On Prayer

It’s a cliché, maybe not a very helpful, to say that looking into the sky is a profound spiritual exercise, because it impresses the seeker with our planet’s smallness over against the vastness of space. We can scarcely imagine the distance to our own moon (about 240,000 miles) or sun (93 million), let alone light years or parsecs. Only yesterday, in the twentieth century, did we learn of uncounted galaxies beyond the one that contains our sun.

All true enough, but suppose we turn the insight around, and contemplate the Psalmist’s question: What is man, that thou art mindful of him? (Psalm 8:4) Now we are in the realm of theology not astronomy. Here we come up with a different insight—or the same insight with a different meaning. If we read back to former times, we find that our forebears confronted their smallness as clearly as we do. “What is man?” to them was a serious worry, which they carried with them to the New World. Why would the Creator God bother with such a vexatious creature; one who has disappointed him throughout their history together?

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Marcus Borg and the Two Christs

Marcus Borg (d. 2015), Hundere Distinguished Professor of Religion and Culture at Oregon State University until 1997, and Fellow of what was known as the Jesus Seminar, enjoyed a certain vogue around 1994, when his best known book, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time, was published. He made the rounds of parish Bible study groups and media, including our affluent Episcopal parish. The people loved him, tweeds, tea, crumpets, and all; about as privileged and well positioned as a man could be, presenting himself as an avatar of Jesus the political revolutionary, 

One of Professor Borg’s slogans is “original message,” which he used as warrant for privileging parts of scripture over others; particularly the parts of the synoptic gospels that narrate Jesus’ ministry before his crucifixion. Whatever was said earlier is taken as more authoritative than later “accretions.” He didn’t invent this; it goes back at least to Thomas Jefferson, who took a razor to the pages and excised what he considered corrupting “miraculous” elements. Borg follows a long, dubious tradition by dividing the Gospel up to valorize his favored fraction. His criterion for making excisions is a distinction between pre-resurrection and post-resurrection Jesus. The first is a Jewish spiritual healer who has a gift for aphorism and midrash, and who, in a friend’s words, “tells us how to live.” The other is a product of tradition, dogma, the stock in trade of an old (1950s) finger-wagging God.

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Faith, Freedom, and Vocation

Properly understood, faith means freedom. By definition, there can be no prescribed content to freedom. Freedom is the sine qua non of love, and therefore of faith, and therefore of life in the free God. There are two aspects to Christian freedom. The first is a freedom from: freedom from any false god, whether that be the emperor, a statue, a secular cause célèbre raised to the status of a religion, Baal the storm god, or some other out of the mythic past. The second relies not on cultural constructs like those, but on the steadfastness of the God who set his bow in the sky where all could see it; the one who made his everlasting covenant with Israel, then the new Israel.

In his freedom, God might demand anything of us, issue any command or give any vocation to an individual. We may not recognize it as such. In the free God’s hands we therefore become protean beings facing an indeterminate future, free from the obsessions and allegiances of this world, and freedom to carry out our godly vocations courageously, even to the point of laying down life, knowing we have another that cannot be lost.

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The Faith That Lies Beneath Faith

Recently my wife and I finished reading Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy. In the last part, the protagonist Levin has a crisis of faith. He is driven to the philosophy of his day (the 1870s), looking for reasons to explain the natural life he sees around him, but it only makes him intellectually desperate. He has to order his servants to hide all the ropes around his place, and he avoids hunting with guns because he’s afraid he will kill himself. Tolstoy himself actually did this, according to his Confession.

There comes the day when one of Levin’s peasants describes a local  innkeeper who lives only for himself and his belly, whereas another of their neighbors lives for the soul: ‘He remembers God.’ At this, Levin becomes unaccountably excited. He discovers he has received a great blessing and reassurance. A few pages on, he says, ‘I haven’t discovered anything. I have just found out what I know.’

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Uncommon Prayer

One of the greatest gifts of faith is undoubtedly the power of prayer, spanning the gulf between God and us. Perhaps the most elemental kind of prayer is simply waiting on God in silence; quiet the chattering monkey inside, and hope to hear. One’s daily work can be done prayerfully; repetitive work like sanding a board can be a mantra.

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