Category: spirituality

Faith in the Shadow of Death: A Review of Christian Wiman’s My Bright Abyss

Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013) 

Christian Wiman is a poet with a rare cancer, currently in remission. He was brought up a Texan Baptist, lost his childhood faith, only to return to church and a new kind of faith in the midst of falling in love and being diagnosed with cancer in his late thirties.

It is the second great spiritual memoir I’ve read this year, and it reminded me a lot of the other – Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic. White men in their late forties who both write beautifully, and have a faith on the margins of doubt. Both memoirs are digressive and lack structure. Spufford’s is the more whimsical; Wyman’s is the more urgent and darker – but not even by that much.

My Bright Abyss is an extended meditation – illustrated with poetry – on believing in God when God so often feels absent. It is a far better book on doubt than any evangelical attempt I have encountered – probably because it is so honest, and so unconcerned to get to a particular answer. (Really, for Wiman and any unbeliever reading, it is a book about faith; but most believers will probably find it to be a book about doubt.)

It is an extremely quotable book; almost a collection of quotable insights. But this one is as good as any to give a taste of Wiman’s theme:

We feel ourselves alive in the anxiety of being alive. We feel God in the coming and going of God – or no, the coming and going of consciousness (God is constant). We are left with these fugitive instants of apprehension, in both senses of that word, which is one reason why poetry, which is designed not simply to arrest these instants but to integrate them into life, can be such a powerful aid to faith. (27)

He has not compelled me to return to poetry, although I believe he’s right, and the book itself stands as a testimony to the significance of poetry in making sense of life.

For Wiman, faith is something fragile:

To say that one must live in uncertainty doesn’t begin to get at the tenuous, precarious nature of faith. The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. (60)

At the centre of Wiman’s faith in this book is the moment Christ on the cross calls out, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” It is a book which takes existence and death seriously, when so few books and so few people do. This is a man who has stared into the abyss and written beautifully about it.

More: Interview with Wiman here.

Promises

A question from my devotions this morning I find hard to answer: ‘What are the promises God has offered to me?’

I can start by ruling out the obvious – God has not promised success or even happiness. God has not promised a long life, although I wish God had so I can have some certainty about how long I’m here for. God has not even promised to stop the pain when it comes; Jesus seemed to promise quite the opposite.

God has promised to set the world right. God has promised that Christ will return and God’s kingdom will come in all its fullness. God has promised the Holy Spirit to take us through to that day – but my experience is that we can’t always sense the Holy Spirit.

I went to a charismatic church for several years, and they talked a lot about God’s promises there; I always found that hard. I was never clear what the promises were. What did they mean? I know they meant more (or less) than I do. But maybe, when pushed on this, I’ll refocus on those promises I can affirm.

Daily devotions – some resources

The daily ‘quiet time’ (I don’t like the phrase; I’m not sure why – something from childhood) is the centrepiece of evangelical spirituality, and surely a source of much guilt. It’s hard to do. The Bible is hard to read afresh; prayers sometimes fall so flat.

I’ve been glad in recent times to find a few things which have worked for me.

1. Take Our Moments and Our Days is an Anabaptist prayer book. It’s designed for use in corporate worship, but is of value to the individual to read to themselves. It’s a wonderful combination of liturgy and Anabaptist themes. Each liturgy has a call to praise, a call to discipleship, and a call to intercession. I don’t have a Kindle, but bought the Kindle edition and read it on the Kindle for PC program. Sometimes it feels too much to try to do in a morning devotion, but I have been blessed by it.

2. Thank you, Methodist Church in Britain, for ‘A Word in Time Bible Study‘ online resource. Each day brings a good portion of scripture to read, with commentary and some questions to ponder. (You can even answer the questions in the comments section, but that doesn’t often happen.) There is also a daily prayer on the site, which for me is a good prompt to prayer. (I wish there was a stronger Methodist presence in Australia. We would be the richer for a good dose of Wesleyanism; I’m not convinced the influence comes through the Uniting Church. It would make for a stronger advocacy of a more Arminian approach to theology, for one thing.)

3. I’ve just discovered the Ancient-Future Bible Study Series, which has actually been around a couple of years. It takes its name from the late Robert Webber’s ‘ancient-future’ approach to Christianity, drawing on the wisdom of the early church – in this case, a lectio-divina approach to reading the Bible. I’m only two chapters into the book on Abraham, but so far I have found it very spiritually enriching. It’s built on some well-handled commentary; I’m glad it combines a contextual reading of the Bible with a spiritual one. It is available as an ebook, but I wouldn’t recommend that, as writing down answers in the space under each question is surely central.

 

[Sermon] The Holiness Tradition

Mt Hawthorn Community Church, 9 January 2010

We are working our way slowly through a series based on Richard Foster’s book Streams of Living Water. Let me reorientate you to the idea of the streams. Foster describes six streams or traditions of spirituality.  Each one emphasises a different aspect of the Christian life. Each one can be traced back to Jesus himself.

  • The contemplative stream is a spirituality of prayer and intimacy with God.
  • The charismatic stream is a spirituality empowered by the Holy Spirit and emphasising spiritual gifts
  • The social justice stream is a spirituality of helping the poor and striving for a fairer world, working for the kingdom of God.
  • The evangelical stream is a spirituality nourished by the Bible and devoted to sharing the good news of God’s love with the world.
  • The incarnational stream is a spirituality of everyday life, following Jesus in the midst of daily living. It emphasises a faith lived in the world.
  • Today’s stream, the holiness stream is a spirituality of godly living flowing out of God’s holiness.

Foster emphasises that none of these streams are better than the others. Instead, a balanced faith draws from all six streams. We tend to feel comfortable in one or two streams and either neglect or downplay the importance of the others. In a church like ours which values diversity, most of us would agree with Foster’s assumption that each of the traditions has something to offer us, and at its best is life giving, drawing us closer to God.  But even if we agree with that in theory, certain streams will still cause us problems.

For many of us, the holiness stream will cause us problems. We say in derision about someone that they are ‘holier than thou’. We don’t feel comfortable talking about aspiring to holiness or being ‘godly’. It’s partly a prevailing cultural hostility toward the idea. It’s also related to the excesses of previous generations of Christians who focused so much on a particular version of being holy they ignored the other five streams. Richard Foster has a wonderful line in discussing the Holiness tradition – ‘Every tradition has its zealots’. The zealots of the holiness tradition are certainly prominent. But while mindful of the zealots, let’s be generous in seeking out the riches of this tradition too.

The holiness stream and the incarnational stream are in a perpetual balancing act. Incarnation is about entering into the world that God loves, and finding the beauty there. It’s the side of Jesus which loved to feast with the outcasts. In contrast, holiness is about refraining from the excesses and sins of the world and living up to God’s standards. It’s the side of Jesus which resisted the temptations in the desert and gave no false comfort to the rich young ruler.

I want to give an overview of the holiness stream through time, showing how it runs through  the Old Testament and into the New, and then stopping off at two points in church history to show how it is still flowing. Then, to finish off with I will talk about how we might hope to drink of this stream today.

Holiness in the Old Testament

In thinking about the holiness stream, we need to start not with our attempts to be holy, but with God’s holiness. Being holy is about being set apart and pure.

It’s a recurring theme in the life of the Ancient Israelites in the Old Testament. As we try to make sense of Numbers and Leviticus, we work our way through Holiness Codes, providing a framework of rules and regulations to ensure that God’s holiness is reflected in the holiness of the lives of his people, the Jews. Yet a lot of it seems to say much about their ancient culture and little about the God we see revealed in Jesus Christ.

What was God’s plan? What was God transforming them from – was it the first step forward? Did they hear God right? Were the later mistakes of the Pharisees the inevitable outcome of the type of holiness we find in Numbers and Leviticus?

Holiness in the New Testament

We already get hints at other places in the Old Testament – particularly in the prophets – that holiness as purity of heart and mind matters more to God than ritual or code. It’s out of that tradition which Jesus emerged. Jesus worked against some early zealots of the Holiness tradition, the more fanatical of the Pharisees. But he wasn’t rejecting holiness outright; he was redefining it and he was ensuring that it was balanced with the other streams of spirituality, so that purity did not preclude incarnation.

For many in the holiness tradition, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5-7 is a key passage. It sums up what it means to live a godly life. To be holy is to hunger and thirst for righteousnesss. It is to be merciful. It is to be pure in heart. It is to make peace between people. Jesus tells us that the Old Testament command not to murder extends to murderous thoughts and murderous words. He tells us that the path of holiness is not to seek revenge but to turn the other cheek. Holiness is about quietly giving money, doing good, praying, fasting – not loudly to impress others.  He tells us that every good tree bears good fruit. To do these things he talks about is to build our house on the rock.

Of the writers in the New Testament, perhaps no-one has a greater concern with holy living than James, the brother of Jesus.  The epistle of James does not talk about Jesus, and yet it sounds more like the teachings of Jesus than anything Paul wrote.

James 1:19-27:

You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.

But be doers of the word and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act – they will be blessed in their doing.

If they think they are religious and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James has a concern for how we talk to each other. He tells us to be slow to anger. He finishes by speaking of not being ‘stained by the world’. I like to think that by the ‘world’ he doesn’t mean everyone outside the church, but everything outside God’s will, both in the church and beyond it. It is a pitfall of the holiness tradition to tend to set itself up against the world at large.

Paul was often talking about holy living, too. He emphasises that holiness is not just a personal characteristic, but something which needs to mark us a group of people, the church. He talks about the effects of sin, the way the actions of the immoral brother in the church at Corinth are like bad yeast affecting everyone else. I wonder what that means for us? We aren’t as close to each other as the early church, but sin still has a negative effect on the body as a whole. Conversely, pure and holy living has a good effect on the body as a whole.

 

Church History

Throughout the centuries of the church’s existence, different people have rediscovered the holiness stream and renewal and new movements have emerged. By renewal, I mean that the existing church has changed and had new life breathed into it. Often through church history, people have tried simply to renew the existing church, only to find themselves opposed by the establishment and squeezed out, creating a new movement.

I want to mention two holiness movements coming out of Britain which have had a big influence on Christianity today – the Puritans and the Methodists.  Because the holiness tradition is a spirituality, it can include movements with opposing theological beliefs. This is the case with these two movements, who represent two different approaches theologically, one Calvinist and one Arminian. I’m not a student of either of these two movements, and in trying to generalise about them, I’m sure I’ve done injustice to them. But here’s a sketch.

Puritans

The first movement is the Puritans. For a number of us, it’s almost a swear word; for others, they are to be admired. Following the teachings of John Calvin, they emerged in the English Reformation, were strongest in the 17th century, and tried to purify the Anglicanism inherited from Henry VIII. For me, their biggest mistake was to attempt to make all England Puritan, to impose their vision on the entire church and by extension the entire country. Theologically, you can find the heirs of the Puritans amongst Calvinistic Baptists, Calvinistic Anglicans and Presbyterians.

The Puritans talked a lot about sin. Holiness was partly a matter of becoming aware of one’s sinfulness and then constantly examining one’s conscience to root out those sinful thoughts and actions. Paradoxically, good living was perhaps seen as proof that you were one of God’s elect – even though they emphasised so strongly that salvation was by grace alone. The Shorter Westminster Catechism was written by the Puritans to instruct children, and what it says about holiness is good. It takes the form of questions and answers.

35. What is Sanctification?

– Sanctification is the work of God’s free grace, whereby we are renewed in the whole man after the image of God and are enabled more and more to die unto sin and live unto righteousness.

36. What are the benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption and sanctification?

– The benefits which in this life do accompany or flow from justification, adoption and sanctification are:

  • assurance of God’s love
  • peace of conscience
  • joy in the Holy Ghost
  • increase of grace
  • and perseverance therein to the end.

 

May we know all these things too as God works in us.

 

John Wesley and Methodism

Quite different to the Puritans is the second holiness movement – Methodism, emerging from the teaching of John Wesley. In the eighteenth century, Wesley led a revival which saw thousands of people convert from nominal Christianity to a passionate, warm-hearted faith. Key to his thinking was the idea that the Holy Spirit is at work in believers, sanctifying them, that is, making them more holy. He emphasised that faith in Jesus saves us in order to do good works.  Wesley’s followers are more optimistic about our ability to be made holy.  Wesley wrote in 1739 on the character of a Methodist, saying:

And loving God, he loves his neighbour as himself… Love has purified his heart from envy, malice, wrath and every unkind temper… His one desire is the one design of his life, namely, to do not his own will, but the will of Him that sent him… As he loves God, so he keeps his commandments… All the talents he has, he constantly employs according to his Master’s will; every power and faculty of his soul, every member of his body… Nor do the customs of the world at all hinder his running the race which is set before him.

We will do well if we can live up to Wesley’s vision.

I’ve brought you these snapshots of the Puritans and Wesley because church history has such an invisible effect on what we think and do as Christians. For better and worse, many of our ideas of holiness have been shaped by or in reaction to either Puritans or Wesley.

 

Living Holiness Today

How do we drink of the holiness stream today? What does it mean to learn from this type of spirituality?

The sort of things Richard Foster suggests are the sort of things I don’t manage to sustain. At my best, I have attempted them, and they have worked in small ways, but then I have fallen away from them.

I’ve stopped hoping for a silver bullet that will put me on the right course for the rest of my life and keep me there. I’ve started to think that a person or a group or a sermon or a book will steer me in the right direction for a time. Inevitably this influence will wane, and I’ll find myself heading off course, not living in a holy way. And it’s then that God will put someone else in my path, calling me back to faithfulness.

With that in mind, I’ll bring you some of Richard Foster’s wisdom.

He says that through God’s grace, it is possible to grow in holiness. He strongly believes that spiritual disciplines make this growth possible.  Disciplines are things we can do which put us in a place where God can do what we cannot do. He writes:

By undertaking Disciplines of the spiritual life that we can do, we receive from God the ability to do things that under our own steam we simply cannot do, such as loving our enemies. The Disciplines, you see, place us into the divine stream of things in such a way that God is able to build within us deeply ingrained habits of “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control” (Gal. 5:22b-23a).

He goes on to get more specific:

If we are struggling with pride, we learn service, which leads us into the many little deaths of going beyond ourselves. If we are needing hope, we learn prayer and meditation, which usher us ever deeper into the heart of the Holy. If compulsions of one kind or another obsess us, we learn fasting, which teaches us to control all the senses by the grace of God. If we want faith, we learn worship, which shows us the Lord high and lifted up. And on it goes. Throughout we are training for holiness, planning for perfection.

How do we know when this growth is happening? He gives a description which touched me and which I’ve put above my desk:

Though we cannot see the work itself, we can detect some of its effects. We experience a new firmness of life-orientation. We experience a settled peace that we do not fully understand and cannot fully explain. We begin seeing everything in the light of God’s overriding governance for good. And, most amazing of all, we begin to feel abiding, unconditional warm regard for all people.

May we all taste these things as we learn from the holiness tradition.

 

Tuning into God

If we want to die well, to die into God, so to speak, we need to start working on our relationship with God (and with others) while we are young and healthy, rather than waiting until death is knocking at the door. Developing a relationship with God takes time and sacrifice, conversion and repentance, discipline and prayer – just as it takes time, discipline, practice, and self-sacrifice to reach proficiency in a sport, in music, or in a profession. Of course, God is always present, closer to us than our own jugular vein, as the Qur’an says. But the problem is that usually we are not tuned into God. To use an analogy: we are surrounded by radio and television waves, but if we do not tune in a receiver we can’t hear the message. So also with God. God is always present, but without a tuned receiver we can’t communicate with God. Tuning into the receiver means tuning ourselves into God. And this means eliminating self-centredness and moving toward God-centredness. Jesus calls this move repentance or conversion, a total change of mind and heart. Usually this takes years of prayer and discipline, not just weeks and months.

– Terence Nichols, Death and Afterlife: A Theological Introduction (Brazos: 2010), pp. 13-14.

I like this quote because it provides a good possible explanation for people’s  failure to have a strong sense of the presence of God.  I also like it because it gives me a picture of what I might strive toward in learning to ‘tune in’ to God.

Discovering the Sabbath

Here’s the text of the sermon I gave yesterday, also posted on the Network Vineyard blog. You can also listen to it here.

Today I want to talk about discovering the Sabbath. The Sabbath is the weekly day of celebration and rest God commands his people to take in the ten commandments. Of course, for the Jews it was the seventh day, Saturday. Some time early in the history of the church, Christians made their holy day Sunday, rather than Saturday, honouring the day of Jesus’ resurrection. I don’t think God cares which day it is, only that it happens.

The Sabbath has the potential to be a part of our good news for the world. If we kept it well it could prophetically critique the busyness and stress of our world. It could demonstrate to the people we meet that life in the kingdom of God is different. It could show them some of the peace and rest that should follow from living in Jesus’ kingdom.

But too often the reality is quite different. I want to tell you a couple of examples of getting the Sabbath wrong. (more…)