Thoughts from a Pastor-Daddy-Theologian: Growing in the Habit of Family Prayer

Prayer and the reading of Scripture are the Christian’s bread and butter (right along with the Sacraments, I’ll come back to that another time). Growing up in the evangelical Church, I knew that I was supposed to pray and regularly read because it is expressed so plainly in Scripture. Throughout Scripture, we are exhorted to pray (throughout the Psalms), bring our needs to God (Philippians 4:6-7) and join in the worship of God in the community of Christ (Hebrews 10:19-25, Acts 2:42). But, I’ve never been that fantastic at maintaining the habit of daily prayer and Scripture reading. Why?

First, to draw an analogy. My wife grew up in the Catholic Church; she struggled to find roots for her faith because no one could tell her why they did what they did. Why do you cross yourself? Why do you kneel? Why do you receive the Body and Blood of Christ? These formative actions and habits, without explanation, did little to form her knowledge and love of God.

Similarly, Evangelicals tell their children to read the Bible and pray. But they can quickly fail to tell and show them why this is essential to their faith. In both cases, the faith must be caught and taught.

As an Anglican Pastor and Father, I am in danger of failing on both fronts. Conversely, I have the glorious opportunity to teach my children and church the deep meaning of liturgical worship tied a life of prayer and scripture reading.

Secondly, this practice was difficult to grow in and maintain because I expected so much out of it. The pressure to have a life-giving devotional time and to encounter God every time I prayed and read was intimidating and overwhelming. There was a felt need for a spiritual high every-time I prayed or read; it was exhausting both in anticipation and disappointment. Finally, there was also a suspicion around prayer and Scripture becoming routine, which meant I needed to spice it up; never let it get old or worn out. All these factors combined lead to an anxious prayer life

Beyond my own experience, I’ve seen this anxiety about the habit of prayer becoming routine in my limited pastoral experience. I’ve begun to wonder whether it is an implicit romanticizing of our relationship with God. Do we view our relationship with God through the lens of dating and romantic love? If we are always supposed to be on fire for God, like a fresh romance, then of course routine feels like capitulation. I think, then, the problem is the lens of romantic love. I believe friendship and Marriage are better metaphors, both of which require time, patience, commitment, and routine. What if the change, relationship, and encounter we desire in our relationship with God is experienced over time doing the same thing with the desire to love and serve God?

So how have I grown in the habit of daily prayer and Scripture reading? Falteringly, through The Daily Office.

The Daily Office is an order of prayer and Scripture reading set for morning and evening prayer with shorter times of prayer at noon and before bed. Combined with a reading plan (the Daily Office Lectionary) it is a helpful tool for making prayer and Scripture reading an essential part of the rhythm of your day.

Throughout my early to mid-’20s, I preferred and wanted to pray far more than I desired to read Scripture. But, as I entered seminary, I was ushered into the practice of daily morning and evening prayer in Chapel, which forced me to do both together. Four years of this practice slowly that shaped my desires to pray and read Scripture; sometimes being told that you have to do something, actually works. Nevertheless, the application of daily morning and evening prayer in life outside of seminary is almost overwhelming. In God’s providence, we also joined an intentional community in our last year of seminary that helped encourage praying the Daily Office by myself.

Since we left Pittsburgh, a few things, both theological and practical, have helped us to grow in the rhythms of daily prayer.

First, I needed a more robust and mundane doctrine of Scripture. Robust because I needed to see that Scripture is a primary means of grace by which the Holy Spirit shapes his Church into the image of Christ. (see my blog post what Scripture is for). Mundane, because I needed to submit to the extended slow reading of Scripture as God communicates his grace to me over many years

Second, I needed to learn to read and meditate on Scripture in the context of prayer. The Daily Office, with its rhythm of prayer and Scripture, provides that context. Worship, either communally, or as an individual in Spiritual communion with the Church, is the proper location of the reading of Scripture. We see this reflected in the prayers of the Psalms and the Early Church.

All that said, getting into a habit of praying the daily office was difficult, and for a good reason.

The practice of daily prayer forced me to walk the Gospel line between legalism and lawlessness. The Gospel is that in Christ, God loves and accepts me (justification) and in the Holy Spirit empowers me to love and obey him (sanctification) (blog post on the gospel).

The practice of daily pray consistently forces me to reckon with the Gospel. I’m not accepted or loved by doing daily prayer (legalism). However, doing daily prayer is good for me because it shapes my day around God and his grace. Further, when I fail to maintain daily prayer, i don’t just give up (lawlessness), nor I am a failure (perfectionistic legalism). I do not fall out of my justification because I am united to Christ (see my blog posts on union with Christ 1, 2, 3). But I am called to get back on the horse, to keep building the habit – to ‘always begin again.’

So how have we grown as a family in daily prayer? How do we keep going, trusting that God’s grace is given in the robust, mundane, and gospel rhythms of prayer and Scripture?

1. Community

Establishing the practice of prayer and Scripture reading is a lot easier to do when other people are doing it with you. My time in seminary and an intentional community grew the desire for a rhythm of prayer and Scripture reading. Now with our small family, we push one another to pray and read, even when we don’t feel like it. I receive and am reminded of God’s grace every time my daughter pipes up at mealtime telling us to pray, ‘more pray.’ Even when I don’t feel like it, I know I need to do it and having a community with the same goals and desire helps grow the habit.

2. Diversity of Tools for different times

The Book of Common Prayer is an excellent tool for prayer. But sometimes, in life, we don’t have the time or capacity to sit down and pray and read for a half-hour. Thankfully, there are a variety of tools and options. The two we’ve found most helpful are Trinitymission.org and ACNA’s Family Devotions.

During our early days of parenting, we would listen to Fr. Michael Jarrett read morning prayer, through the trinitymission.org. At this point, we felt like we were accomplishing a lot by just listening and praying along with him. These times of prayer framed our days and instilled in our family the importance of daily prayer, even when our daughter was fussy, or Lindsay was driving to work. At that point, evening prayer was much harder to accomplish with any regularity.

As our daughter grew up, we slowly moved away from listening to actively praying with her and as a family, by praying ACNA’s Family prayer (link). It is a shortened version of morning, midday, evening, and compline prayer. It starts with a Scripture reading, a psalm, a scripture verse, The Lord’s Prayer, and a Collect. We add our prayers, readings from the ACNA Catechism, and the Apostles Creed. We can accomplish the bare-bones version this in under 2 minutes or spend up to 10 minutes.

Reading Scripture as a family continues to be a challenge. Lindsay and I read from the ACNA’s Daily office lectionary (two-year plan) separately, and try to read together on the weekends. But more often than not, we forget or don’t prioritize it. In the evenings, we’ve been trying to read a story from *The Jesus Storybook Bible* with Maren.

An additional tool, for Scripture reading, that we’ve found vital is thebibleproject.com. This resource helps us learn the big picture of the books of the Bible and see how each book points us to and is about Jesus.

Music has also played a part in our family prayer life. The music of Roots for Rain graces our car drives, and during certain seasons we incorporate music from the Liturgical Folk. I think Luther said that when we sing, we pray twice, and we all love singing praises to our Lord together.

3. Patience and Trust

Growing in the habit of prayer all requires patience, trust, and for me, a consistent battle against legalism. I have to be patient with what we can do, trusting that over time, we are growing in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Patience and trust help me fight against the temptation to feel like I’m not doing enough, or we could be doing it better. Again, this brings me back to the Gospel. We put effort into our growth, and the growth comes from God (see Philippians 2:12).

4. Grace is for doin’ something.

Finally, the discipline of daily prayer and Scripture reading through the Daily Office is grounded in the sanctifying Grace of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I’ll write more about this point another time, but, in short, God’s grace is the Triune God’s personal work of transformation in our lives is both for forgiveness and transformation. In some Christian circles, grace is seen primarily as forgiveness; grace is given when we admit when we’ve done wrong. While this is true, the Grace of God also compels, directs, and changes; Grace is for doin’ something (see Ephesians 2:8-10 which emphasizes both aspects of grace). It is by the grace of God that we’ve grown in daily prayer and the grace of God will be what keeps us going.

If you want to learn even more about The Daily Office and Anglican Worship, hop over to Theanglicanpastor.com; it is a wonderful resource for all things Anglican.

Also, I am a huge fan of the ACNA’s new Book of Common Prayer. Here are some videos about it, and the place to go buy it.

Thoughts from a Pastor-Daddy-Theologian: Parenting with an End Goal

Though I’ve only been a parent for two years, and I realize that every day my daughter gets older I know less and less, I’ve found this one nugget of truth a guiding light: I need an end goal. By no means is this an original thought. In fact, ‘end goals’ are a fundamental way we orient all of life.

The idea of an end goal, or telos, is one of my favorite theological rabbit trails, and it relates deeply to parenting, so forgive me, while we follow it out for a moment.

God created humanity with this desire for him as their end goal. This embedding is an aspect of being created in the image of God (Genesis 1:27-28). Humanity was created by God to find in God their end goal. This is what Jesus was getting at when prayed, “And this is eternal life, that they know you, the only true God and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3).

The true end goal of life is eternal life, communion, joy, and bliss with God in the New Heavens and Earth. This end goal is supposed to focus and orient all of life. Often, though, we have competing goals in our lives. This is one way we can think about salvation: God reorients our end goals, which are only leading to death, to him, our savior and source of eternal life. Much of the Christian life is about allowing Christ in the Holy Spirit to order our lives to God; ordering our loves as Augustine and Aquinas said (see Aquinas, Summa, II.II. Q26).

God created us and redeemed us so that we could find our end goal in him, and this frames how we raise our children. Our vocation as parents are to foster, nurture, and orient our children towards this end goal.

Philip Mamalakis, a Christian family therapist, really helped me articulating this whole idea of end goal in parenting. Most parents, he notes, want their children to succeed, but how does this look for Christians? Consider what Mamalakis says:

“As parents, we want our children to be successful in life. As Christian parents, we need to be clear about what we mean by successful. That’s where God’s perspective on success become important… God’s desire is for us to raise children who know Him, who love him, and who walk in His ways. God wants our children to know who He is and grow up near Him, to become saints. That is success.”

Now, we all think about our parenting in terms of end goals, some immediate goals, and some long-term. For many of us, some of our immediate end goals include getting our children to be quiet, behave, listen, share. Perhaps some of our longer-term end goals include independence, a good job, a successful marriage, etc. Now, none of these are lousy end goals in and of themselves. But they must be submitted to the end goal of becoming Citizens of the Kingdom.

We must order all our end goals to the end goal of our children knowing and serving Christ. “Our Long-term goal is to raise up children who understand themselves as children of God, who live their lives according to his commandment. We should think less in terms of stopping bad behavior and more in terms of disciplining — nurturing disciples, raising children who understand that they are citizens of heaven.”

When we frame parenting in terms of this end goal, every interaction is colored by the end goal of helping our children grow up in the way of Christ. What does this look like on the ground? In short, it looks like thinking about every parenting situation as an opportunity to instill in our children the character and habits of citizens of the Kingdom of God. Every mundane moment of your child wanting connection, struggling to share, even whining is a sacred opportunity. It is a moment to practice our end goal with our children, to walk with them into the virtues and values of God’s life.

Framing parenting in terms of our end goal also means something changing about how we think and live as parents: We must be submissive and humble disciples of Christ as we disciple our children. We cannot live by the motto: do what I say not what I do. Of course, we won’t be perfect; we are sinners just like our children. And if there is one thing I’ve learned thus far in parenting is that I’m usually more wrong than I am right, I have plenty to confess, and in doing this, I show my daughter, how to orient her life to the way of Christ and his Kingdom.

Being like Jesus Christ is every Christian’s end goal, and it is the end goal of raising children in Christ. If you are interested in the ‘how’ of this, I highly recommend Mamalakis’s book Parenting towards the Kingdom.

Resurrection life: Mortification and Vivification

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I wrote this for the blog of the AMiA. https://theamia.org/ 

When I think of resurrection life, my impulse is to emphasize the joy, peace and abundance of Christ’s resurrection and forget the cruciform life of discipleship. The tension arises in Christian circles quite frequently: Are we cross people or resurrection people? Thankfully, we don’t have to choose between these two. Instead, I suggest that in Christ’s resurrection life we are cross and resurrection people.

Consider what Gregory of Nazianzus preached in an Easter sermon on the matter: “Yesterday I was crucified with Christ, today I am glorified with him; yesterday I died with him, today I am made alive with him; yesterday I was buried with him, today I rise with him. … Let us become like Christ since Christ also became like us.” (Oration 1.4-5).

St. Augustine notes the difficulty of this daily process of dying and rising, and uses the metaphor of healing to describe it: “This is agony, Lord, have pity on me! It is agony! See, I do not hide my wounds, you are the physician and I am sick; you are merciful, I in need of mercy.” (Confessions, X.28.39).

In these two quotes, Gregory and Augustine follow the contours of Paul’s description of discipleship: It is a life of dying and rising in Christ with the express purpose of becoming holy (Ephesians 4:23-24). Consider how Anglican Theologian John Webster describes this aspect of resurrection life: “This active life of holiness is at every moment characterized by mortification and vivification. As mortification, holiness is the laying aside of that which has been put to death at the cross of the Son of God; as vivification, holiness is the living out of that which has been made alive in the Son’s resurrection.” (Webster, Holiness, 88)

Webster, Gregory and Augustine all testify to this biblical truth: The resurrection life is dying and rising day by day, moment by moment in Jesus Christ.

What does it mean that mortification and vivification are “in Christ”? We must begin by saying Christ’s death and resurrection is the cause of our mortification and vivification (Philippians 2:1-11, Ephesians 4:20-24). When we are baptized into Christ we are brought into union with his death and resurrection through the Holy Spirit (Galatians 2:20-21, Romans 6). In union with Christ, he reckons us righteous and then makes us so; this is the double gift of union with Christ: justification and sanctification. And it is in this context that mortification and vivification occur. Christ’s humiliation and exaltation become the means and ends of Christian existence (Philippians 2:1-11). In Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God puts to death our flesh and raises us up to new life.

How then do we live the resurrection life today? Trust, surrender and discipline. We must trust in God’s loving providence as he works in our daily life circumstances to mortify the habits of the flesh and vivify us to new life (Galatians 5:16-25). As we learn to trust, we surrender daily to Christ’s revealed will moment by moment. We keep our minds on the things above, putting off what is earthly and putting on what is heavenly (Colossians 3:1-17). Finally, we discipline our minds, hearts and hands, in virtue-forming habits, as Christ, our physician, slowly purges our festering wounds and heals us with his infinite life.

Christianity isn’t a choice between the cross or resurrection; it is both in Jesus Christ. Mortification and vivification is our resurrection life until all death is killed and eternal life is ours in the light of the Resurrected One.

Lenten reading: George Herbert on Being a Pastor

George Herbert, 1593-1633

George Herbert, the famous English pastor and poet, served in a small country Parish for three years before his early and untimely death. In those years he wrote poetry and The Country Parson. He penned this short text as a Rule of Life for himself, as something to “aim at” (pg 54). I just finished my first read through of it and found much of it helpful, some of it only applicable to his time and place, and some of it translatable into my time and place. I wanted to summarize and quote some of the most personally significant passages as a still new Pastor-Theologian, for my own personal edification, and hopefully the edification of others.

He opens the book with defining a pastor. A pastor, he says, “Is the deputy of Christ for reducing of man to the Obedience of God.” In this definition, Herbert argues is the reason and the goal of pastoral duty and authority, which is none other than Christ and his Gospel. First, he argues, humanity fell from God by disobedience, second Christ is the “glorious instrument of God for the revoking (restoring) of Man.” Third, Christ, in his ascension gave the church Priests to do what Christ did through the Power of the Holy Spirit both in “Doctrine and life” (55). At the heart of Herbert’s definition of the Pastor is the gospel of Christ lived out in the pastor and carried out in the life of the Church. The pastor is to preach the gospel, live a holy life, and exhort his parish to repentance, faith and obedience in Christ. Put simply, the pastor preaches and lives the gospel. So how does one become a pastor of Christ’s Doctrine and life?

In the second chapter, Herbert argues that preparation for ministry requires two things: study and asceticism. Not only do we need to labor to attain knowledge i.e., the right doctrine “but to subdue and mortify the lusts and affections: and not to think, that when they have read the Fathers, or Schoolmen, a minister is made and the thing done. The greatest and hardest preparation is within” (56). Thus, for the pastor to fulfill his duty, he needs both right doctrine and a life pursuing the virtue of Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.

As to these virtues, Herbert, in his chapter on the Parson’s Life, recommends above all patience and mortification: “Patience in regard of afflictions, Mortification in regard of lust and affections and the stupefying and deading of all the clamorous powers of the soul” to the end of fulfill his pastoral vocation (56). Mortification of lust and affection may sound harsh, but in the context of the Christian tradition, Herbert is basically arguing for putting to death the flesh and arising in Christ, as Paul talks about it in Colossians 3. While these two practices are essential for every pastor, Herbert next notes three particular practices for his context.

He argues that in country parish ministry, a pastor must avoid covetousness, luxury, and duplicity. He avoids these vices and practices their opposite as an example to his parishioners, who live poor, hard-working, and honest lives. And in order not to be a stumbling block to them; to be trustworthy in order to fulfill the duty of being a pastor: preaching and living the Gospel.

In sum, Herbert articulates the pastoral duty as living and preaching the gospel which means that the pastor must know doctrine deeply and have that doctrine deeply applied to their own soul, specifically focusing on patience and daily dying to self. Further, the pastor is sensitive to his context, noting what would prevent him from preaching and living as an example to his parish.

Aquinas and Webster on the Studious Pastor-Theologian

Is curiosity a good or bad thing? If anything it is complicated. On the one hand, we encourage our children to be curious, to explore and discover. On the other hand, the old adage, “curiosity killed the cat” still has currency; usually when parents don’t want to explain something.

I was surprised to discover that the Christian Tradition actually has something to say about curiosity, namely that it is a vice. The virtue that contrasts curiosity is studiousness. In this blog post, I will consider curiosity and studiousness in relation to Theology and the Christian life by examining John Webster and Thomas Aquinas on the topic.

John Webster, following and expanding on Aquinas, defines studiousness as follows:

A strenuous application of the powers of the creaturely intellect, the end of which is to come to know something for the first time, or to apprehend under a new aspect or with a new interest some object already known… Studiousness refers to the activity of the well-ordered creaturely intellect coming to know. (The Dominion of the Word, 194).

This is how Aquinas defines studiousness: “Properly speaking, study denotes keen application of the mind to something.” (IIa IIae 166.1). Curiosity, by contrast, is a vice-filled pursuit of knowledge that Aquinas brilliantly dissects.

First, Aquinas argues, the desire to study and pursue knowledge may be right or wrong. If right, Curiosity can take that right desire down a vice-filled path in two ways: 1) either by taking the pursuit of knowledge to gain pride in one’s knowledge, or 2) to study something in order to sin.

Second, the desire to learn itself can be improperly ordered which results in four further forms of curiosity: 1) a person studies something that distracts them from the thing they should be studying i.e., facebook scrolling instead of homework. 2) when a person learns from a source that is evil or unlawful, i.e., an untrustworthy authority or evil spirits. 3) When a person seeks the truth of creatures without seeking their source and end: God. 4) When a person seeks the truth that is above or beyond his intellectual capacity which easily leads to an error (Aquinas, Summa Theologia, IIaIIae 167.1).

Aquinas’s thoughts on curiosity and studiousness apply to all areas of study, but what of theology and the vocation of Pastor-Theologians and Christians?

According to John Webster, curiosity rears its head in at least five ways in the pursuit of the knowledge of God.

  1. Curiosity appears when Christians forget they are under the instruction and teaching of God. Curiosity detaches the mind from the source of Theology: God.
  2. Curiosity seeks the novel and avoids the discipline of the particular object of theology: God and all things that come from God. Webster says, “In acute form, this becomes a species of intellectual promiscuity, driven by addiction to novelty and a compulsion to repeat the experience of discovery” (Dominion of the Word, 198).
  3. “Curiosity in theology stops short at surfaces, and so inhibits theological intelligence in running towards God.” (Dominion of the Word, 198).
  4. “Curiosity debases the manner in which theological work is undertaken, causing the theologian to adopt a posture at odds with spiritual vocation.”(Dominion of the Word, 199). What does this mean? Basically, theologians can be lured by pride, the desire for new knowledge, fame, and isolation from the church and worship. This can be true of any Christian, the desire to know God and love God is a spiritual and communal endeavor.
  5. Finally, “Curiosity disregards the proper end of theology, which are contemplative and apostolic.” (Dominion of the Word, 199). See my blog post on this topic.

This is Webster’s autopsy of The Curious Theologian, what is the remedy? Webster points to the work of the Holy Spirit: “The Holy Spirit, whose mission is to perfect creatures in realizing the divine purpose for them, secured by the reconciling work of the Son is the fulfillment of the Father’s will. In the Spirit’s original work, the intellect is made new; in the Spirit’s governing work, the intellect is maintained and directed on its true course” (Dominion of the Word, 199). In other words, the Holy Spirit sanctifies the intellect by mortifying and vivifying it, bringing it into alignment with the mind of Christ. Webster outlines three aspects of theological studiousness:

  1. “Christian Theology is an exercise of sanctified studiousness, the work of persons whose intellectual acts are marked by the Spirit’s regenerative presence” (Dominion of the Word, 200). The person becomes studious as they are trained by the Holy Spirit who redirects their desires towards their proper end: God.
  2. “Curiosity falls away as Christian theology directs itself to its singular matter with a definite interest” (Dominion of the Word, 201). By which Webster means God and everything in relation to God, including the whole scope of theology from creation to consummation (see my blog post on the proper order of theology).
  3. “Mortification of curiosity happens as theology is directed to its proper end, which is love: Love of God who gives himself to be known, and love of the saints and the not-yet-saints by communicating what theology has come to know” (Dominion of the Word, 201). In other words, studiousness while concentrated, and full of effort is not for oneself, but for the worship of God and the edification of others.

Curiosity is the unnatural state of human knowledge; it is intellectual pursuit post-fall. We can only become truly studious when we are reconciled to the Truth. We become studious as we are taught by God in Christ through the Holy Spirit, who orders our intellectual endeavor and the purpose of our endeavors to their proper end God and others. Studiousness is a virtue that takes practice and effort to attain, an effort that is preceded and followed by the mortifying and vivifying work of God the Holy Spirit.

A question I have, and one I cannot follow up right now, is how Aquinas and Webster’s analysis of Curiosity and Studiousness obtains in other intellectual disciplines and the process of education in general?

Running Theological Thoughts: Habakkuk 1:12-2:1

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Habakkuk’s Response/second complaint

1:12 Are you not from everlasting,
O Lord my God, my Holy One?
We shall not die.
O Lord, you have ordained them as a judgment,
and you, O Rock, have established them for reproof.
13 You who are of purer eyes than to see evil
and cannot look at wrong,
why do you idly look at traitors
and remain silent when the wicked swallows up
the man more righteous than he?
14 You make mankind like the fish of the sea,
like crawling things that have no ruler.
15 He brings all of them up with a hook;
he drags them out with his net;
he gathers them in his dragnet;
so he rejoices and is glad.
16 Therefore he sacrifices to his net
and makes offerings to his dragnet;
for by them he lives in luxury,
and his food is rich.
17 Is he then to keep on emptying his net
and mercilessly killing nations forever?

2:1 I will take my stand at my watchpost
and station myself on the tower,
and look out to see what he will say to me,
and what I will answer concerning my complaint.

Observations:

Following the Lord’s response to Habakkuk’s lament about the sin and injustice in Israel, Habakkuk responds to the judgment of Judah through the instrument of the Chaldeans. In verse 12 he begins by acknowledging the person and character of God: he is everlasting, the Lord God, the Holy One, in the form of a question. In response to this question, he says, “We shall not die.” Even in the rightful judgment coming from the Chaldeans, Habakkuk is convinced that God is faithful. He is the Lord and Rock who has established judgment and reproof. Yet, in verse 13, Habakkuk ask God, who cannot abide seeing evil, why he sits idly looking at the sin of the Chaldeans who oppress the righteous. Verses 13-17 describe the violence, injustice, idolatry, and extreme luxury of the wicked Chaldeans. Chapter 2 begins with Habakkuk standing, awaiting God’s response to his plea for justice for the righteous who are oppressed by the wicked Chaldeans.

Reflection on Chapter 1: It is worth noting that Habakkuk has now asked God to bring justice to the unjust and wicked in Judah who oppress the Righteous, and the unjust and wicked Gentiles who God uses to bring about the judgment of the wicked in Judah. As we approach chapter 2, we see that neither Jew or Gentile can be righteous or just in their own strength.

Theological Comments:

Habakkuk uses several significant descriptions of God in verses 12-13. In 12a he describes God as everlasting, the covenant LORD, and Holy. He follows this with the statement, “We shall not die.” How do these connect?

God is his eternal, self-sufficient, infinite life. He is totally different from humans, both ontologically, and morally – he is holy. He is the “I am who I am” who has created the world out of nothing, choose Israel out of nothing, and saved Israel out of death and slavery. He is the everlasting covenant God of Israel. Because God is eternal and everlasting because he is self-sufficient and holy, he is free to create and save humanity. Because he is God who is free and loves, “we shall not die.” Habakkuk trusts that the righteous will live because God is who he is.

In the face of God’s righteous judgment, it takes real faith, hope, and love to believe that we shall not die. Habakkuk trusts that even though the judgment, God will be just to the righteous; he will bring justice even as he uses the unjust Chaldeans to bring judgment. Habakkuk as the mediating prophet looks to who God is and sees the infinite and eternal one and puts his faith in him, finds hope in him, and loves for God and his people. How does he love God and God’s people? He loves God by confessing who he is and trusting in him, he loves his people by crying out for justice and salvation; by standing at his watch-post awaiting God’s response (2:1).

Habakkuk’s honest trust in God subverts how many people approach God. We often approach God either as a projection of our worst fears and self-hate, or a placid reflection of our own self-aggrandized prideful goodness. Habakkuk’s honest trust points to the reality that he is actually talking to and interacting with a personal reality: The infinite personal God. God reveals himself to Habakkuk and Habakkuk interacts with him in honest trust. Habakkuk’s honest trust looks to God to preserve his people even as his people deserve judgment. And God in his infinite life and love does just that.

Even in light of God ordaining evil men to bring about his just judgment, Habakkuk trusts that the Lord is the Rock; the steadfast one who brings judgment and mercy. Habakkuk’s declaration of God’s character and trust in him figures Jesus’s own faith in the Father. Jesus, the Rock of our salvation, received the judgment of our sin for our salvation. Jesus could do this because he was fully God – holy, self-sufficient, the covenant God of Israel who saves, sent from the Father as the eternal Son of God – and fully man – taking our sin and judgment through his death on the cross. Because Jesus is the Holy One, the everlasting God, the Lord who creates and Saves, “we shall not die.” In his death, the Triune God does not look idly on sin but deal with it. This brings us to our next topic.

Verse 13 offers us a bit of a puzzle. In 1:3 Habakkuk asks, “Why do you make me see iniquity, and why do you look at wrong?” And yet, Habakkuk then says in vs. 13: “You who are of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong, why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?” God is simultaneously too pure to see evil and look at wrong, yet he idly sees evil and remains silent at wrong.”

It is common to say that God is too holy to behold evil, but this is unhelpful because he obviously does see evil, he does behold the traitor. It would seem better to see this metaphor of not beholding evil as both a confirmation of God’s utter holiness and a call for him to act against evil. God’s holiness cannot abide evil, and yet he idly looks upon it. That is the problem; God’s seeming inaction against evil both in Judah and the Chaldeans. How could God abide the evil of the Chaldeans who worship idols, persecute the righteous, and murder by the thousands? Habakkuk is asking God to bring his holiness to bear on the evil in the world, to bring judgment and restoration. What will God do?

To see how God responds to this call, we will turn to Habakkuk chapter 2 in our next post.

Running Theological Thoughts: Habakkuk 1:5-11

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Introduction: In my first post, I introduced the book of Habakkuk, and meditated on the first four verses.

The Lord’s Answer

5 “Look among the nations, and see;
wonder and be astounded.
For I am doing a work in your days
that you would not believe if told.
6 For behold, I am raising up the Chaldeans,
that bitter and hasty nation,
who march through the breadth of the earth,
to seize dwellings not their own.
7 They are dreaded and fearsome;
their justice and dignity go forth from themselves.
8 Their horses are swifter than leopards,
more fierce than the evening wolves;
their horsemen press proudly on.
Their horsemen come from afar;
they fly like an eagle swift to devour.
9 They all come for violence,
all their faces forward.
They gather captives like sand.
10 At kings they scoff,
and at rulers they laugh.
They laugh at every fortress,
for they pile up earth and take it.
11 Then they sweep by like the wind and go on,
guilty men, whose own might is their god!”

Observations: In these verses, YHWH responds to Habakkuk’s complaint about Israel’s abnegation of justice and persecution of the righteous with a surprising solution: use a pagan, idolatrous evil nation to judge the righteousness of Judah. YHWH says it himself that this is an extraordinary work, one that is unbelievable. He goes on to describe the kind of nation the Chaldeans are: In summary: hasty, evil, ravenous, violent, and idolatrous. They are a vice-filled nation yet, God raises them up for his purpose of bringing justice on the unjust in Judah.

Theological Comments:

The first thing we must note about this passage is that God is revealing what he is going to do to Judah in response to Habakkuk’s plea for justice. Habakkuk is given a peek into the hidden providence and orchestration of God’s will. God uses nations to bring judgment on other nations. For Israel, this was not for the destruction, but for their discipline. In God’s covenant with Israel, he gave clear direction on what would happen if Israel broke covenant with him (see Leviticus 26 and Deuteronomy 28). To modern eyes, the judgment and the instrument of his judgment may seem harsh, but we must not forget that basically from Israel’s creation out of Egypt they had been in constant rebellion. God graciously forgave them, gave them instructions on how to live with a Holy God and how to live holy with the holy God (the law). Even still, they rebelled and sinned against God. In his response, God shows that he is not looking idly on the sin of Judah, but preparing their judgment.

A question arises in this passage: should we seek to interpret the movement of nations and wars as God’s judgment? I would suggest that the context of this passage leads us to a negative answer. First, we must remember that Habakkuk is a prophet. He has a particular vocation to speak the Word of God to Israel for a specific purpose. Second, God gives Habakkuk insight into his otherwise hidden providential ordering of the world for a specific purpose: to show that God will bring judgment on Israel’s sins. This is a specific revelation of God’s work in the world. In other words, That God uses other nations to judge the sin can be deduced from this passage, how and why and who must be left to God and is not open to human knowledge.

More significant and central to this passage we see that God uses evil and wicked people to bring about his end goal. We can trust God, in the midst of the chaos of the world, that he will bring about his good purposes, and that his purpose is good because he is good. This is not something that is always easy to swallow. As we will see in the rest of the book, the righteous must wait and live by faith.

And yet, there is something deeper revealed here, in light of the whole story of scripture. God uses an unbelievable and indescribable evil to bring about the judgment of evil and the vindication of the righteous, and this signifies the incredible work of Jesus Christ on the cross. God used the epitome and sign of death, torture, and evil: the cross, to accomplish his judgment of sin and the salvation of all those who believe in the one who died.

Yet, unlike the Chaldeans, Jesus is the loving and patient savior, who came to earth in humility and weakness, taking no place for his home. He was mocked and despised and looked to his Father for justice and vindication. He walked in humility, he was slow to anger, and continually had his face turned to his Father. In his death gathered the captives of sin and freed them for true life in the new creation. As the true king of the world, he reigns in justice and humility, with no need to prove himself he does not scoff at rulers but judges in true justice and save. He conquers the fortress of the Evil one not with might or pride but through humility and death. He is the innocent one who dies for the guilty. He is the God-Man who, after his glorious resurrection we call “my Lord and God” (John 20:28). Jesus in his birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension brings God’s judgment and healing mercy to the world. Jesus comes most surprisingly and reveals the judgment and mercy of God on the most unlikely of Thrones: the Cross.

Jesus is both the righteous one who is surrounded by the wicked (1:4) and God’s judgment on the wicked and the vindication of the righteous (5-11). Unlike the Chaldeans, he brings justice perfectly and mercy more abundantly for all who put their faith in him.

From this passage, we can see that God really cares about bringing justice to the oppressed and judging evil and sin. We also see that he uses surprising means to bring that judgment about: The most surprising way is Jesus Christ.

Running Theological Thoughts on Scripture: Habakkuk Chapter 1:1-4

 

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Introduction:

Good Christian theology is based on excellent and faithful exegesis. As a pastor-theologian my vocation is deeply bound up with the exegeting, interpreting and applying of Holy Scripture. My own inclination in thinking, writing, etc., is to look at the big picture of Scripture and think about how it all relates to God and his works. However, the source of theology is the divine revelation of Scripture, so to do theology well I must be a good exegete.

Being a good exegete requires that I am sensitive to two realities: the literal meaning of the text, what we will call the horizontal meaning. And what the text communicates about who God is, what he is like, and what he calls humans to do, what I will call the vertical meaning of the text (for more on this consider reading Participatory Exegesis by Matthew Levering). In this series, I will offer some theological readings of specific books of Scripture in a running commentary with an eye on the axis of the horizontal and vertical dimensions of good exegesis. To begin this series I turn to a minor prophet, Habakkuk, to discover what the book is about and how it speaks about God, Christ, and humanity.

Instead of offering a detailed introduction to the book of Habakkuk, I suggest you watch this video, made by the brilliant people over at The Bible Project.

It is important to note the time of the prophecies of Habakkuk: Around 626-586 B.C. Israel was divided into two Kingdoms, the Northern and Southern Kingdoms. In 722 BC the Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria. Between 626 and 586 BC The southern Kingdom was slowly conquered and brought into exile. The final destruction of Judah and the Temple came in 586 B.C.

The structure of the book, as we saw in the video, is made up of three basic sections: section 1: A dialogue between Habakkuk and YHWH (1:1-2:1); section 2: YHWH’s 2nd response and judgment on the Chaldeans (2:2-22); and section 3: A Psalm of God’s deliverance (3:1-19).

In this first post, I discuss Habakkuk’s first complaint.

Habakkuk 1:1-4: Habakkuk’s first complaint:

The oracle that Habakkuk the prophet saw.

Lord, how long shall I cry for help,
and you will not hear?
Or cry to you “Violence!”
and you will not save?
Why do you make me see iniquity,
and why do you idly look at wrong?
Destruction and violence are before me;
strife and contention arise.
So the law is paralyzed,
and justice never goes forth.
For the wicked surround the righteous;
so justice goes forth perverted.

Verse 1:

Observations:

We know nothing about the prophet Habakkuk, expect that he is a prophet. One who the Holy Spirit has called, set apart, and ordered to hear and proclaim the Word of God. This is no lite calling, we need only look at other prophetic callings to see that (Isaiah 6, Ezekiel 1-2). As a prophet,  not only does Habakkuk speak the Word of God to the people, but he speaks to God for his people; for the righteous (see 1.4;13; 2:4). As a prophet of God, he mediates between God and humanity. As a prophet, he puts to voice the complaint of the righteous and confesses the sins of those who have rebelled against God. As a prophet, he speaks of God’s judgment and deliverance. Habakkuk speaks only what he sees. Everything in the book of Habakkuk is something that the prophet “saw” (v 1). This presents to the reader the fact that Habakkuk did not simply make this stuff up, his complaints, the vision of woes, and the deliverance of God are all things he perceives and proclaims from God.

Theological Comments:

Habakkuk’s ministry as a prophet signifies several things about God and the economy of Salvation. First, the Lord God reveals God to humanity. We cannot gain access to who God is and what he does expect through God’s revealing of God.  Second, The office of prophet as one who reveals and mediates points us to Jesus Christ. He is the true prophet who is the very Word of God and the true human who reveals God to humanity and reconciles humanity to God through his infinite life in his death and resurrection. Thirdly, Habakkuk’s receptivity as a prophet, being one who sees, reminds us of the way that Jesus Christ, in the form of a servant (Phil 2:6-9), did only that which he saw the Father was doing (see John 5:18-20). As the Son of God Jesus is equal to the Father, even as he is eternally from the Father, yet, in the form of a servant, he receives and does the will of the Father (which is the will of the triune God). Finally, Habakkuk’s role as a prophet, as one who receives and speaks what he hears, points to the Christian’s vocation as one who witnesses to who God is and what God does.  Christians are called to be witnesses who hear and receive and speak only what they receive and hear from the Triune God.

Verse 2-4:

Observations:

Habakkuk’s complaint opens by calling on YHWH. In using the covenant name of God the whole of who the Lord is and what he has done for Israel is set before the reader. YHWH is the One who rescued Israel from slavery and death, brought them through the Red Sea, made a covenant with Israel. YHWH is the One God who has patiently guided Israel as a rebellious child for hundreds of years.

He is the God who Israel has cried to again and again with the same kind of cry that Habakkuk utters: “how long shall I cry for help and you will not hear?” In these verses, Habakkuk asks three questions as the prophet of God about the injustice and evil in the people of Judah (v 2-3). Judah has wrought violence and iniquity, and all God has done, according to Habakkuk is the look on idly. Judah is in a state of chaos; they are in a state of continual abnegation and perversion of justice, disobedience to the law, and the persecution of the righteous (v 4).

When we consider the canon of Scripture we can see that Judah is in a state of chaos and rebellion much like the time of the Judges. Yet, there remains a righteous contingent who are being oppressed by the wicked. It is on behalf of these righteous few that Habakkuk calls out to God. There is such an overwhelming force of evil that prevents the righteous from following the law (it “is paralyzed”) and doing justice (it is perverted and does not go forth). We will have more to say about the righteous in another blog post. We can gather from this verse that the righteous are those who are persecuted and seek God in the midst of abundant evil.

The mention of the righteous in the midst of evil brings to mind people like Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Joshua. People who God had chosen to show forth his goodness and glory in the midst of the chaos and rebellion of the World. These righteous people are made righteous by their faith in God. In submitting to God’s goodness and plan they join in his work of redemption and salvation.

Yet, the life of the righteous is not an easy one, because they seek the kingdom of God in the midst of the kingdom of the earth, in the midst of the world of chaos and evil. This chaos is found on two levels: The world and Habakkuk’s own people. Habakkuk’s cries out as one of the righteous men who deeply desires to see God bring his justice, goodness, and holiness to bear upon the evil in the world (see chapter 2). In these verses, Habakkuk also cries out on behalf of the righteous for God to deliver them from the evil surrounding them in Judah.

Theological Comments:

In these first few verses, we can see that God is patient with those who are sinful and unjust. He is not quick in his wrath towards injustice. He is patient and waits to the point where the righteous feel as if the injustice and evil have won and overwhelmed the day. God’s patience is not like our patience which quickly wanes thin; he knows his purposes and the end for which he intends his plans to go, the ultimate end and purpose being communion with God in Christ through the Holy Spirit.

These verses reveal that in this world the righteous suffer as they wait for God. This reminds me of Augustine’s concept of the City of Man and the City of God. Those who are of the City of God are on a long pilgrimage to the heavenly city where justice will reign, and the righteous will shine like the noon-day Sun. On this pilgrimage, the City of God and Man are mingled, and those in the City of God walk alongside the city of man. They suffer in the world, in the church, and in their own hearts.

God uses these trials, in the power of the Holy Spirit, to make us like his Son. The eternal Son of God, the truly righteous one, the true prophet and mediator between God and humanity Jesus Christ. In these verses in Habakkuk, we see Jesus Christ, in his life, death, and resurrection as the righteous one surrounded by the wicked. But he was not swallowed by it. Though justice was perverted in the death of Christ – he died as a guilty man though he was innocent – and the law used by the evil one to bring forth more injustice (see Rom. 7 and Galatians 3); God in Christ destroyed death, Sin and the Devil and brought true justice in his death and resurrection.

Those who are in Christ, though they are surrounded by the wicked and unjust, pray for God to bring about his justice just as he did in the unexpected and new-creation resurrection of Jesus Christ. We cry out to our Covenant Lord, Yahweh who, though patient, is not idle, and though quiet is always at work in bringing about his plan for the good of his people.

In our next post, we will see how God responds to Habakkuk’s complaint.

 

Questions from the Parish: Is distraction in prayer a problem?

I think distraction is a normal part of the Christian prayer life.

Distraction is a normal part of the human experience of trying to concentrate on one thing. To understand distraction in prayer, we must briefly rehearse and put it in its proper theological context:

Humans are created to behold God and contemplate him forever. Our sin and our twisted desires pull us away from God. When we are redeemed and believe in Jesus Christ we are accepted and brought into fellowship with God in the Holy Spirit. A part of this fellowship is prayer. In prayer, we submit our minds and hearts to God as he teaches us to attend to our final goal and purpose: the face of God in Jesus Christ.  Distraction in prayer is bound up with the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying of our minds and hearts as we are taught by God to desire only God and order all that we do, think, and say towards God in Christ Jesus.  Distraction occurs because we are still on the way towards attending to the one thing needful. However, distraction is not, in itself, a sin. The things we are distracted by might be sinful. What we do with distractions and the feelings we have when we are distracted is what matters. Will we allow God to put to death our thoughts and our distraction and renew our minds or not? That is the question.

For me, it is easy to react to distraction in two ways: either by feeling guilty, which leads to further distraction, and usually some sort of self-inflicted sin or by giving into them totally; turning from prayer to the thoughts themselves. One remedy to this is to turn the distractions into prayer themselves, which leads us back to our primary purpose: being with God. However, sometimes our minds are so busy that our primary objective is drowned out by the distractions, even if they turn to prayer.

In these moments I try to simply surrender them to God, with a prayer like: “God I am powerless over these distractions, please take them from me.”  Additionally, I find that the guilt over distraction is more powerful than the distraction itself. In those moments I have to remind myself that God is patient and gracious and loves it when I am seeking to spend time with him.

I read somewhere that it is helpful to think of distracting thoughts as boat passing down the river of your mind; they are there, and you acknowledge them, and then you let them pass. This sometimes helps me.  But usually, I want to jump on board and go down the river with them. I have to actively surrender that desire and give the desire to get distracted to God.

In the end, our goal is to practice the presence of God, to ‘pray without ceasing” (1 These 5:17) which means constantly seeking to acknowledge and be attentive to the reality that God the Father in Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit is closer to us than we are to ourselves.