Sunday, September 22, 2013

Monday, September 16, 2013

Morning Prayer

My prayer room altar, complete w/incense.
My wife Alyssa is currently in Kenya for two weeks attending a training event for teachers of nonviolent conflict mediation. Needless to say, with no one else in the house, I’ve had a lot of free time on my hands, and have experienced periods of stir-craziness. In the meantime, I've started praying a little more often than usual. This has been partly inspired by a longtime love affair with both private and communal liturgical prayer, but also partly because I was moved to pick up the practice again after reading Richard Beck’s posts on praying the Anglican rosary over at his blog, Experimental Theology. I used to enjoy communal prayer much more than personal prayer, but over the last year or two I have begun to appreciate my alone time with God much more. This is due in part to experience with trial, error, and persistence in my own personal prayer life, and in part to the fact that the vast majority of the people I know aren't that into the idea of waking up in the wee hours of the morning for liturgical prayer.

I converted my tiny 9’x15’ home office—which I never used as an office, anyway—into a prayer room, and set up a small altar with candles and a cross in front of my wall of icons. Taking cues from Beck, last week I went out and purchased the materials to make my own set of prayer beads. I now use them for my centering prayer routine (see below). For the crucifix I chose the San Damiano Cross, which inspired and initiated the ministry of St. Francis of Assisi. It is an iconic (in the sense that it is an icon) crucifix that depicts a poor, humble, broken Christ, surrounded by figures from the Gospel narratives.

The set of prayer beads I made last week.
For prayer and lectio divina I have used various books in the past, including Claiborne, Wilson-Hartgrove, and Okoro's Common Prayer, Isaac Everett's The Emergent Psalter, and Joan Chittister's The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21st Century (see my review on this particular book here). I'm currently using This Day: A Wesleyan Way of Prayer, by Laurence Hull Stookey (a throwback to my days as a United Methodist), but I am also expecting my copy of the two-volume Take Our Moments And Our Days: An Anabaptist Prayer Book to come in the mail any day now, and I'm looking forward to trying it out when it arrives.

After sitting down and lighting a charcoal of resin frankincense, this is the current layout of my morning prayer routine (based in part on Stookey's prayer book mentioned above):

1)    Gloria Patri
2)    Introductory Reflection—this reading is included in Stookey’s material.
3)    Opening Prayer
4)    Centering Prayer—for this, I use my rosary. My adapted rosary prayer follows this format:
a.     Invitatory Bead: Gloria Patri
b.     Cruciform Beads: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.”
c.     Weeks Beads: Deut. 6:5 + Lev. 19:18 + Matt. 5:44
5)  Prayer for Illumination
6)  Psalm—for the psalm I use The Revised Grail Psalms: A Liturgical Psalter, by Abbot Gregory J. Polan, OSB. Gregory is the Abbot of Conception Abbey, a Benedictine monastery just a couple hours north of Kansas City. I have visited the abbey a few times, and have always enjoyed my stays there, particularly the way the brothers and fathers chant the Psalter. My particular edition of this book features the musical notation devised for chanting by the monks at Conception.
7)   OT, Epistle, and Gospel Readings—these usually follow the lectionary.
8)   Silent contemplation—a time for reflection on the readings and prayer for others.
9)   Acts Appropriate to the Day of the Week—this is a short reflective prayer that is specific to the current day of the week.
 10)   Lord’s Prayer
 11)   Gloria Patri

The whole endeavor takes about 30 minutes from start to finish (or roughly the time it takes to burn through one charcoal’s worth of incense).

I know many folks think it unusual for a Mennonite to be such an avid liturgical pray-er, but I find the liturgy itself to be (potentially) incredibly freeing. And the Anabaptists are all about freedom, right?

Do you have a prayer routine? Have you developed your own form of prayer, or do you use someone else’s?

Friday, September 13, 2013

How to Think Theologically (Part 4—Final): Theological Reflection in Community and Spiritual Formation

Chapter 8: Theological Reflection in Christian Community
Any theological reflection on Christian vocation (see previous post) must be rooted in the real-life context of our daily choices and interactions with others. For this reason, Stone and Duke claim that a deliberative theology must also be a critical theology in the sense that it takes critical thinking skills for such a deliberative theology to be effective (or even possible). Specifically, each real-life situation that deserves a theological response must be well described/defined and go through a period of questioning to establish the right course of action based upon the criteria of Christian values. Finally, a decision must be made using the information attained by questioning and analysis. “Critical thinking that stagnates at observation and analysis is self-indulgent. We must decide. Fear of being wrong is no excuse; it is a risk every theologian takes” (p.119). This entire process, according to the authors, must take place under the auspices of the Christian community. “Theological reflection is insufficient if it is done in isolation. Theological reflection occurs in the context of community. Because it is communal, it is also collaborative and dialogical” (p.120). While the question “What is the Christian to do?” may be an intensely personal question, it is by no means individualistic. Iron, as we all well know, sharpens iron (Prov. 27:17).           
Chapter 9: Forming Spirit
               In this chapter, Stone and Duke explore the role of spiritual formation in “enrich[ing], balanc[ing], and inform[ing] our theological reflection” (p.125). We do this, the authors say, through worship and spiritual discipline that helps us mature in our faith. We must also adopt a “trenches hermeneutic” that allows us to prepare ourselves in advance to make deliberative theological decisions for those times in which we are called to act with little time to prepare or critically reflect on our circumstances.
               This was among my favorite chapters of the book, and—according to the Preface to the Second Edition—it was a later enhancement of the text. It was a much-needed, well considered, and worthy addition. The acknowledgement by the authors that we do not always have the luxury of an extended period of critical thought when dealing with theological reflection was particularly helpful. Instead, we must do the reflecting ahead of time as a spiritual discipline. One example that immediately comes to mind is the action taken by the Amish community affected by the school shooting that took place at a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 2006. Gunman Charles Roberts ordered all the boys to leave the school, then bound the girls and executed each of them in the classroom before turning the gun on himself. In the aftermath, two factions of the Amish community visited the family of the gunman independently of one another—one group visited his wife and children while another separate group went to his parents—to offer forgiveness and encouragement. The Amish community at Nickel Mines embodied the spiritual formation of deliberate theology that Stone and Duke describe in this final chapter because they had—in the words of Donald Kraybill—“forgiveness readiness.” It is cases precisely like that of the Nickel Mines Amish that illustrate the redemptive power to be found in a deliberative Christian theology molded by intentional spiritual discipline.

Thursday, September 12, 2013

How to Think Theologically (Part 3): The Human Condition and Christian Vocation

Chapter 6: The Human Condition
The second diagnostic exercise for theological reflection involves how humans view our place in relationship with God and the world. In other words, “What are people for?” as Wendell Berry asks. This diagnostic exercise hinges on the Christian theologian’s answer to three two-part questions: “1) What is the basic problem with the human condition? (What is sin?), 2) What is the resolution to that problem in the human condition? (What is salvation?), 3) How is the problem resolved? (What is the means of salvation?)” (p.84). Defining sin, sins, and sinfulness are of the utmost importance for the one who reflects theologically upon the human condition. This definition becomes the baseline by which the next two questions may be answered. How one understands sin/sins/sinfulness, the resolution to sin/sins/sinfulness, and how that resolution comes about will ultimately determine one’s theological anthropology.
            I will admit that I have given very little thought to sin. This is a common trait of theological liberalism—we focus on the soaring theological truths of God’s love for humanity and God’s redemptive work in the world, while ignoring or avoiding words like “sin”. But if we are to acknowledge God’s redemptive work in the world, it must follow that we discuss what God has redeemed the world from. A theology that glorifies the reconciling gospel of God without first addressing the problem of humanity is an incomplete theology.
Chapter 7: Vocation
            This chapter—the final of the three chapters dealing with diagnostic exercises for approaching theological reflection—begins with the classic ethical question: As Christians, what are we to do? To what actions, lifestyles, and perhaps even occupations is the Spirit leading us? Stone and Duke claim that to answer the question of Christian vocation, we must first answer the following three questions: 1) What deeds are Christians called to do? 2) What are the reasons for performing a service or action? 3) Why is one course of action the most fitting in a given situation? (p.100). The authors suggest that one method for theologically framing the question regarding reasons for performing a service or action is to consider the “because-of” and “in-order-to” of any given action. That is, what is the premise for the action, and what does the Christian hope to accomplish with the action? Stone and Duke insist that rather than having roots in a previously prescribed rule or law, the question “What is the Christian to do?” can only be answered by a deliberative theology that is mindful of the context of each action.
            Most books on Christian vocation deal with either A) an individual’s specific calling to ministry, or B) how to determine what God wants the individual to do for an occupation. I was somewhat surprised, then, to find that Stone and Duke spend much of this chapter on Christian vocation reframing the question in terms of how we bring flesh and bone to Christian theology in our own lives. This chapter is, in essence, a discussion of Christian ethics (“what ought we to do?”).
            Through much of my own personal journey, I came to view vocation much in the same way as the second sense mentioned above. A person who by nature struggles to make personal decisions, I have never had a clear sense of what I am to do with my life. I have always been something of a colloquial jack-of-all-trades, master of none. And I have never felt God pulling me strongly one way or the other in terms of a career path. In fact, I have often found myself overwhelmed by choices and interests. Theater, music, anthropology, literature, philosophy, history, theology, biblical studies—these are all disciplines that appeal to me greatly, but that I also do not have the well-honed skills to practice professionally. Over the years, however, I have come to narrow my sense of calling down to three possible career and/or ministry options:
1) Professor of biblical studies. As a teenager, I remember thinking to myself: “If one is to truly live the devoted life of a Christian, why aren’t more people in seminary? Why don’t all followers of Jesus commit themselves to learning as much as they possibly can about the faith they practice?” My deep and abiding passion for learning about biblical history and interpretation can be traced back to a particularly challenging time for my faith when I was in high school. After reading The Da Vinci Code, many of the presuppositions my young mind held to be true were suddenly challenged. Perhaps noticing my concern, my mom purchased for me a copy of Bart Ehrman’s Truth and Fiction in the Da Vinci Code, and I was introduced to the world of biblical historical criticism. I realized that much of what was taught in church could be traced to specific lines of reason in the historical institution of the church. Real people and real events took place that could be analyzed closely and prodded and tested. When I went to college, I devoured my Bible classes and was left itching for more. That itch has never gone away, and I am currently considering the possibility of proceeding with doctoral work in religious studies.
2) Anabaptist pastor/preacher. I have been recognized for my gifts as a speaker ever since I was a fifteen-year-old licensed layspeaker in the United Methodist Church. Preaching is something that I enjoy immensely, and even more so now that my wife and I have come to find a home in the Anabaptist/Mennonite tradition. I feel the longing to lead, to proclaim, and to teach. To organize worship as an act of divinely inspired human creativity—it is an art, and I feel drawn to practice it.
3) Intentional Christian community. For years I have deeply empathized with the resurgence in the intentional Christian community movement. Inspired by the writings of Shane Claiborne, Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, Jean Vanier, Henri Nouwen, and others, I became persuaded that the most authentic way to live as a follower of Jesus is to live in close community with other followers, and to exist as the incarnational body of Christ to the marginalized of our society (which, incidentally, is the traditional Anabaptist vision of the function of the Church). I have tried on numerous occasions to live out this vocation, and have seen more failures than successes. When my wife and I were first married, we plotted and schemed and dreamed up what living in community might look like, and eventually arrived at the idea of Anavah House, an intentional community based on the premise that everyone has something to teach and something to learn from everyone else. Despite tedious and excited planning, a lot of networking, and the best of intentions, Anavah House never materialized.[1] But Alyssa and I both still feel that our place is in community, although we have not yet been presented with a clear opportunity to live that calling out.
These three personal vocations frequently feel at odds with one another, and at different times I feel more inclined to one than the other two. But for the most part, these are the three callings that I have felt most consistently drawn toward since I started college more than seven years ago. I have yet to encounter anyone in seminary or in the life of the Church who has helped me to reconcile these personal vocations.

[1] For more information on the conception and eventual failure of Anavah House, see and its follow-up post, A pretty thorough description of Anavah House still exists on the Fellowship of Intentional Communities website at

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

How to Think Theologically (Part 2): The Role of Creative Thinking and the Gospel

Chapter 3: Resources for Theological Reflection

Our unique theological viewpoint should serve as a template that is overlaid upon our theological reflection and deliberation. These templates are patterns by which we view the world through Christian experience. Each person has his or her own one-of-a-kind theological template that comprises their embedded theology as well as certain themes and categories they feel personally inclined toward. It is the standard by which the rest of their theological experience is measured. Stone and Duke recall the concept of the Wesleyan Quadrilateral as primary resources for building a theological template—that is, the fourfold witness of experience, reason, tradition, and scripture. Each element must be tempered and balanced by the other three to construct a coherent theological template. Just how proportionately they are balanced, however, depends upon the individual.
            Though I have been aware of the so-called Wesleyan Quadrilateral since I was a young teenager, I am only just beginning to consider what balance of authority I give to each of these resource elements. This is extremely important, since how one balances these resources determines their ultimate theological perspective. Too much emphasis on experience leads to extreme subjectivism, while too much emphasis on reason can cause one to cynically deny mystery. Too much tradition leads to empty, passionless theology (and worship), while too much scripture can lead one into “bibliolatry”.  In my own experience, I used to hold a theology that was about leaned very heavily on reason, a little less heavily experience, even less on scripture, and least of all on tradition. But now I am moving toward a more balanced perspective. I have grown to appreciate tradition, to doubt the extent of reason's usefulness as the sole arbiter of truth, and to be skeptical of my own personal experience (or lack thereof). I hope this act of balancing continues and eventually becomes a long-term trend that helps me to stabilize my theology and, ultimately, my humanity.
Chapter 4: Theological Method
Just as every good scientist makes use of the scientific method, every good theologian needs to develop a set of criteria for analyzing and evaluating where a particular theological claim finds its grounding, how that claim is valued among other claims, and which theological premises are to be taken as normative. To this end, Stone and Duke suggest that it is important for the Christian theologian to develop his or her own theological method (while taking cues from the methods of others). To do this, one must examine their “starting point”: do they approach theology from the perspective of human faith (anthropology) or from God’s message to the world (divine revelation)? While there are advantages and disadvantages to both, where one begins determines their ultimate approach to theology.
Next, those seeking deliberative theological reflection must pursue in their method a creative balance between sequential (linear) and parallel synthetic (abstract, big-picture) thought. The authors suggest a that a rudimentary method for theological deliberation calls for explicitly describing the issue being discussed in terms of the Christian message, analyzing this understanding of the issue to better understand its strengths and weaknesses, proposing an adequate solution to the problem, and supporting and explaining the solution in theological terms. Finally, in this chapter Stone and Duke lay the groundwork for the next three chapters that represent three distinct approaches (diagnostic exercises) for doing theological reflection.
            I am personally a more parallel synthetic thinker. I love to paint biblical theology in broad, empathetic tones that helps others see the beauty of scripture. When I was a youth pastor, the lead pastor of the church I was serving told me that there are “big picture” people and “detail” people, and the trick to accomplishing great things is to figure out how to pair these two kinds of people together. The same is true of theological reflection. Linear thinkers must train themselves in the discipline of abstraction and seeing the ultimate goal of their logical thinking, and parallel synthetic thinkers must likewise train themselves in the discipline of approaching and accomplishing their theological vision step-by-step.
Chapter 5: The Gospel
            This first of three approaches to theological reflection involves determining what the gospel is and what it means for a particular situation. Stone and Duke provide three primary questions as a starting point for approaching theological reflection in this manner: 1) What is the gospel? 2) How does the gospel reach people? 3) How do people receive the gospel and its benefits? How one answers these questions determines how one will approach the issue at hand theologically. “Coming to an understanding of the gospel’s meaning,” claim the authors, “is a bottom-line issue for every Christian theologian” (p.75). The case study of a couple from a church congregation presenting a self-help “refinding yourself” lecture at church represents just how a situation might be differently perceived depending on one’s own interpretation of the gospel.
            Answering these questions for myself is not simple. As my training is primarily in biblical studies, I am keenly aware of the sheer variety of views even (especially) within the biblical text itself. I agree with John Dominic Crossan that “good news is good news” and cannot be quantified in a way that means “good news for some, bad news for others.” Therefore, I try to approach the gospel holistically: it is the announcement that Christ, in his teaching, death, and resurrection, has been shown by God to be God’s hope for the potential of humanity. The gospel is that God had revealed for us in the risen Christ a liberating and reconciling force for both the oppressed and oppressors.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

How to Think Theologically (Part 1)

“To be Christian at all is to be a theologian. There are no exceptions,” say Howard Stone and James Duke in the introduction to their fantastic little primer on How to Think Theologically. From the very beginning, the authors distinguish themselves from other theological writers by placing all Christian thinkers—from Karl Barth and Wolfhart Pannenberg to my grandpa Roger—in the same boat. The purpose of this book, write Stone and Duke, is not to dryly dictate a complex and incoherent systematic theology, but to focus instead on the everyday act of doing theology in our personal settings, a process they will refer to as a “trenches hermeneutic” in the final chapter. Doing theology, they say, requires sincere theological reflection and a faith that seeks understanding. Over the next few days I will be posting my thoughts and reactions to each chapter of this excellent book. I highly recommend it for anyone who is suspicious of theology or thinks that they are not cut out for “doing theology.”
Chapter 1: Faith, Understanding, and Reflection
            The authors begin their daunting task of teaching their readers how to think theologically by recognizing a few basic premises: all of our theological thinking is somewhat defined by the parameters of our upbringing, social context, and biblical/theological preconceptions—what Stone and Duke refer to as “embedded theology”. However, while our embedded theologies may give our faith and beliefs a general shape, we should not be confined to them. Instead, we should continually challenge and question our preconceived theologies to instead produce a theology that is deliberative in nature—an “understanding of faith that emerges from a process of carefully reflecting upon embedded theological convictions” (p.16). A deliberative theology carefully weighs all sides of a given issue that demands theological reflection. It requires setting aside biases in favor of theological conscientiousness.
            The obvious real-world example of embedded theology is readily visible as religious fundamentalism. The fundamentalist who clings to an embedded theology of a literal six-day creation bristles at the notion of divinely inspired biological evolution, claiming, “If part of the Bible is wrong, then it’s all wrong!” But in my own experience I have come to find that embedded theology is everywhere, regardless of whether one is a hyper-conservative fundamentalist or a super-liberal relativist. My own gut reaction in the past has been to disregard those issues that prove to be classic challenges to theological liberalism—Did the resurrection really happen? Is there a literal Hell, and do “non-believers” really go there? Can and do miracles actually occur?—by claiming that Christian theology is really just all about love and forgiveness, and all those other nice things. But at a certain point in my seminary career I began to have those biases challenged. If we cling to such warm-and-fuzzy notions as the “real” Christian theology, what is to separate us as Christians from, say, a friendly atheist who holds the same values? I am now beginning to deliberate my theological views on such questions, but have yet to find a solid answer.
Chapter 2: Fashioning Theology
            In this chapter, Stone and Duke explain how a Christian might get to work constructing (fashioning) a deliberative theology. Every theologian, they argue, performs the three tasks of “interpreting the Christian faith, correlating those interpretations with other interpretations, and assessing the adequacy of the interpretations and their correlations” (p.27). In other words, for any given issue requiring theological reflection, the Christian who hopes to exercise a deliberative theology must ask themselves what they believe, how that belief is reconciled to other perspectives of belief (even—especially—within one’s own theological worldview), and whether or not that belief is sufficient to answer the theological issue at hand. We do this by considering the interpretation’s appropriateness or faithfulness to the Christian message, its intelligibility (i.e. it has to make sense to other Christians), its moral integrity or ethicality, and its reasonable validity.