Hymnus Deo

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Location: Greensboro, NC, United States

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Counseling and devotion

I posted the following on my Myspace blog about a week and a half ago, intending to post it here as well. I didn't think it would take me so long, but...well, here it is. In some places, I am simply repeating things I've said here in the past, so I hope the reader will pardon me for that. Nonetheless, I hope you enjoy it.

I have been listening on and off for the past couple of months to the audio version of a book entitled Addictions: A Banquet in the Grave (also subtitled Finding Hope in the Power of the Gospel), written by Edward T. Welch. I have also been listening to the same material as presented by Dr. Welch in seminar form. While the two follow basically the same pattern, with the seminars being more compacted in their presentation, I have found listening to both to be very helpful. For those not familiar with Dr. Welch, he is associated with the Christian Counseling and Education Foundation, a parachurch organization that serves to aid the church in its effort to effectively counsel those under its care. Dr. Welch has written several books, of which this is one of the more recent ones.

The book is written mainly for those seeking to help those trapped in a cycle of addiction, particularly those struggling with drug and alcohol addiction, though it is useful for those dealing with people dealing with other addictions as well. Those who are interested in a Christian response to Alcoholics Anonymous will find Dr. Welch's comments in relation to A.A. at least thought provoking if not helpful. The book is also helpful to those actually dealing with addictions, which, if we were all honest enough about our sin, we would all acknowledge to include ourselves.

At one point earlier in my life, I thought that the field of Christian counseling was one I wanted to pursue, though I have since abandoned that wish. I have also, through the years, developed an antipathy to anything communicated in the language of psychology/psychiatry. Though I still find myself resorting to them from time to time, words like "baggage", "issues", and "codependency" tend to turn my stomach. I'm not entirely sure why this is. Nonetheless, my "issues" with these words have been a bit of a hindrance while listening to Dr. Welch. I often think that clinical psychological terminology serves to masquerade the truth about a person, or to divert the guilt of sin from the addict (or, more accurately, the habitual sinner). One of the bright sides of Dr. Welch's teaching is that he tries to redirect the person who tends to think and speak this way such that they began to view the addict's situation from a more Biblical perspective – a perspective that speaks in terms of sin rather than disease, the latter term being one that communicates the idea of a passive, helpless victim, as opposed to the former term, which communicates the idea of responsibility for one's behaviour.

I don't doubt that someone reading this will immediately begin to question the validity of this distinction, and I readily admit that the reality of sin's working in individuals as well as in the history of the world is far more complicated than this. We are born guilty and corrupt, and this was decided for us before we were born. Nonetheless, for the Christian there is opportunity to conquer sin, and when we fail to do that we are guilty. Therefore, understanding where Dr. Welch is coming from on this, I would agree with him. I won't attempt any deeper explanation of the condition of the individual than that right now.

One of the more helpful insights that Dr. Welch offers comes from his desire to ground his teaching firmly on the Gospel. He expresses this insight this way – "For every one look that the addict takes at himself, he needs to take ten looks at Jesus Christ." Welch teaches very clearly that the addict, just like anyone else, can never be acceptable before God on the basis of his own works, but on the basis of the work of Jesus Christ alone. And because of this, it is in looking to Jesus Christ alone that one finds hope. If the addict isn't a Christian, then the first task (in terms of importance) is to lead the person to place their faith in Christ. But when dealing with a Christian who is an addict, the way for them to deal with their addiction isn't to focus excessively on themselves and what they do. The hope for the addict is in the work of Christ, and that hope includes any amount of victory over their sin they might achieve. Incomparable freedom comes in recognizing that they don't have to earn God's favour by their behaviour, and that God doesn't cast them out when they sin. We all need to be repeatedly reminded that God is far more merciful than we at any moment might tend to be ourselves.

At this point I'd like to depart from talking about Dr. Welch's book, however. So often the way this is handled in counseling or discipling situations is in encouraging the counselee/disciplee to pray, read Scripture, and worship God every day in private – what has been variously called "private worship", "private devotions", or "quiet time". I will admit that this can be a wise thing to do. I try to read at least a Psalm every day, if not more Scripture, and I try to find at least a little bit of time for prayer, though the attention I'm able to give to these things varies from day to day. However, I don't find a single verse in Scripture that requires that these things be done on a daily basis, and so I personally think that to bind anyone to that is legalism. Not only has the average believer throughout the history of the world (including both Old Testament and New Testament believers) not had a personal copy of the Scriptures to read whenever he wanted to (even once a day), the average believer hasn't even been able to read. One might immediately run (as the average Evangelical believer has been taught) to certain verses in I & II Timothy to counter this statement. The first verse that usually comes up is II Timothy 2:15 (from the English Standard Version): "Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth." But to take this and to apply this to every believer is to misunderstand the nature of Paul's two letters to Timothy. These are, along with Paul's Epistle to Titus, classically called "Pastoral Epistles", because the men they are written to, being Timothy and Titus, were pastors. While there are things in these letters that apply more broadly to every believer, much in these three letters uniquely apply to the ordained Christian minister. This being understood, one can see that Timothy is a minister (indicated by the word "worker"), and his right handling of the Scripture relates to his rightly teaching and preaching the Scripture to the Christian congregation. This is further verified when one doesn't rip the verse out of its context, but rather reads vs. 14 through at least the end of vs. 15 (if not further).

I think that a Christian will, generally speaking, want to pray. But I don't think Scripture requires a certain period of time set apart every day for prayer. One example in defense of this practice that is often pointed to is Daniel, who we are told prayed three times a day facing Jerusalem (Daniel 6:10). But while this can certainly be a good practice, Scripture nowhere requires it. And we once again need to understand the context of Daniel's practice. Living in captivity in Babylon, the Israelites were unable to practice the temple worship commanded by God. Daniel's action was a substitute for the corporate worship that God commanded and which wasn't available to him. Also, his action was appropriate to what was expected of the Israelite who longed for the repentance of his fellow Israelites, who sought God's returned favour to Israel, and who longed for the restoration of Israel to the land God had given and therefore the worship He commanded (I Kings 8:46-53; II Chronicles 7:12-16). There are appropriate New Testament applications of this (which I don't have time to get into now), but to lift this wholesale from Daniel's situation and to apply it broadly to the believer today is improper.

This tendency to center the believer's piety on his own personal devotional practices has a long and varied heritage, it seems to me. It ranges from Medieval mysticism (St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila, St. Bernard of Clairvaux, etc.) to monasticism in general (reaching back to the Desert Fathers) to the atomism of the Late Medieval Nominalists to the abuse of the idea of the Priesthood of All Believers attributed to Martin Luther to the individualistic rationalism of Rene Descartes. Descartes' ideas have been what has most affected us in regard to individualistic piety in recent centuries, though I hope the above sentence demonstrates the complexity of the history of "ideas" (for lack of a better term).

Let me address some things I'm not saying by what I've written above. I'm not saying that it's a bad thing for a person who isn't a minister to read the Bible for themselves. I think one proper outworking of the Biblical doctrine of the Priesthood of All Believers is that the non-ordained may approach God on their own with the aid of the Scriptures. Of course, this will mean "interpretation", since interpretation simply means the act of coming to a correct understanding of a text. But the person reading the Scriptures needs to do their best to come to the Scriptures with some understanding of the history of Biblical interpretation so as to prevent misunderstanding. I see it as the role of the pastor to properly educate his congregation on the right method of interpretation, whether that be only through teaching and preaching, or through providing books that will aid the individual in the process. Ultimately, then, the responsibility falls back on the pastors. The important thing here, especially in our age, is that the layperson approaches the Scripture with humility and in consideration of all the great teachers that have come and gone before us. We have two thousand years of Biblical interpretation behind us. We need to not only take advantage of the wisdom there available to us, but to give credit to those who have left us such a great treasure of knowledge. At the same time, no man is infallible (no apologies to my Catholic friends), and so we need to recognize the possibility of longstanding false interpretations.

As I mentioned above, I believe that a Christian will generally have a natural desire to talk to God. But if there's one area that I think we all have a tendency to fall apart doctrinally, it's in the area of prayer. Growing up in an Evangelical church, I heard all sorts of prayers – some not so bad, many not so good. In attempting to be "authentic", Evangelical churches reject any notion of written prayer or liturgical prayer. The result of this has been a heritage (over the past century or so) of the most banal prayers one can imagine. Part of the problem here, I think, is that Evangelicals tend to approach Scripture with the belief that all Scripture can do is deliver information to them. If this is the case, though, why did God give us His word not only in the form of straight teaching, but also, at times, in the form of prayers, poetry, and songs? When I take, for instance, the prayers of the Apostle Paul and compare them to the prayers I heard growing up, they pale in comparison. I look at the Psalms as well and find the same. In large part, I think herein lies the solution. I think if we approach the Scriptures with a mind to allow it to shape us not only intellectually, but also aesthetically, we will find (over time) a transformation in the way we not only pray, but also in the way we view the world overall. In the Presbyterian tradition I have found this to be the case. In those ministers who I admired as having a deep understanding of the Scripture, I have often found prayers far grander than anything I ever heard growing up.

Also, we have a grand tradition of prayer in the history of the church that we should take advantage of. There are prayer books, liturgies, and books of compiled prayers from many great Christians that are available to us if we will only look for them. Just as it is wise to look to these godly men to teach us how to understand God's word, it is also wise to look to them to teach us how to pray. This is part of the reason that I am currently a member of an Anglican parish. The Anglican tradition has done a great job in maintaining and making use of these prayers.

While this approach will inevitably improve the prayers of those who pray publicly, it will also improve the prayers of the Christian who prays in private. Now certainly, private prayer can be quite different than public prayer. Private prayer is more personal. There are things we will say to God in private that we should never say in a group setting. Too often, though, without any sort of structure to an individual's private prayer, their prayer can degenerate to the same banal level as the public prayers I was talking about above. "But," someone may ask, "do you think God really minds?" My immediate answer is, "Yes! I do think He minds." Too often we approach these kinds of questions in too static a fashion. God loves the prayer of a five year old when she prays for Grandma and Grandpa and her babydoll. But if the girl were still praying for the babydoll when she was twelve, we would take this as an indicator that something wasn't right. God desires us to grow, to mature. If an immature Christian is praying in a more immature fashion, God loves and honors that prayer. But we should aim to grow in our prayer lives, just as we seek to grow in other areas of our lives.

Nothing I've written here is intended to give the impression that I'm someone to be emulated in this. I have a long way to go when it comes to both prayer and reading Scripture. Nonetheless, I've found these things to be helpful, and I consider them to be wise.

I say all these things, however, by way of addressing the idea of the absolute necessity of daily private worship. And I still maintain that, while it may be a wise thing to do (if a person is able to do it), it isn't required by Scripture and, therefore, I would say, not absolutely necessary for one to rightly follow Christ.

What is necessary, then? Well, this post is extremely long already, so I'll have to save that for another time. For now, let me simply say that the answer lies in the corporate worship of the local church.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Priesthood of All Believers

This is a helpful piece by Rev. Jeff Meyers dealing with the question of the priesthood of all believers. Growing up Plymouth Brethren, I witnessed first hand the benefits and dangers (more the latter, I’m afraid) that can result from majoring on this idea. As a result, I tend to cringe every time I find someone wanting to place a lot of emphasis on this doctrine.

Jeff’s piece also reminded me of this, taken from the book Why Catholics Can’t Sing: The Culture of Catholicism and the Triumph of Bad Taste, written by Thomas Day (there is profanity in this excerpt which I opted not to edit – just thought I’d warn you):

In the early 1970’s a friend of mine attended Mass in one of Philadelphia’s grand old parishes, an immense pile of stone built to last for eternity. In the same pew, right next to him, was an elderly lady who energetically fingered her rosary beads all during Mass. She stood, sat, and knelt with everyone else, but her thoughts seemed to be far removed from the activity around her.

The time came for the Handshake of Peace, one of those “new things” which made everyone feel a bit silly. My friend turned to the elderly lady at this point and, holding out his hand in friendship, said, “May the peace of the Lord be with you.” The old lady scowled. She looked at the proffered had as if it were diseased. “I don’t believe in that shit,” she replied and, without missing a breath, went back to the quiet mumbling of her rosary.

Before we start imagining that the old lady must have been some charming fossil from another eon, let us remember that as late as 1963 nearly every Roman Catholic bishop in the United States would have agreed with her. They did not believe in “that shit,” and neither did the majority of the faithful.

This piece shows the real nature of the situation that has existed in Catholicism for centuries. The book was first published in 1990, so I’m sure there have been significant changes in Roman Catholicism in the past 17 years as many of the older Catholics pass away and as those who remain adjust to the changes brought by Vatican II. Nevertheless, the historical situation was what it was. I also know there is still some pining for a return to the Latin Mass within Roman circles, particularly from those who long for a sense of mystery that they feel was lost in the changes made.

I hope Jeff’s posts will be effective in clearing up these misunderstandings among many. This is apparently the first of several posts in which Jeff will be talking about this, so keep checking his blog for the rest.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Wright at Calvin College

N. T. Wright spoke today at Calvin College, and the lecture was broadcast live. His talk was basically a walk through one of his most recent books, entitled Simply Christian. I came in about half an hour late to the lecture, but what I heard was fantastic. I don’t know when the lecture will be available in the archives for you to listen, but keep an eye out for it here. Equally as appealing is the upcoming performance by Gloriae Dei Cantores (on the 11th), as well as the upcoming lecture by Miroslav Volf (on the 18th).

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Wow...

I just re-read my last post. Boy, talk about cynical! Apparently I need some serious prayer. But I'm leaving the post up anyway. I am what I am, though I trust that God will in His time make me better than I am currently.

Birthdays

We are now past Christmas Day, and for the majority of people in our society that means a respite from any notion of present buying. No doubt, this is a welcome break for most.

Then there are those of us who immediately have to start thinking of birthdays.

I’m thirty-three years old, and you would think by now I would have gotten used to it. In my immediate family (being my mother, father, sister, plus yours truly) there are three February birthdays. I’ll give you four guesses as to who has the one non-February birthday. I don’t know how it happened (never asked, don’t want to know) but somehow I wound up being born in September. As a child, I considered it a much better time than being born in February – just too close to Christmas, you know, which means less stuff received. In grade school there was always that one kid in class that had a December birthday, for whom I lamented upon every remembrance of his misfortune. I was much better off with my September birthday.

But I was the birthday oddball. The rest of my family was born in February, my late father even managing (as if it were a matter of his own skill and effort) to be born on St. Valentine’s Day. As a child, this was of little import to me. Birthdays mean that Mom and/or Dad will be taking you shopping to buy something for “you” to give to whoever is having the birthday. They will pay for it, they pretty much pick it out for you, and they wrap it. Your participation in the whole event is one of symbolism, or one of training for adulthood, which, though it will eventually flower into reality, at that point looks and feels like an empty ritual.

For me, since becoming an adult, birthdays have somehow failed to move into the realm of the upper ether where grand and unspeakable things transpire, as it seems to for some people. It could be that, though my family always gave presents and had a cake, we really didn’t celebrate birthdays in a very big way. I think my parents might have had a party for my birthday once when I was very young (I don’t remember for sure), but other than that, I’ve never had a birthday party. I don’t say that to criticize my parents - it’s just the way things were. It meant a lot to me this past September when my co-workers, knowing that I would be spending my birthday alone, threw a mini-celebration at work for me. They bought my lunch, they had a cake, and candy, and a balloon, etc. For some people getting a balloon might not mean much. But when your birthday is shaping up to be a lonely day, and when you’ve never had anybody give you a balloon before, it means a lot.

I think another reason that birthdays are less than grand for me involves the whole shopping event. When Christmas is over every year, there’s a little guy in my head that wipes the sweat from his brow and starts settling down in a recliner with a bag of Fritos, and it takes no small effort to keep him from drifting into a long winter’s nap, crumbs in his beard and all. The pressure of going shopping and finding the right thing for someone is, for me, akin to getting a term paper in on time. I have a feeling that there is a sin that needs to be confessed in there somewhere, but I’ll save that one for my priest.

As far as significant birthday events go, however, nothing can top what happened to me last year about this time as I was shopping for my sister’s present.

I was in one of those mega-bookstores, the kind with about everything you could want and a bunch of stuff that no one should want. I had a list in my hand of some of the things she was wanting, and had spent a fair bit of time wandering from the shelves to the computer trying to track down the things she asked for, all the while doing the math in my head to determine the combination of items that would suit my wallet. I had noticed people walking around me only slightly, as I was in too deep of a thought to pay much attention.

As I was walking from one part of the store to another, a young woman stepped out from around a corner and began walking a few feet directly behind me, keeping step with me. This lasted for only a second, and she soon turned just as quickly and walked back to where she had been. From the other side of the shelf which now separated us I heard a male voice say, “Just chase him, why don’t you?” This was a little odd, to say the least, which caused the matter to become locked in my mind. But I was too preoccupied with my shopping to think much of it.

After I finished gathering the things I was going to buy, I went to place where I was to stand and wait for a cashier to call me to the register. I was standing there a few seconds when I felt someone walk up behind me and stand very close to me.

“Hello!” came a female voice behind me.

I turned and found myself looking into the face of a young woman a few inches taller than me. It was the same woman who had walked behind me earlier. I had noticed her walking around the store with a guy, who I presumed was the voice I had heard.

I stared at her, more than a little bewildered, and tried to determine if this was someone I knew. As I stood there, her guy friend walked up behind her and, being taller than her, looked over her shoulder at me. They both had grins on their faces.

It was when the smell of recently consumed alcohol wafted from the young lady’s breath into my nostrils that I realized what was going on. I had missed the glazed-over look in her eyes at first.

“Hey,” I replied, and turned around to wait to check out.

The cashier called me up almost immediately and began ringing up my purchase. I paid him, and as he handed me my receipt, he said, “And here’s a thirty-percent off coupon for your trouble today.”

Trouble…trouble…I couldn’t quite figure out what the “trouble” was that he was referring to. The only thing I could figure was that they kept a close eye on the customers, and that they had noticed that I had been wandering around a lot and had looked up several things on the computer before coming to the checkout. But it was several days later that this occurred to me. At the time, I thought the “trouble” he was talking about was getting hit on by a drunk girl. Some trouble, I thought. For a ninety percent off coupon, I would have let two other drunk girls hit on me.