Tag Archives: church history

Joining an Ongoing Story

Alice was a lost soul wandering through a strange land trying to find her way back home. Along the way she stumbled upon a cat sitting on a tree branch. Initially frighten, she overcomes her fear and asks the Cat which way she ought to go. The Cat, being a bit mad, responded with perhaps the most powerful statement ever recorded, “That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.”[1] George Harrison would later paraphrased Alice’s conversation with the Cheshire Cat in the equally profound lyric, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”[2]

This advice, while originally given in the context of spatial dimensions, is equally valid in a temporal and spiritual sense. If we, the followers of Jesus, really want to find our Beloved in the darkness of the unknown, we need to first know where we are going. It may sounds strange to think about knowing where you going while embracing the mystery of the unknown. Yet, it is exactly in this paradox that we find the truth of life.

Years ago when the people of Israel were on the edge of the unknown with Jerusalem and the Temple about to be destroyed, the Creator sent the prophet Jeremiah to tell them not to worry. Rather they were to “stand at the crossroads” between the known and unknown and “ask for the ancient paths” (Jeremiah 6:16, NIV). It would be in walking down the ancient paths of those who followed the call of the Creator King that they would find rest for their souls.

The same is true for us today. We are the heirs of an ancient faith with roots back to the very beginning of time. We are not the first people to start this journey, nor will we be the last. Accordingly, we can look backwards to those who have gone ahead of us to find our way forward. As author of Hebrews reminds us, we are “surrounded” by a “great cloud of witnesses” who are cheering us on, encouraging us to finish the race set before us (Hebrews 12:1, NIV).

Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput of the Roman Catholic Church once remarked that “Americans have never liked history” since the “past comes with obligations on the present, and the most cherished illusion of American life is that we can remake ourselves at will.”[3] This self-imposed historical amnesia causes us to have an unhealthy “egocentric obsession with the present”[4] as noted by Brian Zahnd. Once we embrace the concept that we are part of an ongoing story that is bigger than ourselves, then everything changes. No longer is the Christian faith about me or what I can get out of it. No longer is it just about our particular group within Christianity or our nation. Rather our eyes are opened to the bigger picture of God’s rule and reign that spans both time and space.

 

[1] Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (Boston: International Pocket Library, 1941), 75.

[2] George Harrison, “Any Road,” in Brainwashed, Dark Horse/EMI, 2002, compact disk.

[3] Charles Chaput, “Remembering Who We Are and the Story We Belong To” (speech, Notre Dame, Indiana, October 19, 2016), National Catholic Register, accessed October 20, 2016.

[4] Brian Zahnd, Water To Wine: Some of My Story (Spello Press, 2016), Kindle edition, 1349.

“Chasing Francis: A Pilgrims’ Tale” by Ian Morgan Cron

Written in the style of wisdom literature with a “delicate balance of fiction and nonfiction,”[1] Chasing Francis takes the reader on a journey with Chase Falson as he embarks on a pilgrimage to St. Francis’ hometown of Assisi, Italy, in search of a deeper, more robust faith. The story begins with Falson, an American evangelical megachurch pastor, having a crisis of faith after years of having an “unshakable confidence in [the] conservative evangelical theology”[2] he learned in seminary. Despite his attempts to prop himself up through visits with a psychiatrist, Falson falls apart on stage during a Sunday morning sermon a few days after burring a nine-year old children who died in a freak accident. During this sermon he finally admits to himself and the congregation that his “faith is gone”[3] and he no longer has all the answers for everything in life.

The days after this breakdown Falson, who has been asked by the church elders to take some time off, decides to visit Assisi, Italy, on the advice of his uncle who is a Franciscan priest. Once in Italy, his uncle introduces him to St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226 C.E.) and the radical nature of his faith in Jesus. Falson initially tries to deflect his uncle’s comments about St. Francis because of his suspicious of Roman Catholic theology. However he soon embraces the pilgrimage as he realizes that he really wants to find “a new way of following Jesus.”[4]

Using the pilgrimage of Chase Falson as a guide, Ian Cron masterfully guides the reader through a deconstruction of a faith of certainty as commonly held by the American evangelical subculture before reconstructing that faith around “serving Jesus completely and unreservedly”[5] as modeled by St. Francis. Topics addressed within the book include the nature and role of the Bible in our faith, the role of arts in the church and the world, the need to stand with the less fortunate members of our society, the connection between humanity and the rest of nature, and a critique of the rampant materialism that holds sway in a large part of the church.

The oldest surviving depiction of Saint Francis (1228-1229 C.E.)

Though some may see this book as controversial, if not outright dangerous, I found it refreshing and delightful. Like Falson, I got “fed up with the baggage that frequently goes along with the Christian subculture”[6] and sought refuge among the writings of those who traveled the road of Jesus-centric mysticism before me. And while I might have used different words then Falson did in his final talk to his church, the concepts of transcendence, community, beauty, dignity, and meaning are ones that I have wholeheartedly embraced.[7]

The writings and mission of St. Francis of Assisi, however, remained largely unknown to me before this book. After reading Ian Cron’s depiction of St. Francis, I am intrigued by the saint and his message to radically follow Jesus. St. Francis does seem, as Cron put it, to be a “wonderful integration of all the theological streams we have today.”[8] Perhaps in addition to helping repair the Christendom of his time, St. Francis will help us straight the bend heart and mindset of our churches today as we join him in chasing Jesus.


End Notes

[1] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis: A Pilgrim’s Tale (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2013), 215.

[2] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis, 12.

[3] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis, 30.

[4] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis, 47.

[5] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis, 208.

[6] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis, 216.

[7] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis, 196-208.

[8] Ian Morgan Cron. Chasing Francis, 55.

Simplicity and Self-Sacrifice: Lessons from the Desert Fathers (Part 3 of 3)

This is the third part of a paper about the values of simplicity and self-sacrifice as seen in the lives of the early Dessert Fathers. Previous posts this series can be found here and here.

insignificant-actionsIn the intervening years between the time of the Desert Fathers (4th and 5th century C.E.) and today (21st century C.E.), many people have sought to incorporate the concepts promoted by the humble men and women of the desert. St. Augustine (354-430 C.E.), a notable materialistic playboy before his conversion to Christianity, was especially taken with the simplicity and self-sacrifice of St. Anthony, one of the first Desert Fathers. In pondering Anthony’s life, Augustine, a young man in Milan (the capital of the Western Roman Empire at the time), came to the conclusion that “no bodily pleasure, however great it might be and whatever earthly light might shed lustre upon it, was worthy of comparison, or even of mention, beside the happiness of the life of the saints.”[1] This conclusion prompted Augustine to reject the culture of his day and embrace the simplicity and self-sacrifice of the Desert Father, concepts he later helped promote throughout Christendom.

Father Joseph Warrilow (1909-1998 C.E.) is a more modern example of someone who embraced the simplicity and self-sacrifice of the Desert Fathers. Father Joe, as he was commonly called, was a Benedictine monk who lived seventy years in a monastery on the Ryde Isle of Wight in England.[2] The Benedictine order of the Roman Catholic Church was started by St. Benedict of Nursia (480-547 C.E.) who drew upon the wisdom of the Desert Fathers in the creation of his Rule.[3] Accordingly Father Joe’s life was ordered around the self-sacrificial rhythms of the Desert Fathers which granted him the time and energy to pastor multiple people.[4]

The Order of the Sustainable Faith is another contemporary example whose members’ lives reflect the simplicity and self-sacrifice of the Desert Fathers. Started by Jared Patrick Boyd (1978– Present) in 2014 as a “missional monastic expression for the Vineyard,” The Order of the Sustainable Faith draws on the contemplative example of Christian forebears and includes both cloistered (residential) and mendicant (non-residential) expressions.[5] The Order is governed by A Rule of Life that promotes simplicity and self-sacrifice akin to both the Rule of St. Benedict and the lives of the Desert Fathers. Similar to the Desert Fathers, the voluntary embracement of simplicity and self-sacrifice by members of The Order of the Sustainable Faith are both for the formation of the members’ soul as well as for creating space to help others.[6]

In conclusion, while the lives and actions of the early Desert Fathers may sound strange to a modern follower of Jesus, the wisdom of the Fathers are of immense value to the Christian of the twenty-first century. In embracing the concepts of simplicity and self-sacrifice modeled by the Desert Fathers, the modern Christian enters into a place that allows them to see “how unfriendly the modern culture is to the spiritual life.”[7] As they continue to walk down the self-sacrificial path of the Fathers, their soul will find rest and they will, like the Fathers of old, be able to demonstrate the love of Jesus to the world around them in practical ways.[8]

Footnotes

[1] Augustine. Confessions, trans. R.S. Pine-Coffin (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 1992), 197.

[2] Hendra, Tony. Father Joe: The Man Who Saved My Soul (New York: Radom House, 2004), 265.

[3] Benedict. The Rule of St. Benedict. Trans. Anthony C. Meisel and M.L. del Mastro (Garden City, New York: Image Books, 1975), 28.

[4] Hendra, Tony. Father Joe, 268.

[5] Boyd, Jared Patrick. Invitations and Commitments, v-vii.

[6] Boyd, Jared Patrick. Invitations and Commitments, 30.

[7] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 93.

[8] Robinson, Tri. Small Footprint, Big Handprint, 25.

Simplicity and Self-Sacrifice: Lessons from the Desert Fathers (Part 2 of 3)

This is the second part of a paper about the values of simplicity and self-sacrifice as seen in the lives of the early Dessert Fathers. The first part of this series can be found here.

Danger signSt. Anthony, the most famous of the Desert Fathers, was reported by St. Athanasius as teaching his follow sojourners not to pursue nor yearn for earthly possessions. Rather, followers of Jesus were to pursue “prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, concern for the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from anger,” and “hospitality.” [1] These are the possessions that will run ahead of a believer, preparing heaven for their arrival.[2] This message of Anthony carries within it echoes of Jesus’ words in Luke 12:23-34 to his disciples: “Sell your possessions and give to the poor. Provide purses for yourselves that will not wear out, a treasure in heaven that will never fail, where no thief comes near and no moth destroys. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”[3]

The thought of giving away one’s material possessions in an effort to pursue Jesus may sound strange and extreme to most 21st century Christians in the United States of America. Capitalism and materialism has so enveloped American culture that such thoughts of simplicity and self-sacrifice are rarely, if ever, heard or contemplated. The Desert Fathers, however, beckon the believer of today to resist the seductive nature of modern culture and fight the “battle of the heart.”[4] It is about recognizing the forces at work that cause a person to desire something they currently do not have while simultaneously embracing an indifferent attitude towards material items.[5] Rather than pursuing riches and the American Dream, modern Jesus followers would do better to “live simply and generously, promoting economic equality and sustainability.”[6]

The struggle to live simply with few material possessions was seen by the Desert Fathers as part of the Christian life in which they tried to face the darkness within themselves.[7] Drawing on the example of Jesus, they saw the incarnation as something to “inspire them to choose suffering because through the incarnation suffering had become redemptive.”[8] Syncletica of Blessed Memory, one of the few Desert Mothers remembered by history, once commented on this desire to suffer through lack of material possessions: “It is a great good for those who are able. For those who can endure it endure suffering in the flesh, but they have quiet of soul. Even as stout garments trodden underfoot and turned over in the washing are made clean and white, so is a strong soul made steadfast by voluntary poverty.”[9]

The abbot Hyperichius echoes this sentiment about the redemptive quality of simplicity and self-sacrifice when he declared voluntary poverty as the “treasure house of the monk.”[10] An unknown Desert Father was recorded in the Verba Seniorum as proclaiming that “if a man have humility and poverty and judgeth not another, so comes in him the fear of the God.”[11]  The abbot Abraham expands the redemptive quality of simplicity beyond a lack of material possessions in his comments to Cassian of Marseilles about why the fathers dwelt in the desert rather than in the valleys of the Nile. “We have despised…all the luxurious pleasures of the world: we have joy in this desolation, and to all delight do we prefer the dread vastness of this solitude…whence the saying of the Lord in the Gospel, ‘If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.’”[12]

Footnotes

[1] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus. Trans.by Robert C. Gregg (Mahwah, New Jersey: Paulist Press, 1980), 43.

[2] Athanasius. The Life of Antony and the Letter to Marcellinus, 44.

[3] New International Version: Thinline Bible, Luke 12:23-34.

[4] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 94.

[5] Boyd, Jared Patrick. Invitations and Commitments: A Rule of Life (Lexington, Kentucky: The Order of Sustainable Faith, 2014), 32-33.

[6] Grenholm, Micael. “Charismactivism: Combining Miracles, Evangelism, Peace and Justice” (Unpublished book manuscript emailed to the author, May 5, 2016), 81.

[7] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 85.

[8] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 79.

[9] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 90.

[10] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 90.

[11] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 69.

[12] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 166-167.

Simplicity and Self-Sacrifice: Lessons from the Desert Fathers (Part 1 of 3)

joshs-phone-068Philadelphia Archbishop Charles Chaput recently remarked that “Americans have never liked history” since the “past comes with obligations on the present, and the most cherished illusion of American life is that we can remake ourselves at will.”[1] This self-imposed historical amnesia causes the church to have an unhealthy “egocentric obsession with the present.”[2] Christianity, however, does not belong solely to the living but also to those who have confessed Christ throughout the ages.[3] Accordingly there is wisdom in listening to and learning from the ancient fathers and mothers who have helped set the course of Christianity.

While history is rich with saints worthy of study and emulation, this three part blog series will seek to examine the lives of the Desert Fathers of the fourth and fifth centuries of the Common Era. Similar to modern believers, these Jesus followers lived at a time when the prophetic edge of the church was dulled and Christianity was in favor in the halls of power.[4] Seeking to follow Jesus with all their heart, soul, strength and mind (Lk. 10:27), the Desert Fathers gave up fleshly comforts (e.g. soft beds, nice clothes, conveniences, regular meals, etc.) and embraced a life of simplicity and self-sacrifice. Though their lifestyle may seem extreme, “rough-hewn words of life” pour forth from these ancient fathers to water the souls of the modern Christian who are facing an increasingly materialistic, sexual, hectic, and individualistic culture and church world.[5]

Contrary to the prayers of those seeking the American Dream of wealth and riches, Agur the son of Jakeh asked the Creator King to keep both poverty and riches far from him and, instead, give him only his “daily bread.”[6] This desire for just enough for each day sums up the lessons of simplicity from the Desert Fathers. To have too much is to risk disowning the Lord and trusting in the riches of the world while to have too little is to risk dishonoring the Lord by becoming poor and stealing from others. Having just enough for each day allows one to focus on the truly important things of life “without being encumbered by an inordinate amount of responsibilities” that demand time, money and attention.[7]

It must be stated that the call to embrace simplicity does not mean that one believes that material possessions are inherently evil. This concept, called Gnosticism, was something the church fathers of the second-century successfully fought against.[8] The Desert Fathers stayed with orthodoxy by affirming the belief that God created all things good.[9] Their embracement of simplicity and self-sacrificial denial of material possessions, therefore, was less about the inherent evil of such items and more about self-discipline.[10] The simplicity of having few possessions allowed the Desert Fathers to focus their attention to seeking God and helping those around them.

The Verba Seniorum (Saying of the Fathers) records a time when a wealthy nobleman visited one of the desert communities and gave them a basket filled with golden coins. The community’s priest told the man that the brethren had no need for the gold, but the nobleman pressed them as he could not understand their lack of desire for monetary wealth. Finally the priest placed the basket of golden coins by the doorway of the church and told the brethren that each could take what they needed. No one touched the coins as they needed nothing. Rather they all agreed with their leader when he turned to the nobleman and said, “God hath accepted thine offering: go, and give it to the poor.” [11]

This connection between simplicity and helping the poor can also be seen in the fourth century Historia Monachorum (History of the Monks in Egypt). In this document, a story is told of a group of monasteries under the leadership of Serapion. Each monk in the monastery worked with their hands to earn money while living a life of simplicity. This allowed them to give the majority of their income to the “poor, so that not only were the hungry folks of that countryside fed, but ships were sent to Alexandria, laden with corn, to be divided among such as were prisoners in gaols, or as were foreigners and in need.”[12]

Footnotes:

[1] Chaput, Charles. “Remembering Who We Are and the Story We Belong To” (speech, Notre Dame, Indiana, October 19, 2016), National Catholic Register, accessed October 20, 2016.

[2] Zahnd, Brian. Water To Wine: Some of My Story (Spello Press, 2016), Kindle edition, 1344, 1349.

[3] Zahnd, Brian. Water To Wine, Kindle version, 1379.

[4] González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity: The Early Church to the Present Day (New York: Prince Press, 2009), 136-137.

[5] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers (New York: Vintage Books, 1998), xix.

[6] New International Version: Thinline Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1996), Proverbs 30:7-9.

[7] Robinson, Tri. Small Footprint, Big Handprint: How to Live Simply and Love Extravagantly (Boise, Idaho: Ampelon Publishing, 2008), 20.

[8] Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 36.

[9] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries (Downers Grove, Illinois: IVP Books, 2007), 74.

[10] Sittser, Gerald L. Water from a Deep Well, 74-75.

[11] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 91.

[12] Waddell, Helen, trans., The Desert Fathers, 57.

Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers

early-christian-writingsTranslated by Maxwell Staniforth, the book Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers is a collection of ancient manuscripts from the second century CE. It includes works by Clement of Rome (The First Epistle to the Corinthians), Ignatius of Antioch (Epistle to the Ephesians, Epistle to the Magnesians, Epistle to the Trallians, Epistle to the Romans, Epistle to the Philadelphians, Epistle to the Smyrnaeans, and Epistle to Polycarp), and Polycarp of Smyrna (Epistle to the Philippians) as well as four texts from unknown authors (The Martyrdom of Polycarp, Epistle to Diognetus, Epistle of Barnabas, and The Didache). Though it is not known for sure whether or not all the authors personally knew the Apostles, these texts represent the “first trickles” of Christianity beyond the time of the Apostles who walked with Jesus.[1]

Though each of the thirteen texts included this book were written in a different context (with the exception of the seven letters from Ignatius of Antioch), two common themes emerge when reading them. The first theme is the emphasis placed on the authority of the local bishop. As Ignatius puts it, the bishops “represent the mind of Jesus Christ” and, as such, believers are to unite in a “common act of submission” and acknowledge the “authority of [their] bishop and clergy.”[2] While this emphasis on the authority of the local bishop can be hard for a 21st century Protestant in the Western world, it is understandable as these authors were trying to protect the treasure given to them by the Apostles. The New Testament, while written, had not been canonized by the church at large, leaving open the possibility that heresies and falsehoods could creep into the life of the church. The bishops, accordingly, served as a living connection back to the Apostles and Jesus, keeping the church on mission and retaining the truth entrusted to it.

The second theme that emerges from these texts is the emphasis on right living. The “Way of Life” depicted in The Epistle of Barnabas and The Didache is a perfect example of this emphasis.[3] The way of life spelled out by these two texts encourages the reader “abhor anything that is displeasing to God” while practicing “singleness of heart and a richness of the spirit.”[4] It is an encouragement to those who have decided to follow Jesus to be like Jesus and to be different than those who are not following him. In this way, the writings of the Apostolic Fathers tend to have more in common with St. James and with St. Paul., as noted by Roger Olson in his book The Story of Christian Theology.[5]

Though there were parts with which I did not agree, being a 21st century believer in a highly individualist culture, I did enjoy reading through these thirteen texts. The Martyrdom of Polycarp was, by far, my favorite text in the book having read it years prior to this class. The words that St. Polycarp spoke while on trial for being a Christian has encouraged me countless times over the years since I first read them. As Polycarp once said, “How can I blaspheme my King and my Saviour” when he has done me no wrong?[6]

End-Notes

[1] Staniforth, Maxwell, trans., Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers (London: Penguin Books, 1968), 10.

[2] Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 61-62.

[3] Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 179-181, 191-193.

[4] Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 179.

[5] Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform (Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999), 41.

[6] Staniforth, Early Christian Writings, 128.

Bibliography

Olson, Roger E. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition and Reform, Downers Grove, Illinois: InterVarsity Press, 1999.

Staniforth, Maxwell, trans., Early Christian Writings: The Apostolic Fathers, London: Penguin Books, 1968.

Abrahamic Denominations Active in the United States

handbook of denominationsThis Christmas I had the pleasure of reading through the Handbook of Denominations in the United States (13th edition). For those who are not familiar with this book, it’s an encyclopedia of sorts giving a brief history and overview of the theology/practice of the Abrahamic religious denominations active within the USA as of 2010. Granted, the Handbook only lists those groups with at least 100 congregations and/or five thousand members so there are some smaller denominations/groups that are not listed.

The Handbook itself is split into three major selections according to the three major Abrahamic religions: Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. As to be expected, the Christianity selection takes up the bulk of the book with the various denominations listed alphabetically according to the major traditions within Christianity (i.e. Lutheran tradition, Reformed, Congregationalist, and Presbyterian tradition, Holiness tradition, Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches tradition, etc.).

Under the Judaism and Islam section, the Handbook lists out all the major traditions of those Abrahamic religions. This to me was one of the coolest parts about the Handbook as it was nice to understand a little more about the different sub-groups within Judaism and Islam.

For example, the Church of God (Anderson, Indiana) was under the “Holiness Churches” tradition within “Christianity.”  The Union for Reform Judaism was placed under the “Judaism” selection just like Sunni Islam and Wahhabism was placed under Islam.

Interestingly enough, the Vineyard was listed under “Pentecostal Churches” tradition within “Christianity” section. This is odd to me as the Handbook includes a “Community and New Paradigm Church” sub-group that would have seemed a better fit for the Vineyard…  I guess the editors of the Handbook look more towards the Charismatic actions of the Vineyard rather than our theology (which my Pentecostal family members would quickly point out!) is not Pentecostal. This grouping may change in the 14th edition as Roger Olson, the new Handbook editor, is considering creating a “Third Wave” or “Renewalists” sub-group in which the Vineyard will fall. Time will tell.

Another cool thing about the Handbook was that it showed me that it wasn’t just Protestant churches who was dividing up over various issues. Under the Catholic tradition sub-group, the Handbook listed 11 different Catholic church denominations! Some of which split off from the Roman Catholic Church in the 1900’s while other were older splits from Europe. Each of these groups, however, followed the basic theology and practice that one would think about when referring to the Catholic church. They just don’t all agree with Rome.

All in all, I would recommend church leaders owning a copy of the Handbook of Denominations in the United States as it would allow one to quickly find out the basic history and theology/practice of the different groups within the USA. For example, if someone in your church asks you about a group – or you pick up a book and want to under the background of the author – or if someone new joins your church and you want to understand where they come from… in all cases the Handbook would give you a quick glimpse into the denomination in question.

Now to put the Handbook on my wish list as I borrowed the library’s copy for the holidays… 😕