catholic worship gathering. The liturgy gathers us together to worship the Triune God and prepares us to go back out into the world on his redemptive mission. This is what Ion Bria calls the church’s mission in the world Monday through Saturday as the “liturgy after the liturgy” (The Liturgy after the Liturgy: Mission and Witness from an Orthodox Perspective [WCC, 1996], 20).

The rhythms of the liturgy form us in deep and profound ways for mission. Liturgical worship calls us out of the world in order to lead us back into the world in mission. The words spoken at the end—“Go, you are sent”—remind us that the purpose of our gathering is to answer the call of God to reenter the world with the Word of God on our lips. Although they come at the end of the service, these words do not mark the end of our journey, but instead mark the beginning of our missional activity in the world. The liturgy of the Word and Table has prepared us for this. The order of the service calls us out of the world and forms us through the proclamation of the Word and the receiving of God’s grace through Communion. This formation, in turn, leads to sending the people of God back into the world. We are reminded through the words of the liturgy that we are called to bear witness to the living Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit and to see our lives as an extension of Christ’s ongoing mission in the world.

The liturgy reminds us that God has given the church a mission—a task for which it bears responsibility—to his people. Today, the church stands as the people of God sent into the world to join God’s work of redemption and restoration. Liturgy is one of the ways God has given the church to remind us about, and form us for, his mission in the world. Bishop Todd Hunter presses in further on the design of the liturgy when he asks, “Using liturgy as a launching pad, how can we engage in the spiritual practice of liturgy in a way that leads to the work of the people outside the four walls of a church building, in public space?” (Giving Church Another Chance [InterVarsity Press, 2010], 115). This thought-provoking question opens our minds to all kinds of possibilities.

The important thing to note here is that worship and mission are inseparably linked. As the Body of Christ, we come together to worship God in order to be sent back out into the world through mission. Then we invite others into the life of worship, and the cycle starts over again.

Liturgy and Justice

Maybe you are thinking: This is all great in theory, but how does liturgy actually help form the church mission in today’s chaotic and challenging world? One of the greatest things that liturgy can do is to remind the church of its responsibility to embrace a biblical view of justice, which, rooted in the sacred Scriptures, comes from rediscovering the intrinsic connection between liturgy and justice. James White reminds us, “Liturgical renewal is not just window dressing, but a major force for justice, ecumenism, and rethinking of the whole Christian message and mission. It relates to and affects every part of the church’s life” (A Protestant Worship Manifesto). The Scriptures make justice a mandate of faith and a fundamental expression of Christian discipleship, worship, and mission.

The attention that justice has received in recent years is not a trend, but can be traced to the pages of the Bible. Justice is grounded in the love of a Triune God who, time and time again, shows his love and compassion for the poor, the vulnerable, the marginalized, and the disenfranchised. Micah 6:8 says, “He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the LORD require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” In the New Testament, we see that Jesus defends the oppressed, loves the outcast and the sinner, and calls on the rich to give to the poor and take care of the needs of the helpless.

Why should we link liturgy and justice? The simple reason is that they belong together. There is an intrinsic relationship between liturgy, justice, mission, and discipleship. Gospel-centered liturgy can and should form us for justice and mission to the world. Anne Y. Koester reminds us that “liturgical celebrations and the work of justice are tightly woven threads of the same cloth. In other words, gathering to worship and striving for justice are not separate compartments or unrelated endeavors in the Christian life; rather, liturgy and justice together are constitutive of and expressive of the Church itself. Quite simply, authentic discipleship demands that the already existing relationship between our liturgy and our mission as ministers of justice be lived” (in Anne Y. Koester, ed., Liturgy and Justice: To Worship God in Spirit and Truth [Liturgical Press, 2002], ix)

To divide liturgy from justice is to create a false dichotomy. Liturgy encourages a holistic approach, marrying the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual into one. Rejecting the bifurcation of heart from mind and body, as well as from private and social, many Christians are seeking ways to unite these, and liturgy offers us help. The liturgy naturally ties the spiritual to the social, reminding us that God’s work is not limited to one or the other, but consists of both working together. This unity, a reintegration of spiritual and social, cannot help but lead to a renewed awareness of the need for social justice. Again, a sacramental understanding of the faith fosters this integration. The Word of the Lord commissions us not only to save souls, but to care for those around us who cannot care for themselves or do not have a voice of their own. Jesus said, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me” (Matt 25:40). We are not only called to preach the gospel, but to share in word and deed.

Liturgy reminds us of our social responsibility to be agents of God’s justice in the world today. The words that we pray in the liturgy on Sunday form us for mission the other six days of the week. Justice reminds us of the true meaning of the word “liturgy” as the “work of the people,” which includes fighting injustice of every kind and seeking to do good to all.

This is why justice and liturgy belong together: Every time we worship God, we should be reminded that we have to fight for human rights and that every human life is sacred and matters regardless of the color of his or her skin. Every single one of us matters. Liturgy alone will not produce the justice that is needed in the world, but it is a powerful place to start.

Conclusion

Liturgy reminds us who are. We are God’s people sent on mission. As we come together for church services week after week, we are slowly formed by the words, prayers, and sacred rhythms of liturgy. The liturgy binds us together on the journey of faith. The words, prayers, and reading of Scripture leave an imprint on our souls. These practices shape us into men and women of God, forming us for God’s mission. The liturgy reminds us that church is not an end in itself. We are God’s people who gather to hear God’s Word, to feed at God’s table, and to be sent back into the world to fulfill God’s mission.

In Liturgical Mission, I try to paint a vision for a future of the church that is neither fundamentalist nor progressive—one that is historically rooted and modern, orthodox and gracious, unified and diverse, liturgical and open to the spontaneity of the Spirit, catholic and evangelical, and, finally, sacramental and missional. My hope and prayer is that such a vision will inspire a fresh missionary movement today in God’s church that is rooted in tradition, unified yet diverse, and a framework for renewal and deep ecumenicism in the twenty-first century. This is liturgical mission: the work of the people for the sake of the word.

Is It Biblical?

In various contexts, I often hear or read the word biblical. In my experience, it’s typically used in reference to theological perspectives, moral decisions, or worldviews in general. One might, for instance, refer to biblical views on wealth and possessions, social justice, or marriage. Each time I encounter that particular adjective, I pause to consider what the speaker or writer means by it. Oddly, the longer I’ve studied the Bible, the more difficult I find it to nail down what exactly it means for something to be biblical. To be sure, I believe we should draw on Scripture to inform our lives, but I’ve found that the term can be used in a variety of ways.

For example, one could label something biblical to refer to what the Bible says about a given topic. Should Christians judge others? Jesus explicitly says not to do so (Matt 7:1–5). Thus, the biblical perspective on judgment is that Christ-followers shouldn’t do it. Simple enough! Yet things get complicated when the Bible seems to say more than one thing about a given subject, such as slavery, what roles women play in Christ-following communities, or how gentile believers should relate to the law. If our Scripture contains diverse witnesses, then which texts support the biblical view?
That approach is also complicated when we compare certain parts of the Bible with contemporary Christian practices that are taken for granted by much of the church. Why, for instance, do most American churches rarely, if ever, discuss the wearing of head veils if Paul believes so strongly that women should cover their heads in worship? Based on 1 Cor 11:2–16, it would seem reasonable to conclude that veiling in church services is the biblical thing for women to do, a conclusion reached by some Orthodox traditions.

From another point of view, one could identify as biblical what we perceive to be the underlying truth or motivation of a text. Some understand biblical interpretation as efforts to peel back the historically or culturally contingent aspects of Scriptures to find universal, timeless truths that should guide theology and practice. For example, for Christian greetings to be biblical, must we literally kiss one another, as Paul so consistently instructs (Rom 16:16; 1 Cor 16:20; 2 Cor 13:12; 1 Thess 5:26)? The answer according to this view would likely be no. Instead, we can remove the historical-cultural “husk” of Paul’s exhortation—literal kisses—and embrace his core message—to greet one another with hospitality and affection—which we can practice in contemporary, culturally specific ways.

That approach also has its challenges. If every single sentence in the Bible—indeed, every word!—is in some way culturally conditioned, how do we decide what’s contingent and what’s “for all time”? Moreover, how do we make those decisions in consistent ways?

Things become even more complicated when we seek a “biblical view” on a pressing concern that the Bible does not directly discuss. What, for example, is the biblical view of COVID-19 vaccinations, genetic engineering, or investment in the stock market? Christians ought to have theologically informed opinions about such issues, but what makes a given view biblical?
My suspicion is that we fluctuate between the above options, and others, without realizing it. And my goal here isn’t to argue for a specific definition. I merely want to stress a single point: biblical interpretation is much more complex than we often acknowledge.

The biblical texts are products of numerous, ancient contexts, all of which differ significantly from our own. To read Scriptures well, one must interpret them in relation to those contexts. We must also learn something about the writings’ original languages, their rhetorical and stylistic conventions, and some basics about how texts can have meaning. Such knowledge and skill can help us, but the complexities don’t end there! Once we’ve studied the texts and reached some conclusions, we must still decide how best to relate what we’re interpreting to our settings. Do we “apply” a passage to our situation, as if our contexts match those of the writings, or should we compare a single passage with others in search of a larger truth that unifies the Bible’s diverse witnesses? Should we do something else entirely?

Our world is full of complex problems, and I understand the temptation to reduce such challenges to more manageable simplifications. Yet, we owe it to ourselves and others to acknowledge those complexities and to avoid overly simplistic slogans that begin with something like, “The Bible plainly says…”; or to assert, “It’s clear; no interpretation is needed.” Instead, complicated problems that affect real lives demand lots of hard work, sustained engagement with diverse viewpoints, and humility.

What, ultimately, does it mean for something to be biblical? Responsible answers begin with the recognition of a vital truth: it’s complicated.

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