Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers by Christopher A. Hall

Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers cover

How familiar am I with the Christians who lived before my time? Have I read their books and pondered their thoughts? Why or why not? How would I describe my theological and spiritual diet over the past ten years? Are the books that I have read still in print? Were they faddish or substantial, a light dessert or a substantial repast? If I were to list the ten books that have most significantly shaped my understanding of the Bible, what would they be?

(p. 179)

Christopher A. Hall is the associate editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture, a professor at Eastern University, and the heir apparent to Thomas Oden’s paleo-orthodoxy project. In Reading Scripture with the Church Fathers, Hall has created a historical survey which then moves into practical ways of reading Scripture with the Fathers as part of contemporary exegetical work in the church. The heart of the book includes chapters on the four Doctors of the East, the four Doctors of the West, and the contrasting and complementary schools of the early Christian intellectual capitals, Alexandria and Antioch.

I never met the Church Fathers until seminary, where I met a whole lot of them and immediately fell in love during my first semester of Church History with Dr. Warren Smith. For a kid who grew up technically a United Methodist but basically a non-denominational evangelical, this was a big day. Ever since, I’ve had the desire to share the depth, beauty, and wisdom of the Tradition with others.

In a very trim 200 pages, Hall digests a huge amount of primary sources and standard secondary literature, and provides ample footnotes for further study. I would especially recommend it for preachers and other Bible teachers who long for deeper roots than contemporary conversations in Biblical studies. It could also make for a strong central text for a somewhat advanced reading group within a church.

It’s a great book.

 

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“forgiveness is not a legal action”

Alexander Schmemann on “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,” from his Our Father:

to ask forgiveness of this sin, means to acknowledge our disunity with others, and it implies an effort to overcome it, which already implies its forgiveness. For forgiveness is a mystical action that restores a lost wholeness so that goodness reigns once more; forgiveness is not a legal action, but a moral one. According to the law anyone who harms me must be punished, and until he is punished the law is not satisfied, but according to conscience the moral law does not require a legal satisfaction, but rather the restoration of wholeness and love, which any law is powerless to effect. Only mutual forgiveness has this power. If we forgive one another, then God forgives us, and only in this mutually related forgiveness of ours and the forgiveness from above is the conscience purified and light reigns. It is this for which man thirsts and searches at his very depths.

For indeed, man does not really need external order as much as a clean conscience, that inner light without which there can be no true happiness. Therefore, ‘forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us’ is actually a petition for moral purification and rebirth, without which any law of this world is no help.

Perhaps the terrible tragedy of our times, of those societies in which we live, consists precisely in the fact that while there is much talk about legality and justice, while many assorted texts are cited, these societies have almost entirely lost the power and moral beauty of forgiveness.

Especially with the last paragraph, it is worth explaining that this book was originally a set of radio lectures on the Lord’s Prayer broadcast by Radio Liberty into the USSR (culled from 30 years of weekly broadcasts which Schmemann made). Yet “those societies in which we live” not only accurately describes the Soviet Union in 1980 but the United States in 2016. Far worse is that Schmemann’s words to a large extent describe American Christianity.

I find myself wondering how much of this is due to Protestant reduction of the reconciliation of all things in Christ to a mere legal transaction resulting in eternal salvation, benefits payable on (and not before) death. As easily as that can be packaged and preached, a courtroom drama is far from expressing the fullness of the Gospel. Even Paul, the main popularizer of that legal metaphor, experienced and spoke of the Gospel in much larger terms than any courtroom could hold, as in Colossians 1:19-22:

Because all the fullness of God was pleased to live in him,
        and he reconciled all things to himself through him—
        whether things on earth or in the heavens.
            He brought peace through the blood of his cross.

Once you were alienated from God and you were enemies with him in your minds, which was shown by your evil actions. But now he has reconciled you by his physical body through death, to present you before God as a people who are holy, faultless, and without blame.

To make the practical turn: preachers who are interested in proclaiming a Gospel that draws and then transforms people with its goodness, beauty, truth, hope, and love (to be clear, this is the only Gospel) have to stop taking lazy shortcuts in presenting the Gospel in narrow and shallow terms week after week. And if we don’t take up that challenge, then we bear moral responsibility when people don’t seem to grow spiritually or to find growth in relationship with God or to practice substantive peacemaking with their closest neighbors and family. A legal action cannot accomplish those things, but the power of the Gospel is the power of God–Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–to do infinitely more than we can ask, think, or imagine.

Preaching the heights and depths of the Gospel destroys the shallow “gospel” of legal action in any contest of theology, Biblical faithfulness, missionality, or the pure practicality of transfigured lives and communities. Thanks, Fr. Schmemann.

Schmemann Icon

My Life as a Leadership Seedling

Apple Tree Life Cycle

Seminary did not give me a leadership education. Maybe other seminaries do that, but Duke Divinity, for all its strengths (and I would choose to go there again over any other place on the planet), failed me there. No, it didn’t fail–Duke wasn’t interested and so Duke didn’t try. But it still failed me as an M.Div. student pursuing ordination alongside many other M.Div. students pursuing all kinds of paths requiring Christian leadership skills.

So I’m making my way forward now, already on the ground, pastoring two United Methodist churches with Average Sunday Attendances (that’s ASA, in congregational developmentspeak) of 40 and 20. The first six months I was serving, I focused hard on preaching–listening, reading, reflecting, honing my own best practices and weekly preparation schedule–and I actually have improved (I think) greatly. But the more I have grown as preacher, the more I have realized that my lack of leadership education, on both the organizational and the visionary levels, is a greater lack than my preaching ever was. I walked through the door “good enough” (with apologies to Winnicottians) as a preacher, but I am still hoping to cross the “good enough” level as a leader by the end of 2015 or so. I’m not there yet, and I think I’m being realistic, perhaps even optimistic, about the timeline.

There are one or maybe two of my parishioners who have ever come across this blog, and they are among those who might say otherwise, but it really is true that I am starting from scratch on leadership. What has saved me from being just plain bad are (1) a focus on development of character that I’ve personally had and others have influenced me to have since I was sixteen years old and for the first time desiring a calling to full-time Christian ministry, and (2) The Book of Discipline of the United Methodist Church, which lays out leadership structures which are, yes, “good enough” (but not great). Oh, and (3) these are not high-conflict congregations with ugly histories, and their people like me personally.

These things saved me because (1) formation of character is more difficult and time-consuming than learning information; (2) thanks to the BoD, I didn’t have to create anything, just follow some directions; and (3) people who like you are easier to please, at least until you wear out your welcome as the newbie pastor by never improving.

I’ll be reflecting more in the future on this blog than I have in the past on things I’m learning about being a Christian leader of a Christian community. Let me know in the comments if you have any particular suggestions, comments, or resources to help me along on the journey.

Death on a Friday Afternoon by Richard John Neuhaus

Death on a Friday Afternoon

The subtitle of John Richard Neuhaus’ Death on a Friday Afternoon is Meditations on the Last Words of Jesus from the Cross. Being a Protestant myself, I could not tell you what those last words are off the top of my head, but I can tell you that they are the seven final sayings (not single words, but sayings) of Jesus delivered from the cross, that they are drawn from across all four Gospels, and that they have been a vital devotional tool among Roman Catholics for hundreds of years. (I can also link to them.)

To structure the book, Neuhaus devotes one chapter apiece to each of the sayings, interpreting each around a single point. The result is truly a prophetic book. I call it prophetic intentionally, using a word that is overused and misused, because in this book the Jesus of the Scriptures, of human history, of the Great Tradition, of the Godhead, is proclaimed as the Jesus who speaks to our world today. These are the kind of words that Hebrews 4 describes as “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing until it divides soul from spirit, joints from marrow…able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart.” We may not want to hear them, because we might get cut.

One very distinct message across the chapters which I did not expect to find here: Neuhaus believes that when we look deeply at Christ crucified, we will find in his suffering and death the hope of salvation for all. Here, Neuhaus’ understanding follows very closely on Hans Urs von Balthasar’s Dare We Hope “That All Men Be Saved”? in arguing that love of neighbor and faith in a God who is love mean that Christians are on entirely solid theological and Biblical footing when we hope that Christ’s work will result in an empty Hell. This hope of universal salvation through Christ is raised repeatedly and strongly throughout the book.

Honestly, while Neuhaus’ legacy as a pastor and spiritual writer is forever (or maybe just for folks my age and older?) tangled in his political legacy, Neuhaus joined the Catholic Church in order to come under the authority of Christian orthodoxy, and his embrace of the hope for universal salvation through Christ is helpful to those sorting through that knotty-in-this-moment issue. That is to say, despite “conservatives” decrying Rob Bell’s 2011 Love Wins, which nudged us to imagine the eternal outcomes of the unfathomable love of God (my 3-part review of that book here), there were no peeps when Neuhaus, “conservative” champion, published his own popular audience book in 2000, writing forcefully,

Christians must hope that Hell is empty, that the mercy of God reaches also those who willed damnation for themselves, that God draws them back, despite themselves, into the heart of love. Balthasar writes, “Here lies hope for the person who, refusing all love, damns himself. Will not the person who wishes to be totally alone find beside him in Sheol the Someone who is lonelier still, the Son forsaken by the Father, who will prevent him from experiencing his self-chosen hell to the end?”

It is a question, but it is an inescapable question, that drives to the hope at the heart of the horror. If, as St. Paul says, Christ who knew no sin was made sin for us, can there be any sin he did not bear there on the cross? If the answer is no, as I believe it must be, then even the utterly forsaken one are not bereft of the company of the utterly forsaken one, the Son of God, and therefore not bereft of hope. Thus even the will to damnation is damned and thereby defeated by the One for whom and in whom damnation is not allowed the last word.

It is a powerful argument, because it makes those of us still unsure how to think of Hell within the love of God ask of ourselves, “Does the power of the cross fall short at some point?” It also make powerfully clear that from St. Paul to Jesus’ own words to other writers of the New Testament to theological giants including Aquinas and von Balthasar, there is some solid footing to hope.

Death on a Friday Afternoon, finally, is the kind of book that makes it harder for me to preach after reading, because I find my own words flogging the afflicted and leaving no one comforted in comparison. I recommend the book unreservedly, although it certainly (as you can see from the quoted portion) is heavy reading for many audiences.

I Gave Up Manuscript Preaching for Lent

On Monday mornings, I review my sermon video from the day before. (The churches I serve are 40 and 20 in regular weekly attendance, and I use the Zoom Q2HD in the first service, which is at the larger church. This is not some high-budget televised or even live-streamed thing, so don’t use the excuse that your preaching assignment is too small to be worth recording and reviewing. Regarding expense, the Zoom plus memory card was sub-$200, and I use a free video editor, a free audio editor, a free podcasting service which iTunes picks up and lists for free, and then post the audio on a free Facebook page, so even the smallest church can be sold on this investment in good preaching.)

My notes range from: “good emotions in announcements” to “energy ebbs at…” to “the sermon is too long because…” to “shave your face before next week.” For almost the entire time that I have been doing this (July of last year), I have been annoying myself with lack of eye contact, and months ago I realized that using a manuscript was keeping me from actually learning how to preach.

Transitioning off of manuscripts is a cold turkey process. Knowing that, I kept putting it off until some utopian week when I would have extra time to prepare and then make the jump. (N.B.: Those weeks don’t exist, and somewhere in my heart of hearts, I’ve known that the whole time.)

Finally, I picked up Preaching on Your Feet: Connecting God and the Audience in the Preachable Moment by Fred Lybrand because it was really cheap on Kindle one day. It’s not a great book, but it is a great kick in the pants. And so I decided to give up manuscript preaching for Lent.

The thought of this scared me so much that I started a few weeks early, and I did it not just without manuscript but without notes at all. I hated the results the first week, and it was hard to believe it would improve, but I was committed. Consider how in Mario Kart everyone who is good uses the Manual Mode, but if you start out on Automatic, you will experience a dip in your abilities when you make the switch to Manual. I definitely experienced a dip going from manuscript to no notes. But…no one in my churches noticed (or if they did, it wasn’t any worse than any other dips I’ve had for other reasons).

This week, however, I think I may have preached better than I have ever preached in these two churches. Yes, I went long. (Quick! Can I modify Communion without messing up something important? No. Quick! Which verses of the closing hymn should we cut? The middle ones, for no good reason.) I also was so much more present to the congregation, and I can see it on the video. It was so encouraging, even as I already know enough about preaching that it is never going to be just up-and-up-and-up.

It’s Monday again. Better start sermonizing.

Lecturing vs. Preaching

The Lecture on the Mount.

Yesterday, I visited one of my parishioners and her husband at their home. It was my first time having a conversation with her apart from brief Sunday morning pleasantries, and so I had a lot to learn. For my particular context, place matters a lot. If you weren’t born here, but have only lived here for 50-60 years, then you aren’t from here. So there are those facts of place and the facts of family–kids, grandkids, siblings, parents–including how close they are geographically and emotionally. But I noticed I have to push myself to make that more difficult turn, to guide the conversation toward current life experiences, if the visit is to make it to the level of excellence.

Today, I sat down to watch and listen to my sermon from Sunday. In the course of watching several weeks of sermons, I have noticed that an unhelpful direction my sermons can take is toward the lecture. The problem stems from my approach, which has been (1) to present the information of Scripture in an accessible way through storytelling and through elucidating historical, cultural, religious, anthropological, political, psychological, and other details and then (2) to make the application to the lives of my parishioners today. What I’ve come to realize is that most of my congregation isn’t as interested as I am in Part 1 (nor do they tend to find it as helpful), and that the way that I pursue it can easily make someone exhausted before they get to a more nutritive Part 2, so they aren’t able to receive that either.

I noticed this two-part design at about the same time that I simply Googled, “What is the difference between a lecture and a sermon?” One helpful distinction: a lecture is giving information to an audience, while a sermon is focused on transformation. The second distinction builds from there: in a sermon, all the information should be in service of the application, rather than simply tacking application on to the information (my tendency). What I am attempting to do now is to live this out to the extreme: a sermon doesn’t just need an application piece; a sermon is an application.

This approach to preaching requires that any information that isn’t directed to the application is left on the editing room floor. By information, I mean all that stuff that is interesting to me and could be helpful in a different context, but which is neither interesting nor helpful in this particular context. A different context could be an academic course, or a Bible study, a presentation to other pastors, a blog post, or simply the next time I preach on the same text to the same congregation.

This application-centered approach sounds a lot like topical preaching, but (for me right now) it isn’t. The topic is (I pray) whatever Jesus wanted to say or do in the Gospel lesson assigned to the particular Sunday in the Revised Common Lectionary (or whatever is going on in whichever other assigned text). So maybe it’s not that it’s not topical preaching at all, but that it’s good topical preaching. Or maybe it’s good exegetical preaching. Or just good preaching. I’d be happy with that.

Preaching Small

One of the problem areas I have begun to notice when critiquing my own preaching is my tendency to add theologically dense passages, a practice which I am convinced is never helpful and ever-tempting. From just this past week, part of my conclusion:

This is the work that Christ has done. By the power of the Holy Spirit coming upon the Virgin Mary, at his birth God the Son was united not just with humanity, but with the entire creation. In his death, Jesus showed he would die for love of a dying creation. In his resurrection, he showed he will resurrect and redeem all of creation, completing that task when he returns in glory, but beginning that task in us now.

On a given Sunday morning, I have been working hard for twenty-plus minutes to help a whole congregation to gel as one and to focus in on something important the Lord is saying to us, and then right at the climax, I shout, “Look over there!”

Why do I do it?

First, I am inexperienced. I’ll make sure to put that out there. Second, I like theology. Third, I like words.

Something more important is happening, though: I have failed to recognize that the sermon as we generally define it—that period of exegeting Scripture, comforting and challenging a congregation—is only one part of the proclamation of the Gospel which happens in Christian worship. The sermon is only one piece of the Sunday liturgy, which is only one day in a liturgical year, which is only one year in the life of a Christian, which is only one life in the communion of saints.

I am small, and that is a good thing. Those twinned truths are the beginning of worship, and as such they need to form my sermon each week. My sermon is small, and that is a good thing. I don’t need to say or do everything. I need to do one part. I need to say one thing. And I need to let everyone and everything else perform their parts.

Very practically on a Sunday morning, our prayers are part of the proclamation, and so is our singing, our offering, our gathered prayer, and so is the Creed, and so is our confession and absolution, and so is our gathering at the Table. The challenge is this: can I let those things bear the load of the proclamation, so that my small part we call “sermon” can be comfortable just being its small but important self?