POETRY: The Rat Of Faith, by Philip Levine

A blue jay poses on a stake
meant to support an apple tree
newly planted. A strong wind
on this clear cold morning
barely ruffles his tail feathers.
When he turns his attention
toward me, I face his eyes
without blinking. A week ago
my wife called me to come see
this same bird chase a rat
into the thick leaves
of an orange tree. We came as
close as we could and watched
the rat dig his way into an orange,
claws working meticulously.
Then he feasted, face deep
into the meal, and afterwards
washed himself in juice, paws
scrubbing soberly. Surprised
by the whiteness of the belly,
how open it was and vulnerable,
I suggested I fetch my .22.
She said, “Do you want to kill him?”
I didn’t. There are oranges
enough for him, the jays, and us,
across the fence in the yard
next door oranges rotting
on the ground. There is power
in the name rat, a horror
that may be private. When I
was a boy and heir to tales
of savagery, of sleeping men
and kids eaten half away before
they could wake, I came to know
that horror. I was afraid
that left alive the animal
would invade my sleep, grown
immense now and powerful
with the need to eat flesh.
I was wrong. Night after night
I wake from dreams of a city
like no other, the bright city
of beauty I thought I’d lost
when I lost my faith that one day
we would come into our lives.
The wind gusts and calms
shaking this miniature budding
apple tree that in three months
has taken to the hard clay
of our front yard. In one hop
the jay turns his back on me,
dips as though about to drink
the air itself, and flies.


POETRY: Faith Of Our Fathers, by Paul J. Willis

The faculty ate lunch and sang today,
a dark day in the old chapel. We lent
our less than thousand tongues

unto a fortress mighty as it’s ever been,
and though there were brave women too
we bellow like bass organ pipes,

joining mostly our forefathers
in echoes of their hallowing,
our brief and particular stanza.

So many rich voices among us,
grave and deep and reverberant,
and this was a great comfort to me—

to be still a child after all, still surrounded
by grown men growling low
in their unmistakable harmony.


A CLOUD OF WITNESSES: Prayer And The Christian Way Of Life (Part Two), by Claire E. Wolfteich

From Lord, Have Mercy: Praying for Justice with Conviction and Humility


The Spanish soldier and founder of the Jesuit order, Ignatius of Loyola, lived in a very different time and place.  Yet he too came to an understanding of prayer as central to the Christian life.  In many ways, Ignatius lived quite opposite to the way the desert ascetics did.  The early monks and nuns retreated to the desert; Ignatius brought his mission to the cities – to Barcelona and Rome, to Jerusalem and Paris.  Many desert elders lived in solitude; Ignatius traveled with a band of companions, fellow visionaries and missionaries, who would become the “Society of Jesus,” or the Jesuits.  They would work actively to serve the church in a tumultuous time – a time of massive ecclesial corruption and the challenge of the Reformation – through evangelization, education, and spiritual guidance.  Like the desert ascetics, though, Ignatius left behind a witness to the importance of prayer, humility, and discernment.  For Ignatius, prayer guided one to perceive one’s purpose in life, make right choices, and act generously in the world.

Ignatius of Loyola led a carefree, nobleman’s life until about the age of twenty, when he was wounded in a battle against the French in Pamplona.  As he spent long months recuperating from a serious leg injury, he began to reflect on his life, which he would later describe as “given to the vanities of the world.”  During this time of slow recovery and immobility, he did not have access to the books of chivalry he enjoyed and instead was given a copy of the Life of Christ and a book about the saints.  He began to feel torn, alternately absorbed in his usual worldly fantasies and drawn by a new desire to live as the saints did, in service of God.  Gradually he noticed that although he took a surface delight in thinking about resuming his former life, indulging in chivalrous fantasies, those thoughts eventually left him feeling tired and dry.  On the other hand, when he contemplated going on pilgrimage to Jerusalem and following the saints in an ascetic life, those thoughts left him feeling joyful.  This was the beginning of what he came to describe as the “discernment of spirits.”  Ignatius believed that as we make decisions and choices, careful attention to abiding feelings of “consolation” and “desolation” point us to what is of God and what is not of God.  Consolation is a deep feeling of rightness, joy, and peacefulness.  Desolation, on the other hand, is marked by feelings of anxiety, disorder, despair, and turmoil.  Ignatius started paying attention to these deeper feelings, which he believed were prompted by good or evil spirits.  He decided to make a major change in his life.

Once he was well, he set out on a pilgrimage to Jerusalem.  He stopped along the way in the Spanish mountain town of Montserrat, where he exchanged his fine clothes for beggar’s sackcloth and laid down his arms before a statue of the Virgin Mary in an all-night prayer vigil.  He continued to the town of Manresa, where he expected to stay only a few days.  He ended up remaining for nearly a year, living a hermit’s life in a cave, praying deeply, experiencing mystical gifts, and drafting what became known as “The Spiritual Exercises.”  The Exercises were intended to guide others in serious, prayerful reflection on their lives, helping them to enter imaginatively into scripture and offer themselves to God in a generous and free act of decision.  Ignatius saw his work as a kind of guide to retreat leaders who could use the Exercises flexibly to help others grow in their faith and make major choices about their purpose in life, their vocation.  Ignatius and his companions gave the Exercises to many people; their own discernment process led them to go before Pope Paul III to offer themselves as new order in service to the church.  The art of discerning the spirits was central to the Exercises, which continues to serve as a popular retreat guide for spiritual seekers today.

Ignatius found it essential to cut through dispersion of our thoughts and inclinations, to focus our choices on our ultimate purpose in life.  Thus, he writes in The Spiritual Exercises: The eye of our intention ought to be single.  I ought to focus only on the purpose for which I was created, to praise God and to save my soul.  Everything we choose should be chosen to further that end.  This is the “principle and foundation” of all discernment.  Ignatius was keenly aware of how we deceive ourselves, allowing our own desires to rule, telling ourselves that what we want must be what God wants.  Pause, he says, step back: I should find myself in the middle, like the pointer of a balance, in order to be ready to follow that which I perceive to be more to the glory and praise of God our Lord and the salvation of my soul.  Ignatian spirituality invites us to use our reason, imagination, prayer, and reflection on scripture to determine how best to use the goods of creation in furthering the end for which we are created.  The idea of doing “all for the great glory of God” continues as the Jesuit motto and guide for communal and individual discernment today.

To aid in our growth as persons of freedom and discernment, Ignatius also strongly encouraged a daily “examen,” or what has been described as an examination of consciousness.  This practice is a kind of daily checkup, a time of prayer and reflection on the day, where we ask God to help us to know our failings and take an “account of my soul.”  Contemporary writers have suggested that one ask of oneself two questions every day – such as, Where have I been most loving today?  Where was I least loving today?  Over time, one comes to see patterns – which activities and relationships draw one closer to God, which leave one feeling dispersed and decentered.  With prayer, one gains the freedom to choose those things that draw one closer to God and say, no, to the others.  The examen, then, is an aid to discernment.

Ignatius understood discernment as a process, a practice honed over a lifetime.  His deliberations were marked by both uncertainty and points of clarity, with resolutions offered up humbly in prayer: When that election or decision has been made, the person who has made it ought with great diligence to go to prayer before God our Lord, to offer him that election, and to beg his Divine Majesty to receive and confirm it, provided it is conducive to  his greater service and praise.  Ignatius believed that one can find God in all things and that prayerful discernment must be woven into all kinds of action.  Ignatian spirituality does not offer certainty, but rather a way of living into the questions prayerfully and attentively.


A CLOUD OF WITNESSES: Prayer And The Christian Way Of Life (Part One), by Claire E. Wolfteich

From Lord, Have Mercy: Praying for Justice with Conviction and Humility

One of the fourth-century desert fathers, Abba Macarius, was asked, How should one pray?  The old man said, There is no need at all to make long discourses; it is enough to stretch out one’s hands and say, “Lord, as you will, and as you know, have mercy.”

Macarius was among the early monks and nuns who led solitary lives in the deserts of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria.  They left cities and towns to live a stark, ascetic life of prayer, confronting the demons within and without, seeking to grow in discernment and purity of heart.  People often came to them and asked for a “word” – for spiritual counsel.  The elders would respond with short sayings directed to the person, getting right to the heart of his or her struggle or vice.

Macarius left his village to go to the desert of Scetis in Egypt, where he lived in a cell and traveled around the desert to see other monks.  His experience of long hours in prayer flows into the word that he offers to others.  Macarius emphasizes the trust and humility integral to prayer.  Prayer means opening oneself to the will of God, abandoning oneself to it, and clinging always to the promise of God’s mercy.  The desert elder did not underestimate the depth of struggle human beings experience in their lives; he goes on to counsel: And if the conflict grows fiercer, say, “Lord, help!”  But then, Macarius says, still trust: He [God] knows very well what we need and he shews us his mercy.  The abba was not offering a simplistic salve but rather articulating the few, trusting, humble words that are necessary in prayer.

For the desert elders, prayer was a way of life.  They sought to live into the apostle Paul’s counsel to “pray without ceasing.”  According to John Cassian, whose Conferences depict conversations with monks of the Egyptian desert, Abba Isaac told him, Whoever is in the habit of praying only at the hour when the knees are bent prays very little.  Constant prayer paves the way for the perfection of one’s heart; at the same time, purity of heart and the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit enable the person to pray well.  It is a theme that resounds for centuries in Eastern Orthodox spirituality.  Ceaseless repetition of the “Jesus Prayer” (Lord, Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.) purifies the heart and leads to inner freedom and stillness.  As the Russian peasant describes in the anonymous nineteenth-century classic, The Way of a Pilgrim, this humble prayer, an “abbreviated form of the gospel,” can eventually flow from a person as naturally as breath.”

The desert elders looked to the psalms as a basis of unceasing prayer.  Every day at dusk and again in the middle of the night, they individually prayed the divine office, which included reciting twelve psalms, and they meditated on the psalms throughout the day while they did their manual labor.  On Sundays, they gathered for communal prayer – again, heavily emphasizing the chanting of psalms – and for Eucharist.  According to Cassian, Abba Isaac counsels monks to meditate constantly on a line from Psalm 70: O God, incline unto my aid; O Lord, make haste to help me.  The prayer contains an invocation of God in the face of any crisis, the humility of a devout confession, the watchfulness of concern and of constant fear, a consciousness of one’s own frailty, the assurance of being heard, and confidence in a protection that is always present.  Repeating this prayer in all circumstances brings a “perpetual awareness of God.”

Although their vision was for prayer to be constant, woven seamlessly into every moment of the day, prayer was not necessarily easy for these desert monks and nuns.  They believed they were engaged in a real battle for the soul; demons would tempt them – often to the sin of pride – as Satan tempted Jesus in the desert.  Demons would deceive them about themselves and lure them to false attachments.  Thus Abba Agathon could say: I think there is no labor greater than that of prayer to God.  For every time a man wants to pray, his enemies, the demons, want to prevent him, for they know that it is only by turning him from prayer that they can hinder his journey.  Prayer is warfare to the last breath.

The desert elders offer a startling witness to the urgency and centrality of prayer.  Their message on the relationship between prayer and action in the world is, perhaps, more ambiguous.  After all, they did leave cities and towns to live in remote areas, some as hermits in tiny cells, miles away from the centers of power of the Roman Empire.  Some monks were known for spectacular feats of asceticism and extreme solitude.  Symeon Stylite avoided visitors to his monastery, for example, by climbing atop a pillar and living there in prayer for more than thirty years.  It is difficult in such a case to see how prayer is deeply engaged with the realities and sufferings of the world.  The sayings of the desert fathers often counsel strict detachment from the things of this world as necessary for intense relationship with God.

Yet some would see in their desert withdrawal not a retreat from the world but rather an alternative, starkly countercultural witness to that world, in which they saw Christianity accommodating to the culture and mores of the Roman Empire.  Moreover, in most of the desert elders’ sayings and lives prayer certainly is not detached from compassion.  Hospitality is a key practice for those who live in the desert.  In their spiritual counsel, the desert elders carefully connect prayer, humility, self-examination, and deep compassion for human frailty.

The sixth-century monk Dorotheos of Gaza offered this word: Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of the circle.  Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God is the center.  As human beings draw closer to God, moving from the outer edge of the circle to the center, they also draw closer to one another.  The closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God, noted Dorotheos.  As contemporary theologian Roberta Bondi explains in reflecting on this saying, the monk teaches that intimacy with God cannot be separated from love of neighbor; the two go hand-in-hand.  Similarly, as one becomes more distant from the neighbor, one drops back away from the center.  Prayer and love of neighbor are intimately linked.  Thus the scholar of early monasticism Douglas Burton-Christie describes a rhythm of “withdrawal, encounter, and return.”  Periods of withdrawal for intense prayer and self-examination are important for the spiritual life, but they are not an end in themselves; rather, they flow back into community.

THE CHURCH: Running With The Witnesses, by John Piper 

From Desiring God

And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect. Therefore, since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 11:39–12:2)

Running — Not Meandering

The book of Hebrews was written to a church that was getting old and was settling into the world and losing its wartime mentality and starting to drift through life without focus, without vigilance, and without energy. Their hands were growing weak, their knees were feeble. It was just easier to meander in the crowd of life than to run the marathon.

We have seen this over and over along the trail through this book. For example, in Hebrews 2:1 and 3, the writer says that we must pay much closer attention to what we have heard, lest we drift away from it. How shall we escape if we neglect so great a salvation? So into the church has crept the disease of drifting and neglecting. People are growing careless and spiritually lazy and negligent.

Then in Hebrews 3:12–13 he warns again, Take care, brethren, lest there should be in any one of you an evil, unbelieving heart, in falling away from the living God. But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called “Today,” lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. He has heard that some are no longer “taking care.” They have begun to have a kind of lazy sense of security. A false notion that nothing really huge is at stake in their small group meetings or whether they meditate on the Bible or take time alone to pray or fight sin. They assume all will be well. Hebrews is written to teach them otherwise.

In Hebrews 5:12 the writer says, Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. They made a profession of faith and went into a passive, coasting mode. This is utterly wrong. God means every saint to be moving forward to new gains of strength and wisdom and holiness and courage and joy. From getters to givers. From being taught to teaching.

One more illustration: in Hebrews 12:12-13 the writer says, Strengthen the hands that are weak and the knees that are feeble, and make straight paths for your feet, so that the limb which is lame may not be put out of joint, but rather be healed. He is talking in images here of their spiritual condition: weak hands, feeble knees, crooked paths.

Laying Aside Every Encumbrance

That’s the condition of the church. That is the background of Hebrews 12:1b, Let us also lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us. This command does not come out of the blue. This is the point of the whole book. Endure, persevere, run, fight, be alert, be strengthened, don’t drift, don’t neglect, don’t be sluggish, don’t take your eternal security for granted. Fight the fight of faith on the basis of Christ’s spectacular death and resurrection. And show your faith the way the saints of Hebrews 11 did, not by coasting through life, but by counting reproach for Christ greater riches than the treasures of Egypt (11:26).

So the main point of this text is the one imperative: Run! (12:1). Everything else supports this — explains it or gives motivation for it. Run the race set before you! Don’t stroll, don’t meander, don’t wander about aimlessly. Run as in a race with a finish line and with everything hanging on it.

To this end, verse 1 says, “lay aside every encumbrance, and sin which so easily entangles us.” I remember the effect this verse had on me as a boy when I heard someone explain that we must lay aside not only entangling sins, but “every encumbrance.” That is, every weight or obstacle. Things that in themselves may not be sins.

This was revolutionary. What it did (and I hope it does the same for you) was show me that the fight of faith — the race of the Christian life — is not fought well or run well by asking, “what’s wrong with this or that?” but by asking, “is it in the way of greater faith and greater love and greater purity and greater courage and greater humility and greater patience and greater self-control? Not, “Is it a sin?,” but, “Does it help me run! Is it in the way?”

As a boy I was mightily helped by having my very categories changed in the way I lived my life. I commend it to you young people especially. Don’t ask about your music, your movies, your parties, your habits: What’s wrong with it? Ask: Does it help me run the race!? Does it help me run for Jesus?

Hebrews 12:1 is a command to look at your life, think hard about what you are doing, and get ruthless about what stays and what goes.

“But That’s Just the Way I Am”

One of the criticisms I have of some forms of psychology (not all) is the tendency to neutralize texts like this by labeling people with personality types that have no value judgments attached. For example, if a person tends to be passive you give them one label, and if they tend to be aggressive, you give them another label. No type is better than another type. Then along comes a text like this which says that passivity and coasting and drifting are mortally dangerous. The race might not be finished if we don’t become vigilant and lay aside not only sins, but also weights and hindrances. If we are not careful, we can be so psychologically fatalistic that we read over a text like this and say, Oh that’s not for me, that’s for type A people, or INTJ’s. That would be a tragic mistake.

I know that there are personality differences, some more passive and some more aggressive. Each has its weaknesses and strengths. The passive people are in danger of coasting and neglecting and drifting and the many enslavements that result. The aggressive people are in danger of impatience and self-reliance and judgmentalism. And there are strengths: the passive people are less prone to murmur and complain and retaliate. And the aggressive people are more given to bring about needed change.

But when it comes to the Book of Hebrews, and Hebrews 12:1 in particular, it is a great mistake for any of us to say: this command to run is not for me. This command to lay aside entangling sins is not for me. Or this command to lay aside weights and encumbrances is just not the way I am wired.

Plan Your Run with Jesus

Rather, all of us should listen and obey. Here’s what I would suggest. Between now and Labor Day, pick a day or a half day and get away by yourself — away from the house, the phone, the beeper, the TV, the radio and all other people. Take a Bible and a pad of paper and plan your fall run with Jesus.

On that pad of paper note the entangling sins. Note the seemingly innocent weights and encumbrances that are not condemned explicitly in the Bible, but which you know are holding you back in the race for faith and love and strength and holiness and courage and freedom. Note the ways you subtly make provision for these hindrances (Romans 13:14): the computer games, the hidden alcohol or candy, the television, the videos, the pull-tab stop on the way home, the magazines, the novels. In addition, note the people that weaken you. Note the times that are wasted, thrown away.

When you have made all these notations, pray your way through to a resolve and a pattern of dismantling these encumbrances, and resisting these sins, and breaking old, old habits. And don’t rise up against the Bible at this point and say, I can’t change. It is an assault on God if you read Hebrews 12:1 and go away saying: It can’t happen. Hindrances can’t be removed. Sins can’t be laid aside. God has not spoken this command for nothing. And this entire book is written to undergird these practical commands. So go back and read the book and ask God to take all the glorious truth that is here (about the superiority of Christ, and the power of his death and resurrection, and the effectiveness of his intercession for you) and make this truth explosive with life-changing power. Carry some of the story to your small group and get them to pray for you. Find someone you trust and ask them to check in with you and support you. That is what Hebrews 3:12–13 says we should do. Don’t drift from this moment into this Sunday afternoon. Before this day is over choose a day or a half-day and get away to plan your fall run with Jesus.

Motivation: A Cloud of Witnesses

Now what about motivation? That’s what the rest of this text is. First, let’s look back and then forward from this command to run.

Verse 1 says, Since we have so great a cloud of witnesses surrounding us, let us . . . run . . . . So the first motivation I want us to see is this cloud of witnesses. Who are they and what does their witnessing mean? They are the saints that have lived and died so valiantly by faith in chapter 11. Abel and Enoch and Noah and Abraham and Sarah and Moses and all those who suffered and died, “of whom the world was not worthy.”

But what does their “witnessing” refer to? Does it refer to their watching us from Heaven? Or does it refer their witnessing to us by their lives? The word “witness” can have either meaning: the act of seeing something, or the act of telling something. Which is it here? I think it is the act of telling. The verb form of this word “witness” (martureo) is used five times in Hebrews 11 (2, 4 [twice], 5, 39) and always refers to the giving of a (confirming) testimony rather than the mere watching of an event. So I take the witnesses of Hebrews 12:1 to be the saints who have run the race before us, and have gathered, as it were, along the marathon route to say, through the testimony of their lives, By faith I finished, you can too!

The best way to illustrate this, I think, is with Hebrews 11:4, where the writer speaks of Abel and says, Through faith, though he is dead, he still speaks. So Abel is in the cloud of witnesses, and he is witnessing to us by his life through the Scriptures. This is the way all the witnesses of Hebrews 11 are helping us. They have gathered along the sidelines of our race and they hold out their wounds and their joys and give us the best high-fives we ever got: Go for it! You can do it. By faith you can finish. You can lay the weights down and the sins. By faith, by the assurance of better things hoped for, you can do it. I did it. And I know it can be done. Run. Run!

So be encouraged when you plan your fall run with Jesus. There are dozens and hundreds and thousands of those who have gone before and who have finished the race by faith and surround us like a great cloud of witnesses who say: It can be done! By faith it can be done.

Motivation: History Is Waiting for You to Finish Your Race

Then there is another motivation in verses 39-40. It says, And all these, having gained approval through their faith, did not receive what was promised, (40) because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect. This is followed in 12:1 by “Therefore . . . run.” The “therefore” means that verses 39-40 are a motivation for our running. Since this is true, run! How is it a motive?

I take verse 39 to mean that when the believers in the Old Testament died, their spirits were made whole and perfect (as 12:23 says), but that they do not receive the full blessing of God’s promise, which is resurrection with new bodies in a glorious new age with all God’s enemies removed and righteousness holding sway and the earth filled with the glory of God. They did not receive that promise yet.

Why not? Why must the saints wait, without their new resurrection bodies? The answer is given in verse 40: Because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they should not be made perfect. In other words, God’s purpose is that all his people — all the redeemed — be gathered in before any of them enjoys the fullness of his promise. His purpose is that we all come into the fullness of our inheritance together.

So the motivation is this: when you go away to plan your fall run with Jesus, think on the fact that your life counts to God and to them. Your finishing the race is what history is waiting for. The entire consummation of the plan of the universe waits until every single one of God’s elect are gathered in. All history waits and all those who have lived by faith crowd the marathon route to urge you on, because they will not be perfected without you. Nor you without them.

Motivation: Jesus Creates and Perfects Our Faith

Perhaps two more very brief motivations from Hebrews 12:2. The first is that the fight of faith is not done in our own strength. When you go away to plan your fall run with Jesus, verse 2 says, Look to Jesus the author and perfecter of your faith. Don’t look to your own resources and say, I’ve tried before. It won’t work. Fix your eyes on him. The battle is a battle of faith: will you believe that the things he promises are better than the bad habits that you use to cover your sadness?

But more than that, Jesus doesn’t just respond to faith with his help. He works to author faith and perfect faith. He works to begin it and he works to complete it. Faith lays hold on Jesus for help, because Jesus laid hold on the heart for faith. Hebrews 13:21 says that God works in us what is pleasing in his sight through Jesus. He is the author and the perfecter of our faith and we should sit with our Bible and our tablet in the park overwhelmed with the stunning truth that, behind every good resolve and plan of attack for this fall, God is at work in us to will and to do his good pleasure (Philippians 2:12–13) — to sustain and perfect our faith.

Motivation: The Joy of the Triumph at the End

Finally, this writer wants us to be motivated to endure in our run with Jesus this fall the same way Jesus was sustained his painful run. Verse 2: “. . . fixing our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross.” It is not a morally defective thing to be sustained in the marathon of life by the joy of triumph at the end. The reward of seeing God and being free from all sin is the greatest incentive of all.

So if it seems that there are going to be some temporary losses when you run this race with Jesus, you are right. That is why Jesus said to count the cost (Luke 14:25–33) before you sign on. But the marathon of the Christian life is not mainly loss. It is mainly gain. For the joy that was set before him he endured the cross. It is only a matter of timing. If you see things with the eyes of God, there is a vapor’s breath of loss and pain, and then everlasting joy (2 Corinthians 4:17).

When you take your day away, with Bible and tablet, to plan your fall run with Jesus, think on this; think on this: the sufferings of this present age are not worth comparing to the glory that will be revealed to the children of God (Romans 8:18).

So let us lay aside every encumbrance, and the sin which so easily entangles us, and let us run with Jesus.


PRAYER: Prayer On Our Cloud Of Witnesses

From The Book of Common Prayer (1928)

Seeing we also are compassed about with so great a cloud of witnesses, let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which doth so easily beset us, and let us run with patience the race that is set before us, looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is set down at the right hand of the throne of God. (Hebrews 12:1)

Almighty God, who hast called us to faith in thee, and hast compassed us about with so great a cloud of witnesses; Grant that we, encouraged by the good examples of thy Saints, and especially of thy servant [Saint——], may persevere in running the race that is set before us, until at length, through thy mercy, we, with them, attain to thine eternal joy; through him who is the author and finisher of our faith, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord.



POETRY: Pentecost, R. T. Smith

for John Foster West

Squint-eyed and cunning, its tongue split
like a wishbone, the canebrake sulls up,
cursive spine and the diamonds in spiral
like genetic code,

and Joby frets the Stratocaster, it’s plastic
the color of a salted ham. A tambourine’s
discs shiver, and Brother Pascal wields the Book’s
hot gospel like a blunt instrument. This is

spirit. This is bliss. The words from Heaven
would almost strangle you. The Holy Ghost
is a rough customer alright,
and if someone comes for healing touch,

for translation into a mended soul,
a whole body, let him lie beside the altar
all shorn and shocked and willing, sing amen, say
grace abounding,

and the current sizzles, the tail beads buzz,
as the road to Zion is not all gleam-gold.
Wind scratching poplar limbs
against cracked board-and-batten says

stormy heart. You can translate any syllable
into yearning, the Lord’s will,
as the rattler agitates, this being winter,
his deep sleep stolen by a prophet’s

hands clapping, raw notes of “power
in the blood.” He’s a mean
messenger, unguessable, and Brother Harvey
Robbins now cradling him

has the look of a man ready for crisis.
Come rapture, come venom,
that double ivory stab so quick you’re
not sure at first, then certain. It leaves limbs

withered but quickened. For some of us
in the lantern light, in the Carver’s Cove
church house where the floor rattles
like a loom room, a coal scuttle:

we know something is coming.
Snake-shakers, Holy Rollers, Faith
Healers from over in Silva or up in Teague,
we feel the wild muscle contract.

It’s no cakewalk to dance the devil
down. Uproot and undercut,
but something is coming right
now, something good. Leave your

coppers and dollars in the collection plate.
The moon out there is empty, visible
as a skillet in night sky.
The whoosh of angel feathers is coming,

the serpent’s hiss, the new dialect
we will sing to spring sowing, hallelujah.
On a good night the serpent will crown
some beloved brow-like braided brocade

and idle there, benign, as we begin
the mortal bargain, breathe the honey air
of limber love and behold
as the jaws open for a half-sought kiss.

Crystals in the hourglass glisten and summon,
the weave of bequeathed bliss,
birthright of the cursed helix.
Sister, keep your eye on the cross,

take my hand. The words will come.


COMMUNITY: The Soup Kitchen, by Nora Gallagher

From The Sacred Meal

Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people. (Acts 2:46-47)

Many of us are asking, How should I live?  How should we live?  We come to our faith communities with those questions.  Sometimes they are taken seriously, even answered, and sometimes the church sticks us on a committee.

One of the things that happened to me after I went to church for many years, asking those questions, was I began to see that if you don’t act on what you hear in the gospels every Sunday, then it doesn’t stick.

When I first went back to the Episcopal Church after a long hiatus, I loved the ritual.  I loved the liturgy of the Episcopal Church: each week, the same form, from the Book of Common Prayer.

The trouble was, I had trouble connecting it back to my daily life.  Church was like a play or a nice concert.  I went to the “theater” on Sunday, felt uplifted or moved, but couldn’t figure out how to integrate those feelings into my own experience; so gradually they faced as the week wore on.  It didn’t connect.  I suspect that many people who faithfully attend church remain in such a state and don’t really know what to do about it.  What I finally understood was that simply going to church doesn’t do it, but neither does not going to church.

In the last fifteen years, a renewal of interest in the “historical Jesus” has resulted in books, papers, and arguments as to who this person really was.  We have known for some time that the gospels were written long after the death of Jesus and were compiled by men who lived long after him, from stories and compiled by men who lived long after him, from stories and scraps of history.  Each of these men also had his own point of view and philosophy.  Scholars today work to find something of the man behind these stories, to sift out some of his real words and actions, through painstaking examination of the gospels and comparisons between them and other recently discovered documents.

Certainly, scholars agree that Jesus traveled from town to town, healing and preaching, and lived an itinerant’s life.  He lived under the Roman Empire and was certainly aware of it.  Jesus lived in occupied territory.  Israel, Jerusalem, and Galilee were colonized by that great empire: builder of aqueducts, commander of the largest and most efficient army in the world, and inventor of that peculiar form of execution, one they saved for dangerous political terrorists, persons who were threats to the empire itself, charismatic leaders who attracted followers – crucifixion, the cross.

Scholars have studied Jesus’s relation to Rome, and for them, neither the term political activist nor personal savior quite cuts it, but rather something or someone in between.

This ground is delicate: these days, we often make Jesus into only a personal savior.  I don’t want to swing all the way the other way and make him into a political revolutionary.  That limits him too.  But to remove Jesus from his political and historic reality is to deny him, and us, his full story.

Trying to understand Jesus without knowing how Roman imperialism determined the conditions of life in Galilee and Jerusalem would be like trying to understand Martin Luther King, Jr., without knowing how slavery, reconstruction, and segregation determined the lives of African Americans in the United States.

But, like King, Jesus did not provoke the empire by armed revolutionary activity.  He may have provoked it by insisting that violence, the very underpinning of the empire, would never bring the kingdom of Heaven to Earth.  This is a kind of criticism.  Having compassion for people who are hurt by an empire becomes a way of criticizing the empire itself.  Jesus said it is not normal for someone who is blind or deaf to beg on the street.

One of the many radical things Jesus did was to sit down and eat with people who were the lowest on the rungs of his society.  He loved an open table.

Some of the religious leaders of first-century Jerusalem lived by a purity code that not only classified food and habits but classified people into rigid categories, such as “sinners, untouchables, outcasts.”  People who were sick or maimed were not “whole,” and therefore not “pure.”  Sound familiar?  Jesus refused to live this way.

I began to understand both my own faith and what Jesus was up to when I went to work in a soup kitchen.

It started in the base community at Trinity.  Modeled after the Latin American communidades de base, Trinity’s communities work from the same premise as do those in Latin America – that the gospel is a living document, speaking to us aloud, shaking us up.  Our community at Trinity had between ten and twelve members.  Each week, we’d “check in” by talking about how our prayers have gone that week and then the gospel for the following Sunday.  Then we’d ask ourselves, what is this saying to us in our lives right now?  What is it asking us to do?

In the base community, we read the words in Matthew 25:25 – I was hungry and you gave me food – enough times and talked about it so much that it became impossible not to act one day when the vestry struggled to decide what to do with so many homeless people coming to the office window, begging for food.

I could go down the street and find out if Vons would give us their old vegetables for soup, Ann Jaqua said one night at the base community.

For the first five months of that kitchen’s life, we handed the soup through a little window cut into the back door of the parish hall.  The men stood in line outside.  Then, it started to rain.  The men stood in line outside, drenched and cold, while we stood inside, warm and dry.  Finally, we let them in once.  Everyone behaved.  In fact, they were too well behaved.  Almost no one spoke.  Tables of silent men filled the hall.  They ate and left.  After that, it seemed silly not to just let them in.  And so for months they sat at the tables, and we stood behind the serving table, grabbing a bite to eat ourselves either at home or in the church’s kitchen.  Then one day, I noticed that at a table with four men in various states of homelessness, was a well-dressed woman, eating the same food.  She was, I realized, a volunteer from another church.  The next week, I tried it.

I sat down with a bunch of guys who slowly looked up and greeted me.  As I did this week after week, I began to learn their names.  Greg, who had mental illness and like to tell jokes; Alan, a Vietnam vet who watched PBS and ended up volunteering to clean up the dining hall every day, without fail.  Other men who drifted in and out of despair and poverty.

I began to understand what Jesus had done when he sat down with outcasts.  For an hour, I became an outcast myself.  In comparison with religious codes, this was a minimal practice.  Religious or social codes are elaborate, divisive, and hierarchical; this was simple, a kind of nothing, but it greatly affected my sense of how the gospels connected to my life.  I was “doing” the gospels.

After I’d eaten at the tables with the men and women for a couple of months, when I walked in the door, I felt I was walking toward the same place I sought when I took Communion.  And one day, as I handed a guy a bowl of soup, I imagined a river of free vegetables flowing into the kitchen.  Our job was to catch the vegetables, make them into soup, and then pass them along.  I thought about how weird it would be to charge for the soup: what was freely given had to be freely given away.  This was God’s economy, I realized.  I called “the economy of abundance.”

The economy of abundance was tenuous: you could not buy your way out of it.  We had to rely on what was given to us; cubes of frozen cheese, a box of frozen ham, a gallon of ranch salad dressing were causes for celebration.

In the economy of abundance, you had to scrounge.  We begged bread from local bakeries; from butchers who donated meat, we even used the chicken bones left after most of the breast meat was removed; from traveling executives, we were given the soaps and shampoos collected in hotels.  On the bottom rungs, I saw that scrounging is a craft.  The men we served in the kitchen sifted through wastebaskets at the end of the day and found things I would have missed: hairpins, a half-smoked cigarette, two paper clips.  Everything was useful; nothing was wasted.  I came to believe God scrounges too.  A pregnant, unmarried woman; tax collectors; blind beggars; a son conceived out of wedlock.  God uses what is useless, what is discarded, what is low.

We gradually stopped worrying too much about fundraising, kept our expenses low, and waited to see what would happen next.  It felt wild and free.

It did not last in my daily life, always.  I’d get on an airplane, be upgraded, and immediately feel contemptuous toward those in economy.  But when I recited the Nicene Creed on Sunday morning, the “unseen” became for me, not a realm of ghosts, but a place where you waited and hoped.  It was like the soup kitchen.

One night at the base community, Ann Jaqua, connected the soup kitchen and the Eucharist.  She said, The serving table is like the table in the church, the altar.  The two go together.  I don’t think the Eucharist makes sense without the soup.

I thought of what she’s said a few weeks later when I was working in the kitchen on Maundy Thursday.  I arrived at noon to begin sorting fruit and bread for the lunch to be served.  Suddenly, the kitchen felt like worship itself, the altar table in the nearby sanctuary had meaning only because of this table, where I stood, that was full of day-old bread and free grapes.

Karen Torjesen describes “house churches,” the meeting places for the early Christians, as “informal, often countercultural in tone.”

I wondered if the soup kitchen was like one of those early churches, or reminiscent of it, where everyone was welcome or, at least, women, slaves, and artisans were welcome, those people who didn’t have authority or even personhood in public life.  Maybe in the soup kitchen, we were re-creating the original Eucharist, a feast for the marginal.

We live in what is thought to be abundance, with lots of stuff to buy.  But somehow, it is never enough.  In the late eighties, I asked the owner of a successful business, who must have made at least half a million dollars a year, if he had enough money, and he replied, Don’t you understand?  There is never enough.

The “never enough” reaches into every aspect of our lives.  We don’t have enough money, but we also don’t have enough time.  We don’t have enough energy, solitude, or peace.  The emotional consequences are subtle and pervasive; we’ve got fantasy and illusion and anxiety.  Believe me, I know them all.  So I call the economy we live in “the economy of scarcity.”

Here’s the irony: the economy of scarcity appears to be abundant, while abundance is marked by an appearance of scarcity.  The scarce economy looks rich and full, but within it, people’s souls and bodies starve.  The economy of abundance, on the other hand, is organized to provide just enough.  Like the manna in the desert that could not be stored but was only enough to get through the day, so the economy of abundance releases no more than enough nourishment.  I ran out of fruit in the kitchen one day at just the moment a farmer drove up with three cases of oranges.

I don’t work in that kitchen anymore, and I miss it.  My soul misses it.  I am not learning what I learned there about abundant life.

THE CHURCH: The Body Of Christ, by David Platt

From Follow Me

The room was packed full of people, and the preacher held the audience in the palm of his hand.  I would like everyone to bow your heads and close your eyes, he said, and we all followed suit.

He then declared, Tonight, I want to call you to put your faith in God.  Tonight, I am urging you to begin a personal relationship with Jesus for the first time in your life.  Let me be clear, he said, I’m not inviting you to join the church.  I’m just inviting you to come to Christ.  As the preacher passionately pleaded for personal decisions, scores of people stood from their seats and walked down the aisles of the auditorium to make a commitment to Christ.

Yet there was a problem in all of this.  These people had been deceived.  They had been told that it is possible to make a commitment to Christ apart from a commitment to the church.  The reality, however, is that it’s Biblically impossible to follow Christ apart from joining his church.  In fact, anyone who claims to be a Christian yet is not an active member of a church may not actually be a follower of Christ at all.

To some, maybe many, this may sound heretical.  Are you saying that joining a church makes someone a Christian? you might ask.  Absolutely not.  Joining a church most certainly does not make someone a Christian.

At the same time, to identify your life with the person of Christ is to join your life with the people of Christ.  To surrender your life to  his commands is to commit your life to his church.  It is Biblically, spiritually, and practically impossible to be a disciple of Christ (and much less make disciples of Christ) apart from total devotion to a family of Christians.

But so many people think it is possible – and they try to live like it’s possible.  It has even become a mark of spiritual maturity today for some professing Christians to not be active in a church.  I’m in love with Jesus, people will say, but I just can’t stand the church.


Isn’t the church the bride of Christ?  What if I said to you, Man, I love you, but have I ever told you how much I can’t stand your wife?  Would you take that as a compliment?

Similarly, isn’t the church the body of Christ?  What if my wife said to me, David, I love you, but I can’t stand your body?  I can assure you that I wouldn’t take that as a compliment.

It’s impossible to follow Jesus fully without loving his bride selflessly, and it’s impossible to think that we can enjoy Christ apart from his body.  Jesus goes so far as to identify the church with  himself when he asks Saul on the road to Damascus, Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?  Saul hadn’t persecuted Christ himself, but he had persecuted Christians, so in essence Jesus was saying, When you mess with them, you mess with me.

To come to Christ is to become part of his church.  Followers of Jesus have the privilege of being identified with his family.  As we die to ourselves, we live for others, and everything Christ does in us begins to affect everyone Christ puts around us.  Recognizing this reality and experiencing the relationships that God has designed for his people specifically in the church are essential to being a disciple and making disciples of all nations.


Unfortunately, as we have diluted what it means to be a Christian in our day, we have also skewed what it means to be a church.  The majority of people in America associate a church with a physical building.

Where is your church? people may ask, or Where do you go to church?  It is common today for a pastor to spend millions of dollars renovating and rebuilding his “church.”  Construction teams of Christians travel overseas to impoverished countries to build “churches.”  Planting a “church” in our day has become almost synonymous with finding or erecting a building.

We not only identify buildings as churches; we also classify churches according to the programs they offer.  This church has a creative children’s program, that church has a cool student ministry, these churches have great resources for married couples, and those churches have helpful group meetings for people who are divorced.  Churches often revolve around programs for every age and stage of life.

Association and identification of the church with buildings and programs reflects an overtly consumer-driven, customer-designed approach that we have devised for attracting people to the “church.”  In order to have an effective, successful “church,” we need an accessible building with nice grounds and convenient parking.  Once people get to the building, we need programs that are customized for people’s children, music that is attractive to people’s tastes, and sermons that are aimed at people’s needs.  When taken to the extreme, this means that when people come to “church,” they need a nice parking space, a latte waiting for them when they walk through the door, a themed preschool ministry with a custom-built slide, a state-of-the-art program that provides entertainment for teenagers, a top-notch band that plays great music, and a feel-good presentation by an excellent preacher who wraps things up in a timely fashion at the end of the morning.

But is all of this what God had in mind when he set up his church?  Better put, is any of this what God had in mind when he set up his church?  Identification of churches with buildings may seem common to us, but it’s foreign to the New Testament, where we never once see the church described as a physical building.  Similarly, the New Testament never once portrays the church as a conglomeration of customized programs.  So much of what we associate with the church today is extrabiblical at best (it adds to what God’s Word says) and unbiblical at worst (it undercuts what God’s Word says).

When you turn through the pages of the New Testament, you see a very different picture of the church.  Instead of a building, you see a body made up of members and a family made up of brothers and sisters who together have died to themselves and are living in Christ.  Christians are joined together by Jesus’s death, his Spirit, his gospel, his sufferings, and his life.  Biblically, a church does not consist of people who simply park and participate in programs alongside one another.  Instead, the church is comprised by people who share the life of Christ with each other on a day-by-day, week-by-week basis.

This is the pattern that was set between Jesus and his disciples from the beginning.  Jesus loved these twelve men, served them, taught them, encouraged them, corrected them, and journeys through life with them.  He spent more time with these twelve disciples than he did with everyone else in his ministry put together.  They walked together along lonely roads; they visited together in crowded cities; they sailed and fished together on the Sea of Galilee; they prayed together in the desert and on the mountains; and they worshiped together in the synagogues and at the Temple.  During all of this time together, Jesus taught them how to live and showed them how to love as he shared his life with them.

In the same way, the New Testament envisions followers of Jesus living alongside one another for the sake of one another.  The Bible portrays the church as a community of Christians who care for one another, love one another, host one another, receive one another, honor one another, serve one another, instruct one another, forgive one another, motivate one another, build up one another, encourage one another, comfort one another, pray for one another, confess sin to one another, esteem one another, edify one another, teach one another, show kindness to one another, give to one another, rejoice with one another, weep with one another, hurt with one another, and restore one another.

All of these “one anothers” combined together paint a picture not of people who come to a building filled with customized programs but of people who have decided to lay down their lives to love one another.  On behalf of Silas, Timothy, and himself, Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica.  We live, if you are standing fast in the Lord.  Paul, Silas, and Timothy had given their lives to see these Christians stand firm in Christ.  Similarly, he called the Philippian Christians “brothers, whom I love and long for, my joy and crown.”  The church is a community of Christians who love one another and long for each other to know and grow in Christ.

POETRY: A General Communion, by Alice Meynell

I saw the throng, so deeply separate,
Fed at one only board—
The devout people, moved, intent, elate,
And the devoted Lord.

O struck apart! not side from human side,
But soul from human soul,
As each asunder absorbed the multiplied,
The ever unparted, whole.

I saw this people as a field of flowers,
Each grown at such a price
The sum of unimaginable powers
Did no more than suffice.

A thousand single central daisies they,
A thousand of the one;
For each, the entire monopoly of day;
For each, the whole of the devoted sun.


POETRY: Disciplinary Treatises—(4) The Communion of the Body, by Scott Cairns

The Christ in his own heart is weaker
than the Christ in the word of his brother.

Scattered, petulant, argumentative,
the diverse members generally find
little, nothing of their own, to offer

one another. Like us all, the saved
need saving mostly from themselves, and so
they make progress, if at all, by dying

to what they can, acquiescing to this
new pressure, new wind, new breath that would fill
them with something better than their own

good intentions. Or schemes of community.
Or their few articulate innovations
in dogma. What the Ghost expects of them

is a purer than customary will
to speak together, a mere willingness
to hear expressed in the fragmentary

figures of one another’s speech the mute
and palpable identity they share,
scoured clear of impediment and glare,

the uncanny evidence that here
in the stillest air between them the One
we call the Ghost insinuates his care

for the unexpected word now fondling
the tongue, now falling here, incredible
confession—that they would be believers,

who startle to suspect among the scraps
of Babel’s gritty artifacts one stone,
irreducible fossil, capable

of bearing love’s unprovoked inscription
in the focus of its term.


UNITY: The Unity of the Spirit, by J. Hampton Keathley III,

From: Biblical Studies Foundation


I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, entreat you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing forbearance to one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)

These first verses of chapter four, first of all provide an environment that is crucial for the equipping of all saints that Paul will discuss below. It is not so much a program that is needed but an environment (an atmosphere). What does this mean? An environment is the some total of the social, spiritual, and relational attitudes and factors in a group that influences what the individual thinks of him or herself and what he or she does. (R. Paul Stevens, Liberating the Laity, p.26)

Sin is a disruptive force, it always divides, separates, and splinters. It divides a man within and against himself. It has produced the constant fight and struggle which we are all aware of in our own lives and in the life of the church. Consequently, the central object of salvation, in a sense, is to re-unite, to bring together again, to reconcile, to restore the unity that God created before sin and the fall produced this terrible havoc between God and man, between men, and within man himself.

So the unity that we have in Christ is part of the grand design. Thus, one of the peculiar marks of the Christian calling is to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

The Character and Nature of Unity


Unity is not a general spirit of friendliness or camaraderie. Nor is unity some common aim or series of aims.


It is the result of all that Paul has been saying in chapters 1-3. It is the product of the cross and God’s work in Christ. There can be no Christian unity unless it is based on the teaching of chapters 1-3. Since Christian unity is a result of God’s work in Christ, it is not something that we are to aim at for the sake of unity.


Spirit is capitalized. It refers to the unity provided by the Holy Spirit. It is a unity which we can never produce. We are not even asked to do so. Because this is true, the following deductions are true.


Unity is living and vital. It is not mechanical. It is not a coalition or an amalgamation. Such consist of a number of miscellaneous units coming together for a given purpose. But Christian unity, the unity of the Spirit, is a unity which starts within and works outward through organic life like we see in a flower or in the human body.

The unity of the church is organic in character. She is not a collection of parts. She is a new creation, a spiritual body created by God in Christ. The old has been done away in this body. There are no longer the distinctions of man. There is no longer Jew and Gentile.

The analogy of the human body explains the nature of this unity.

The human body is first, an organic unity. It consists of many parts: toes, fingers, hands, feet, legs, eyes, ears, etc. But it is not a collection of parts put together as in an automobile or as in a house. It begins from one cell which begins to develop and to grow and shoots off little buds that eventually make up the variegated parts. This is an organic and a living unity by creation. So is the church, spiritually speaking.

True, when a person believes in Christ, he is joined into union with Christ by Spirit baptism and becomes a member of the body, but by the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit, he is not merely an add on. He miraculously and spiritually becomes an organic part of the body of Christ.


There is diversity in unity, not a uniformity. The parts do not look alike, they do not function alike, yet, they are all important, needed, interdependent, and all work toward the same end, the purposes for which each member was designed in the function of the body as directed by the head and in accord with the creative purpose of God.

Some of the parts are covered, others are within the body and are unseen, but nevertheless, very important. Some gifts are more in the fore front, they are more obvious and others less so, but all are essential to the effective work of the body.

Practical Outworkings of Unity


All believers are the called of God. Our calling is our responsibility to respond to what we have become in Christ. Every believer has been called to be Jesus’s disciple and to serve in the body of Christ.

All are called of God. The “secret call” of the preacher or pastor does not make him more called than the carpenter.

Thematically, Ephesians 4 moves from one’s calling to unity to one’s calling to ministry (all are called to ministry = part of the one hope of your calling). Christ has given many gifts of grace for ministry (diversity) which come together in one common goal of maturity in Christ.


The unity of the Spirit is created through our union in Christ Jesus. The word “together” appears so frequently and in such innovative ways in this letter that it deserves special mention. The prefix, “with” or “together” is joined to a number of key words to express our joint life and the impossibility of life outside of this unity . This stands against the spirit of individuality so common in our country today. You know, “do your own thing, go your own way.”


Our unity is a unity or oneness that exists not in spite of diversity, but because of it. It is the wonderful differences themselves which, when properly equipped, contribute to the function of the body and out of this function, attain an even deeper unity of maturity. Only as each part does its work can the body grow.


The purpose is maturity in Christ, being conformed to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. The ultimate goal is Christ-likeness, or spiritual maturity according to the standard of Christ. This is the primary goal of the equipping and the unity desired. The more we possess his character and mind, the more we will experience the unity of the Spirit.

Equipping—A Pastoral Task

The passage before us is not actually about equipping. The subject of the passage is unity. Equipping is not a thing to be valued in itself. It is simply an instrument of God’s grand plan for his people, especially that they may be one, that they may function as the one body they have become in Christ.

Equipping is, in the final analysis, a pastoral task.

The verb form of the Greek word here, katartizo, is used in Luke 6:40 of training or instructing a disciple. There, as the context shows, it includes the idea of modeling, being an example. As the text says, “he will become like his teacher.”

The noun form of the word, “equipping,” katartismos, is used as a noun only once in the New Testament, here in Ephesians 4:12. But the word has an interesting medical history in classical Greek. To equip often meant to put a bone or a part of the human body into right relationship with the other parts of the body so that every part fits thoroughly. It means to realign a dislocated limb.”

As the context of Ephesians 4 makes clear, in equipping there is much more than simply giving people skills for teaching, evangelism, or other ministries in the local church. It is primarily concerned with character formation, with Christ-likeness.

W. E. Vine points out that the Greek verb for equipping, katartizo, “points out the path of progress.” As the word was used for fitting out ships for a long journey, the whole process of equipping implies a journey toward a distant destination. Character is not developed quickly. It requires time and lots of it. This is our destination.

Since the laity spends an enormous amount of time working inside or outside the home, their “church time” must be only a fraction of their life for God. Unless we equip the laity to live all of life for God, Christianity will degenerate into mere religion. (Liberating the Laity, p. 24). This is one of the subtle snares of the devil.

“Joints of supply.” The word comes from apto, “to touch.” It refers to “a point of contact,” or to “a joint” which provides a point of contact between limbs and members of the body as well as a means of banding together and thus, unity. In the light of its medical usage in ancient times regarding joints and ligaments, Paul’s usage in Colossians 2:19, and its use here and in Colossians 2:19 with the word “supply,” seems to point to two ideas:

(1) The point of contact and union: This point of contact with members of the body of Christ provides the means of supply from the rest of the body as it receives directions from the brain, and blood and oxygen for its growth and health. There is also the element of the mutual sympathy and influence of the parts in contact = the communication of life and energy.

(2) The point of order and unity. Order and unity are the conditions of growth on which the Apostle is insisting.

Every believer is a joint of supply, a point of contact, and a source of supply through the head, Christ.

The root meaning of the word suggests “touch” or “contact.” “Paul is saying that every member in his or her contact with other members supplies something the body needs.” Barth translates this verse: He [Christ] provides sustenance to it through every contact.”  This would suggest that the local church should be structured to provide an environment rich in relationships of ministry with each person contributing to the body.

Paul indicates that the body is constantly supplied with energy and nourishment by the head, and is held together as a unity by that head alone.  The emphasis is on the vital cohesion and union of the parts with each other, in Colossians 2:19 it focuses on the continuous dependence on the head.


BODY OF CHRIST: Nothing Will Be Wasted, by Francis de Sales Wagner

From Grace in the Wilderness

When they were satisfied, Jesus told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.” (John 6:12)

We waste an awful lot.  Food, time, energy, water, money.  The list goes on.  Ours is a disposable society.  Everything is important, but nothing matters much.

We waste words.  Many speak.  Few say anything.  No wonder so few listen.

We waste opportunities.  They fly by every second of our lives.  Every once in a while, we grab one and make the most of it.  Most pass by unnoticed, never to return.

We waste knowledge, emotions, actions.

We waste joy, sadness, courage, fear, conviction, uncertainty, pleasure, pain.

We waste people.  If we’re honest, we’ll admit we often pay attention only to those whom we like, and who like us.

We waste death.  Life is cheap.

We waste the grandeur of mystery, the glorious gifts that drench us from above each and every moment we spend on this Earth.  The Kingdom of Heaven is budding all around us, but we see dimly.

More than anything, we waste love.  God’s love.  Love of ourselves.  The love of others.

But all is not lost.  Not even close.

At the beginning of the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel Jesus feeds 5,000 people.  All they had were five barley loaves (the food of the poor) and two fish.  It wasn’t much.  In fact, it wasn’t anything at all.  They needed food, but had too little.  Jesus fed them all.  They had their fill and were satisfied.

Often overlooked, though, is this passage: When they were satisfied, Jesus told his disciples, “Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing may be lost.”  Some translations present the last phrase as: “so that nothing will be wasted.”  Either way, it’s an important sentence.  Why do you think Jesus cared about all the leftovers?  Why did the writer of the gospel feel it necessary to report this?  As the end of John says, Jesus did many other things that were never recorded.  This one was.

Much more than a meal is going on here.  Jesus is providing more than food for the hungry.  These acts – this mystery – signifies something else, something much greater.

God provides for those who need, for those who have nothing (which is really each one of us, in one respect or another).  God gives us himself.  Jesus gathers us, feeds us, and fills us with bread from Heaven.  The Body of Christ then becomes what it receives.  We are what we eat, as the saying goes.

Then, when we are filled, Jesus instructs us as his Body: Gather up the fragments left over, so that nothing will be wasted – fragments, scraps, crumbs, crusts, tidbits, particles.

Garbage, waste, trash is what we usually call them.

But nothing will be lost, nothing wasted, Jesus says.  Nothing.

At Mass, after all have received Communion, the priest, deacon, and/or Extraordinary Ministers of Holy Communion consume whatever remains – they don’t throw it out.  Nothing is wasted.

I am the living bread that came down from Heaven.  Whoever eats me will live because of me, Jesus says.  We are fed by the very life of Jesus, and our lives as Christ are commissioned to feed the lives of others, to gather all the fragments, so that none will be lost.

Nothing will be wasted.  No matter our need, nor how little we seem to have.

Not food, time, energy, water, nor money.

Nor words.

Not opportunities.

Not knowledge, emotions, nor actions.

Not joy, sadness, courage, fear, conviction, uncertainty, pleasure, nor pain.

Not people.  Those we like, nor don’t like.  Those who like us, and those who don’t.

Not even death will be wasted.  The resurrected Christ in us gathers all the barley loaves of the poor, all the fragments and crumbs, whatever seems small and useless, and makes us one.

Nothing that we have, do, or are is wasted.  Everything belongs.  It all matters – this grandeur of mystery, this glorious gift that drenches us from above each and every moment.  We may still see dimly, but the Kingdom of Heaven buds all around us – especially in all the leftovers.

God’s love is not wasted.  Not one crumb, no matter how crusty.  Taste and see.


UNITY: Building The Church’s Unity, by R. Kent Hughes

From: Ephesians: The Mystery of the Body of Christ

I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. (Ephesians 4:1-6)

The opening sentence of chapter 4, where Paul says, As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received, marks the turning point in the book of Ephesians.  The message moves from theology to practicality.  This is typical of Paul’s writing.  You can observe the same change in Romans 12:1 and Colossians 3:5.

This shift can be expressed in many ways: from doctrine to duty, from creed to conduct; from the Christian’s wealth to his wait; from exposition to exhortation; from the indicative to the imperative; from high society to a high life.  Because of the amazing theological realities of chapters 1 through 3, Paul urges the Ephesians (and us) to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 

The Greek word translated “worthy” is axios, which has the root idea of weight.  This is the word from which we derive our English word axiom, which means, “to be of equal weight.”  In an equation the axiom indicates doing something to each side of the equation so it remains true.  Paul is saying we should try to live lives equal to the great blessings described in chapters 1 through 3.  We are to be like the man who said, Christ has done so much for me, the rest of my life is a P.S. to his great work! 

How are we to walk worthy?  That should be our natural response.  And the remainder of the book answers this.  But the immediate charge in chapter 4 contains two ways of doing this: first by walking in unity, and then by walking in purity.  We will now take up the theme of unity, which we will explore in two studies.  The present meditation divides under three headings: 1) The Character Which Brings Christian Unity, 2) The Divine Origin of Christian Unity, and 3) The Charge to Build Christian Unity. 

This subject has a special poignancy today in a world which has so failed in its attempts at unity and is so alienated.  I was in my teens during the fifties when ecumenism was the big thing with the mainline denominations.  But it all came to naught because it was based on an “eviscerated, spineless” theology instead of a “vertebrate system of Christian belief.”  Today the World Council of Churches is little more than a “mouse that roared.”  I was in my twenties in the sixties, and I remember visiting Haight Ashbury in San Francisco and being handed flowers and underground newspapers proclaiming a new day of peace.  The bright colors were colors of optimism, the communes wishful microcosms of the new order.  But today all that is left are some middle-aged anachronisms – cultural dinosaurs.  We live in a cold, fragmented world.

Recently an UPI story told of a wheelchair-bound man who was ticketed for setting fire to his armchair.  I set the chair on fire because I’m here by myself, said John J. Davies, fifty-eight.  I was afraid, but I didn’t care.  I wanted to get attention.  I set the fire so someone would get me out of here.  Arson investigators said Davies was ticketed for misdemeanor arson to discourage him from doing it again.  Maybe he’ll realize it’s something serious, Fire Captain Joseph Napravnik said.  Actually John Davies already thought it was serious.  Alienation and neglect are like death.

I recently spoke to a young man who is so starved for attention that he has his hair cut once a week just to be touched by another human hand in a nonthreatening manner.  Life for so many in this world is like an elevator ride – everyone facing forward, no eye contact, no conversation or interaction – and then everyone rushes off to their faceless endeavors.  The world is looking for a new humanity, a third race, which is not only walking in unity, but has open, inviting arms and hearts.


The unity which Paul urges upon us begins with character: Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  

The people who bring unity are first of all “humble and gentle.”  Humility was despised in the ancient Greco-Roman world as a slave-like quality.  What was admired was the mega-souled or “great-souled” man who was complete and self-sufficient.  Ernest Hemingway, as he portrayed himself in his prime, would be a good example – brimming with male élan, in control, self-assured, needing nothing.  The proud white hunter in The Snows of Kilimanjaro to whom his adventurer mistress said, You’re the most complete man I’ve ever known – that is the man the Greeks would have applauded.

But here Paul extols humility and couples it with the tandem characteristic of “gentle[ness]” (or meekness, as it is more often translated).  This meekness/gentleness is not weakness.  It is rather strength under control.  There is nothing spineless or timid about it.  Jesus described himself with both words, saying I am gentle [meek] and humble in heart, (Matthew 11:29).  We see his steel-like meekness in two ways.  First, in respect to himself – his power not to practice retaliation, his ability to forgive.  And second, in his fierce defense of others or of the truth.  I like John Wycliffe’s translation – mild. 

Pride and self-promoting arrogance sow disunity, but a humble, gentle man or woman is like a caressing breeze.  Charles Simeon, the great preacher of Kings’ College and Holy Trinity Cambridge, was like this.  Hugh Evan Hopkins, his biographer, tells us:

When in 1808 Simeon’s health broke down and he had to spend some eight months recuperating on the Isle of Wight, it fell to Thomason to step into the gap and preach as many as five times on a Sunday in Trinity Church and Stapleford.  He surprised himself and everyone else by developing a preaching ability almost equal to his vicar’s at which Simeon, totally free from any suggestions of professional jealousy, greatly rejoiced.  He quoted the scripture, “He must increase; but I must decrease,” and told a friend, “Now I see why I have been laid aside.  I bless God for it.”

Those who walk in unity are not only humble and gentle but, as the second couplet says, patient bearing with one another in love.  J. Dwight Pentecost tells of a church split that was so serious each side filed a lawsuit to dispossess the others from the church, completely disregarding the Biblical injunction not to go to court against fellow believers.  The civil courts threw it out, but eventually it came to a church court, where it belonged.  The higher judiciary of the church made its decision and awarded the church property to one of the two factions.  The losers withdrew and formed another church in the area.  In the course of the proceedings the church courts found that the conflict had begun at a church dinner when an elder received a smaller slice of ham than a child seated next to him.  The root of the impasse was an absence of patience and forbearing love – not to mention humility and gentleness!

We are to “be patient,” not short-tempered, literally long-tempered.  The twin quality of “bearing with one another in love” means far more than tolerating each other – love is to oil our relationships.  The Apostle Peter, who began as a proud, rough, impatient man, says in his first letter: Have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply, from the heart.  Show proper respect to everyone: love the brotherhood of believers.  Finally, all of you, live in harmony with one another, be sympathetic, love as brothers, be compassionate and humble.  Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins. 

The truth which radiates from verse 2 is that Christian unity doesn’t begin with an external structure, but rather in the attitudes of the heart – humility and mildness and patience and loving tolerance of one another.  “The unity of the Spirit” takes people who are so different and makes them live in soul-satisfying unity.  What diversity there is in the average church!  Think of all the body types (somatypes): tall, short, round, thin, muscular, unathletic.  Then imagine all the mental types (psychetypes): nervous, calm, mathematical, unmathematical, artistic, musical, other-than-musical, etc., etc.  There are huge differences among us!  But when the spiritual fruits of humility and patience reign, there is unity.  Christian unity in profound diversity brings great glory to God!


In verses 4–6 Paul celebrates the origin of our unity: There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.  Many New Testament scholars believe this was an early Christian confessional hymn, and it may well have been.  The important thing to see is that it teaches us that our unity is rooted in the Holy Trinity (“Spirit,” v.4; “Lord,” v.5; “God,” v.6).  Each of the seven great unities in verses 4–6 is connected with one of the Persons of the Trinity.

First, we see the Person of the Holy Spirit and his work in bringing unity – “There is one body and one Spirit.”  The Holy Spirit created the Body of Christ, of which we are members.  For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.  (1 Corinthians 12:13).  The Holy Spirit creates, fills, coordinates, orchestrates, and empowers the Body of Christ.  This accounts for the delightful serendipities we all experience when meeting other believers so different from us – a brief soul-fellowship with a taxi driver on the way to the airport in Washington, D.C. – the same experience in a jeepney in Manila – an exchange of heart in a village in Switzerland – another on the streets of Cambridge.

Second, there is the Person of Christ and his work in ministering unity – “just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism.”  There is no doubt that the “one Lord” here is Jesus.  First Corinthians 8:6 says, There is but one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom all things came and through whom we live.  As our “one Lord” he creates “one faith” because he is the object and focus of our belief.  Because of our “one faith” we all have participated in “one baptism” – “into the name of the Lord Jesus.”  The question of water or Spirit baptism is not in view here.

Rather, the passage is presenting one shared baptism.  Sharing “one Lord” and “one faith” and “one baptism” brings “one hope,” which is, first, the return of Christ – “…while we wait for the blessed hope – the glorious appearing of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ” (Titus 2:13).  Second, this is the hope of sharing glory with him.

Lastly, there is the Person of the Father and his work in unity – “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.”  Again we have the great Ephesian emphasis on our shared paternity.  My younger brother Steve and I could hardly be more different.  He is a sky diver, motorcycle racer, mechanic, home builder, custom car builder, cabinetmaker, carpet layer, barber, and professional salmon fishing guide.  I have spent my life in the ministry and with books.  But despite our great differences we have the same father, we are brothers, and we have a deep, undying love for each other.  We are, after all is said and done, family. 

And so it is with those of us who are brothers and sisters in Christ.  After all is said and done, we have the same Father – we are family.  Our unity comes from seven grand unities all rooted in the Holy Trinity: one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all. 

What are the implications of our unity being rooted in the Holy Trinity?  Simply this: our unity is eternal and unbreakable.  The unity of the church is as indestructible as the unity of God himself.  It is no more possible to split the church than it is possible to split the Godhead.  You and I will never be separated!  Our unity is more solid than the Himalayas and more enduring than Venus or Mars.

The obvious question is, If this is so, why are there outward divisions in the church?  Some Christian fellowships will not even speak to each other.  How can this be?


To begin with, we should note that Paul recognizes this problem in verse 3 by commanding us to Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  “Make every effort” comes from a root word which means to make haste, and thus gives the idea of zealous effort and diligence.  Do your utmost to keep the unity of the Spirit – this is urgent! 

This has tremendous significance for the local church.  There is no room for rivalries or hatreds or factions.  This is a call to focus on our Triune God, the root of our unity.  The Apostle John makes a monumental statement in this respect: We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.  And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3)  This verse informs us that the closer we draw to God, the closer we will be to each other.  If we would truly live this principle, not just give a superficial nod to it, there would indeed be unity.

Suppose for a moment that by a miracle we could bring some of the great Christians of the centuries together under one roof.  From the fourth century there would come the great intellect Augustine of Hippo; from the tenth century, Bernard of Clairvaux; from the sixteenth, the peerless reformer, John Calvin.  From the eighteenth century would come John Wesley, the great Methodist advocate of free will, and along with him George Whitefield, the great evangelist.  From the nineteenth century comes the Baptists C. H. Spurgeon and D. L. Moody.  And finally from the twentieth century, Billy Graham.  If we gathered all these men under one steeple we would be unable to get a unanimous vote on many matters.  But underneath it all would be unity.  And the more these men lifted up Christ and focused on him, the greater their unity would be.

The other thing suggested by the command in verse 3 (Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace) is to be peacemakers.  To being with, a peacemaker is characterized by honesty.  The prophet Ezekiel warned against those who act as if everything is all right when it is not, who say “Peace,” when there is no peace.  Such individuals, according to Ezekiel, are merely plastering over cracked walls, and when the rain comes, the walls fall.  Jeremiah, using some of the same phrasing, put it memorably: They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious.  “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace.  The peacemaker is painfully honest about the absence of peace in the world, in the society in which he moves, and in his own personal relationships.  He admits when he is at odds with others.  He does not pretend that things are OK when they are not.

How this speaks to our condition.  All of us tend to putty over the cracks.  (I think this is particularly a male tendency.)  Even in our most intimate relationships, we tend to act as if everything is fine when it is not.  But our avoidance heals the wound only slightly and prepares the way for greater trouble.  May God help us to be honest, for the stakes are high.

Next, a peacemaker is willing to risk pain.  Anytime one attempts to bring peace societally or personally, he risks misunderstanding and failure.  If we have been wrong, there is the pain of apologizing.  Or we may have to endure the equally difficult pain of rebuking another.  It is so much easier to let things slide, but that is not the way of the peacemaker.

These two qualities of the peacemaker (honesty about the true status of peace and willingness to risk pain in pursuing it) beautifully anticipate the next quality, which is a paradox: the peacemaker is a fighter.  The peacemaker makes trouble to make peace.  The scriptures enjoin the aggressive pursuit of peace, telling us to “make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” (Romans 14:19)  If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone. (Romans 12:18)

Though the peacemaker is a fighter, he is not to be thoughtless or pugnacious.  Rather, his character and personality are to be permeated with the shalom of God.  He is gentle.  James wrote, But the wisdom that comes from Heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving, considerate, submissive, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial and sincere.  Peacemakers who sow in peace raise a harvest of righteousness.  The peacemaker is tolerant in the best sense of the word.  He realizes we are all of fallen stock and so does not demand perfection of others.  He is humble.  And most of all, he is loving.

How beautiful true peacemakers are.  Filled with peace themselves, they are honest about the state of the relationships around them.  They are honest about what is in their own hearts and sensitive to where others are.  They refuse to say, “peace, peace,” when there is none.  They are willing to risk pain and misunderstanding to make things right.  Peacemakers will even fight for peace.  Are we like this?

There are lonely, alienated people all around us who long for a new humanity where there is peace and love and acceptance.  And if they see the church living out its indestructible unity with humility and gentleness and patience and forbearing love, they will be drawn to it.  Jesus prayed, May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.  I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me.  May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me. (John 17:21-23) If the church reaches out to the people of the world, those people will come and find the unity they need.  We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us.  And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ. (1 John 1:3)

Are we walking in unity?  If not, or if we wish to enhance it, we must do four things:

First, we must reflect on our unity, deeply rooted in the Holy Trinity, and its sevenfold basis.  Our unity with fellow believers is indestructible.

Second, as an extension of this, we ought to focus on Christ.  We should often read 1 John 1:3, 4 – or even better, memorize it.  We must honestly confess our lack of focus and then spend several minutes each day focusing on him.  In prayer, we can ask him to help us maintain his unity.

Third, we need to consciously ask the Holy Spirit to help us cultivate a character which builds unity – a character of humility, gentleness, patience, and loving forbearance.

Fourth, we must be peacemakers: Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit though the bond of peace.  We must admit the absence of peace when there is none.  We need to confess our culpability if there is any.  We must take the steps which make for peace.


PRAYER: Praying Ephesians 4:1-16, by Becky Pliego

From Daily On My Way

I, therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you to walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.

But to each one of us grace was given according to the measure of Christ’s gift. Therefore he says: “When he ascended on high, he led captivity captive, and gave gifts to men.”

(Now this, “He ascended”—what does it mean but that he also first descended into the lower parts of the Earth? He who descended is also the one who ascended far above all the heavens, that he might fill all things.)

And he himself gave some to be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ; that we should no longer be children, tossed to and fro and carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the trickery of men, in the cunning craftiness of deceitful plotting, but, speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into him who is the head—Christ—from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love. (Ephesians 4:1-16)

Father, thank you for your Word which is perfect and pure, and which teaches us how to walk as Christians in this fallen world. Father, I ask you to forgive me because many times I have not walked in a manner worthy of the calling to which I have been called with all humility and gentleness, with patience.

Oh Lord, help me, through the grace that saved me and sustains me, to walk every day with all humility. Forgive the many times I have looked down on someone; forgive when I let pride and self-righteousness have dominion over me. Forgive me when I walk haughtily, with a heart blind with arrogance. Give me a humble heart, a teachable heart, the heart of a servant.

Forgive me when I don’t walk or speak with all gentleness. Forgive me for my harsh attitudes, for my rudeness. Work in me, oh Lord, and create in me a humble and gentle heart. Let my words be sweet to you and to those around me.

Father, forgive me when I lose my patience, when I want things to be done promptly and my way. Lord, help me! That I may not see my loss of patience as something that is not grievous to you. Help me to see how it shows the condition of my heart that doesn’t want to wait for your perfect time. Father, help me to wait in silence knowing that my hope is in you. Help me to trust in you at all times knowing that you are sovereign over the time-frame in which we live.

Lord, teach me to bear the burdens of my brothers and sisters in love, help me to persevere in prayer for them, to intercede, to remember with a compassionate and grateful heart those who are going through trials. Help me to reach toward them in love to help them with their burdens. Help us, Lord! Forgive me, O Lord, when I have turned and have decided not to bear with my brothers in Christ with love. Give me a heart that reaches in prayer and hands that reach to serve promptly and with a joyful heart.

Father, give me the grace to eagerly seek to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Or to not forget that there is one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God, and Father of all. Help me to not forget that you alone are over all, and through all and in all. Help me, please, oh Lord. Help me to be eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace without compromising the truth as revealed in the scriptures. Lord, help me, because this is so hard to do in this era in which many voices are raised and a dense cloud of confusion makes it hard for us to discern how to do this. I need you, Lord. I need you, so much!

Father, thank you for the grace that you have bestowed upon each one of your children. Thank you for the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds, the teachers, all given in time to equip us for the work of the ministry, to build up the body of Christ until we all – each one of us – attain the unity of the faith and come to the full knowledge of your son, Jesus Christ. Father, thank you because in the Word, in the prophets, and the writings of the apostles, through the exposition of your Word, we can grow in grace into mature manhood to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.

Graceful Father, help me to hold fast to the truth, to the words that have been revealed in the scriptures, deliver me – deliver us – from an apathy towards your Word, which will restrain us from growing in grace. Help me, Lord, to hold fast to your Word in a time in which deception keeps knocking at our door disguised as piety and is adorned with seductive words. Help me – help us – so that we may not be like children tossed to and fro by the waves and carried away by every new wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes that seems so inviting.

Oh, God, help us, help me! That I may dare to speak the truth in love for the sake of building and not tearing down. Help us – help me – to hold fast to your word, to the unchangeable truth in a time in which people, even in the church,  are trying to redefine what your word clearly teaches. Lord, it would be so easy to fall into deception, help me!

Father, this Lord’s Day I intercede for your church. Help us grow joined and held together by your truth. Help us, work properly and function as one body. Make us grow in all submission to our head which is Christ Jesus, and help us build ourselves in love to bring glory to your name.

In Jesus’s name, our Lord and Savior,



SPIRITUAL WARFARE: Critical Conditions

I had the grace a few weeks ago of being introduced to an agency that works to save slaves around the world.  That’s not the only work that this agency does.  They help women whose families try to seize their land after the death of their husbands.  They stop sex traffickers.

And after they save the people from violence, they provide them with safe houses where they can heal from all their wounds.

So faced with being asked to pray for the International Justice Mission, I looked at my schedule, scratched my head, and wondered where I would “fit” them in.  And I saw that I could rearrange my noon prayers to make room.  Normally, I would read the noonday prayers, supplemented with a little “outside” reading, and then pray, generally, while listening to the Chaplet of the Divine Mercy being sung.  I got to sing along.  Which I liked.

I realized that I could upgrade the chaplet, drop my participation, and pray specifically for the intentions of IJM.  Each time the prayer on the “small beads” was sung (For the sake of his sorrowful Passion, have mercy on us and on the whole world), I could offer up the specific prayer for that day.

I found the discipline very moving.

Until one day.  I had a vision as I was praying.  And it was so powerful, it felt like an anvil had fallen on me.  I was stunned, in so many ways.  What seemed like an ordinary petition turned into an ocean of sorrow and pain.  But in the vision, I “worked” with what I saw.  Encouraging the people in the country I was praying for to come together to rid themselves of the evil they were facing.

And then the vision got really weird.

Which, for me, is saying a lot.

This experience resulted in me feeling a bit skittish about this assignment, and I worked to keep the prayers as just prayers being said to the music of the chaplet.

No Visions.

As though I have any control.

I settled in, though, and did my best to stay balanced during what had now become a rather regular spectacular noon prayers.  Once the quiet time of the day, simple prayers, asking God for mercy for us all, now there was real work going on.

Then I noticed that on a very regular basis, I was praying for children who had been sexually abused.  In different countries.  Belize.  Dominican Republic.  Uganda.  The United States.

All around the world.

And then came The Big Vision.  But this time I was prepared.  I was not surprised it was there before me.

Ordinarily, on the days that I prayed for child sexual abuse, I would find myself standing before God with little hands in mine, a child on my shoulder, crowds of them gathered around my feet, and I would petition God for mercy on them and their families, and for solace and healing to saturate their souls.

One day, I asked, what is there that I can do for them?

And the question, while not completely answered, was clarified for me.

The problem was set out before me.

A bit of explanation:

When we are formed, before our birth, God endows our souls with his divinity.  It’s like a treasure, sealed into us before we are given to our parents.

God is sending us supplies of divinity to use in the world with the birth of every child.  They are little packages of God’s love for us.

This is why we never even consider disturbing even a hair of a preborn child.

Got it?


It’s why we can never get enough of touching a baby.  Watching him coo.  Not wanting to let go when she falls asleep.

We feel that divine treasure that the baby holds.

Any kind of sexual assault is a theft of that divine energy.  When a person goes after a child sexually, he is like a thief in the Louvre: going after the best that there is.

In my vision of asking to understand the situation, I saw a conveyor belt.  On it were little children.  And they were going off to feed evil.

On their way.

And I realized that we don’t see it that way.

We think the individual acts of rape are evil.  Or the individual who committed the rape is evil.

But we don’t understand that all these assaults are just the gathering up of “supplies” for Evil.

That Evil is out there working like a team of busy ants: grabbing a crumb of divine soul energy here, and there, and everywhere.

And feeding it into The Evil.

Organized.  Coordinated.  Functioning.

I remember, not that long ago, coming into the knowledge that our conditions are worsening because Evil had figured out a way to join together.  Good had always had the edge on Evil because we could really join together.  No matter who we were, we could join our prayers together, and it was a very effective blocking agent.

But there was a shift in the universe not that long ago.  Evil became organized.  Instead of disjointed attempts, now we were facing an operating unit.

And today little children, still with intact soul divinity, are being used as the fuel for its furnace.

Off they go on the conveyor belt.  Only to be left as empty shells that are left for us to pray over.


Discarded refuse.

This is very serious.

And this passion to kill preborns: it’s like going out and purposefully sinking the ships in the harbor that are bringing us what we need to survive.

And almost the whole world is in the grips of admiring abortion’s efficiency to help a woman realize her selfhood.

Her very, very special selfhood.

Children no longer are just being devalued, they are literal sacrifices to whatever evil gods these people are serving.

Because God isn’t just sending us children so that the children can play with their divine energy.  God is sending us all this energy, with children being the mode of delivery.

It’s all our energy that is being stolen, basically.

So what can we do?

We can mobilize intercessory prayer groups, for one thing.

And begin to take the situation we are in very, very seriously.

We need to stand up, as much as we can, against the cultural trends to destroy the family.  Eradicate the importance of the Mother.  Ravage the children.

It is not something we can afford to shrug our shoulders at.  Pretend there are other, more important, things we can do with our lives.

We need to understand that our coming together and standing up to this harvesting of our children’s soul energy is critical.

And growing increasingly critical every day.

Evil gets away with a lot because so many of us don’t want to acknowledge that it is real.  That it walks amongst us.

That it lives in the house next door to us.

As Christians we want to focus more on forgiveness and tolerance and love.

But in life, here on Earth, there is more in the world than that.

The Bible is very clear about this.

About the upcoming battle.

That we need to start fighting now.



POETRY: October, by Louise Glück


Is it winter again, is it cold again,
didn’t Frank just slip on the ice,
didn’t he heal, weren’t the spring seeds planted

didn’t the night end,
didn’t the melting ice
flood the narrow gutters

wasn’t my body
rescued, wasn’t it safe

didn’t the scar form, invisible
above the injury

terror and cold,
didn’t they just end, wasn’t the back garden
harrowed and planted–

I remember how the earth felt, red and dense,
in stiff rows, weren’t the seeds planted,
didn’t vines climb the south wall

I can’t hear your voice
for the wind’s cries, whistling over the bare ground

I no longer care
what sound it makes

when was I silenced, when did it first seem
pointless to describe that sound

what it sounds like can’t change what it is—

didn’t the night end, wasn’t the earth
safe when it was planted

didn’t we plant the seeds,
weren’t we necessary to the earth,

the vines, were they harvested?


Summer after summer has ended,
balm after violence:
it does me no good
to be good to me now;
violence has changed me.

Daybreak. The low hills shine
ochre and fire, even the fields shine.
I know what I see; sun that could be
the August sun, returning
everything that was taken away—

You hear this voice? This is my mind’s voice;
you can’t touch my body now.
It has changed once, it has hardened,
don’t ask it to respond again.

A day like a day in summer.
Exceptionally still. The long shadows of the maples
nearly mauve on the gravel paths.
And in the evening, warmth. Night like a night in summer.

It does me no good; violence has changed me.
My body has grown cold like the stripped fields;
now there is only my mind, cautious and wary,
with the sense it is being tested.

Once more, the sun rises as it rose in summer;
bounty, balm after violence.
Balm after the leaves have changed, after the fields
have been harvested and turned.

Tell me this is the future,
I won’t believe you.
Tell me I’m living,
I won’t believe you.


Snow had fallen. I remember
music from an open window.

Come to me, said the world.
This is not to say
it spoke in exact sentences
but that I perceived beauty in this manner.

Sunrise. A film of moisture
on each living thing. Pools of cold light
formed in the gutters.

I stood
at the doorway,
ridiculous as it now seems.

What others found in art,
I found in nature. What others found
in human love, I found in nature.
Very simple. But there was no voice there.

Winter was over. In the thawed dirt,
bits of green were showing.

Come to me, said the world. I was standing
in my wool coat at a kind of bright portal —
I can finally say
long ago; it gives me considerable pleasure. Beauty
the healer, the teacher —

death cannot harm me
more than you have harmed me,
my beloved life.


The light has changed;
middle C is tuned darker now.
And the songs of morning sound over-rehearsed. —

This is the light of autumn, not the light of spring.
The light of autumn: you will not be spared.

The songs have changed; the unspeakable
has entered them.

This is the light of autumn, not the light that says
I am reborn.

Not the spring dawn: I strained, I suffered, I was delivered.
This is the present, an allegory of waste.

So much has changed. And still, you are fortunate:
the ideal burns in you like a fever.
Or not like a fever, like a second heart.

The songs have changed, but really they are still quite beautiful.
They have been concentrated in a smaller space, the space of the mind.
They are dark, now, with desolation and anguish.

And yet the notes recur. They hover oddly
in anticipation of silence.
The ear gets used to them.
The eye gets used to disappearances.

You will not be spared, nor will what you love be spared.

A wind has come and gone, taking apart the mind;
it has left in its wake a strange lucidity.

How priviledged you are, to be passionately
clinging to what you love;
the forfeit of hope has not destroyed you.

Maestro, doloroso:

This is the light of autumn; it has turned on us.
Surely it is a privilege to approach the end
still believing in something.


It is true that there is not enough beauty in the world.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.

I am
at work, though I am silent.

The bland

misery of the world
bounds us on either side, an alley

lined with trees; we are

companions here, not speaking,
each with his own thoughts;

behind the trees, iron
gates of the private houses,
the shuttered rooms

somehow deserted, abandoned,

as though it were the artist’s
duty to create
hope, but out of what? what?

the word itself
false, a device to refute
perception — At the intersection,

ornamental lights of the season.

I was young here. Riding
the subway with my small book
as though to defend myself against

the same world:

you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.


The brightness of the day becomes
the brightness of the night;
the fire becomes the mirror.

My friend the earth is bitter; I think
sunlight has failed her.
Bitter or weary, it is hard to say.

Between herself and the sun,
something has ended.
She wants, now, to be left alone;
I think we must give up
turning to her for affirmation.

Above the fields,
above the roofs of the village houses,
the brilliance that made all life possible
becomes the cold stars.

Lie still and watch:
they give nothing but ask nothing.

From within the earth’s
bitter disgrace, coldness and barrenness

my friend the moon rises:
she is beautiful tonight, but when is she not beautiful?


HUMANITY: Saint Cookies, by Nadia Bolz-Weber

From Accidental Saints: Finding God in All the Wrong People

Early in the life of House for All Sinners and Saints, we began a tradition of making “saint cookies” on All Saint’s Sunday.

I had scoured the internet for old or weird practices we could borrow, and I am certain I read something that described how, in Finland or someplace like that, people make saint cookies, little gingerbread men and women who get handed out as part of the All Saints’ Sunday celebration.  I swear that’s what I remember.

So when we were baking up our church from scratch, a few folks gathered in my kitchen to bake up some gingerbread men and women from scratch, thinking it was a thing.

At one point, I realized that what our little brown saint cookies really needed were halos, obviously, so we painted shiny yellow gaze around the top of each round-headed gingerbread man and woman (which made them look not so much holy as blond).

How about these? Victoria asked when she arrived, holding up two extra-large cookie cutters.  She’s always been slightly mischievous for a social worker.  I think it’s the red hair.  The cookies for my saints need to be special, she offered.  Before the evening was over, Victoria was proudly showing off two special saint cookies that stood inches above their fellows.  One, a woman, had flames of red and yellow licking her skirt, accompanied by big eyes and an open mouth that looked borrowed from Mr. Bill.

Um, Joan of Arc? I guess correctly.  Next to Joan was a fellow saint, but this one looked like he was wearing a belted one-shoulder caveman outfit and he was missing his head.  Martyred Fred Flintstone? I guess incorrectly.

John the Baptist, she said proudly.  Of course.  Victoria volunteered to bring the basket of completed saint cookies to hand out after liturgy the next day.  Not surprisingly, they proved to be a great way to bring some levity to what was to be an otherwise heavy liturgy.

What we now know is that saint cookies are not a tradition anywhere but House for All Sinners and Saints – at least nowhere I could find when I went back to the internet later.  Apparently, I just dreamed that shit up.

Victoria’s basket of saint cookies sat on the edge of a long series of draped white tables that lined the wall.  Each table was dotted with candles, marigolds, and various remembrances of the dead: The worn soft denim overalls of someone’s granddaddy who was a farmer.  An icon of Mary Magdalene.  An icon of Cesar Chavez.  A photo of a group of friends from the ’80s.  A child’s blanket.  A shrine that my parishioner Amy Clifford had made for Vincent van Gogh – a small painted box that stood on end, his self-portrait glued to the inside, and ears, one of which was missing a piece, glued to the sides.

Apart from those who have fallen in combat, Americans tend to forget our ancestors, and we spend as little time as possible publicly mourning them.  But in the church, we do the very odd thing of proclaiming that the dead are still a part of us, a part of our lives, and are even an animating presence in the church.  Saint Paul describes the saints as “a great cloud of witnesses,” so when they have passed, we still hold them up, hoping perhaps that their virtues – their ability to have faith in God in the face of an oppressive empire or a failing crop or the blight of cancer – might become our own virtue, our own strength.

As I surveyed the basket of saint cookies sitting next to the lovingly arranged photos, shrines, and names simply written on index cards, I was thinking how amazing it is that there’s a holy day when we honor those who have gone before.  And then I saw her name.  I winced, even though I was the one who had hesitantly written it: Alma White.

A couple of months earlier, I had been walking down Sherman Street in Denver with my parishioner Amy Clifford, an artsy, thoughtful, passionate woman who had been by my side, helping to build our church.  On our walk that day, we noticed a sizable memorial of sorts in the courtyard of a large, weird-looking church across the street from the Colorado capitol building.

The roof of the Pillar of Fire Church is crowned with the enormous pink call letters KPOF that light up at night, making it look like what it is: a Pentecostal church that doubles as a radio station.

We squinted to read the inscription on the memorial: “Alma White, founder of the Pillar of Fire Church, 1901.”  Turning to Amy I said, “Alma?  That’s a woman’s name, isn’t it?  Did a woman plant a church in Denver in 1901?”

I didn’t know of many women who had set out to start churches all by themselves, much less at the turn of the twentieth century, so, desperate as I was for someone I could place in the category “hero” and “role model” (since I, too, was setting out to be a female pastor of a new church in Denver), I pulled out my phone and Googled Alma White.  My excitement about discovering a hero only built as I read her Wikipedia entry: Alma Bridwell White (June 16, 1862–June 26, 1946) was the founder and a bishop of the Pillar of Fire Church.  [Oh my gosh.  It’s true!]  I went on to read that in 1918, she became the first female bishop in the United States.  She was noted for her feminism [Yes!] and her association with [wait for it…] the Ku Klux Klan, her anti-Catholicism, anti-semitism, anti-Pentecostalism, racism, and hostility to immigrants. [Fuck.]

The next day I called my Episcopal friend Sara to tell her the story of how I thought I had a hero only to find out she was just a lousy racist.  Sara’s response?  Email me her name.  I’ll add her to the Litany of Saints along with all the other broken people of God.

I didn’t want Alma White’s name on the Litany of Saints.  Having her name lying on the table, illuminated by the nearby paschal candle, alongside the names of Saint Francis and Cesar Chavez, felt wrong.  I want racists to stay in the “racist” box.  When they start sneaking into the “saint” box, it makes me nervous.  But that’s how it works.  On All Saints’ Sunday, I am faced with sticky ambiguities around saints who were bad and sinners who were good.

Personally, I think knowing the difference between a racist and a saint is kind of important.  But when Jesus again and again says things like the last shall be first, and the first shall be last, and the poor are blessed, and the rich are cursed, and that prostitutes make great dinner guests, it makes me wonder if our need for pure black-and-white categories is not true religion but maybe actually a sin.  Knowing what category to place hemlock in might help us know whether it’s safe to drink, but knowing what category to place ourselves and others in does not help us know God in the way that the church so often has tried to convince us it does.

And anyway, it has been my experience that what makes us the saints of God is not our ability to be saintly but rather God’s ability to work through sinners.  The title “saint” is always conferred, never earned.  Or as the good Saint Paul puts it, For it is God who is at work in you, enabling you both to will and to work for his good pleasure.  I have come to realize that all the saints I’ve known have been accidental ones – people who inadvertently stumbled into redemption like they were looking for something else at the time, people who have just a wee bit of a drinking problem and manage to get sober and help others to do the same, people who are as kind as they are hostile.

Next to Alma on our All Saints’ table was an icon of another accidental saint, Harvey Milk (the first openly gay person elected to public office in California, who was shot to death by a fellow city employee in 1978).  The icon showed Milk standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge with five silver bullet holes in his chest and a golden halo behind his head.  The icon was created by Bill, one of our congregation’s artists, who called me later when someone challenged him for creating a visual representation of sainthood for someone who was not Christian.

I explained to Bill that what we celebrate in the saints is not their piety or perfection but the fact that we believe in a God who gets redemptive and holy things done in this world through, of all things, human beings, all of whom are flawed.

I really do believe that.  And yet, when I hung up the phone, all I could think about was how hard it is for me to believe that what’s true of Alma White or Harvey Milk might also be true for me – that maybe God can use me despite the fact that I, in so many ways, am ill-suited for the work I do.

Yet that is my experience.  I keep making mistakes, even the same ones over and over.  I repeatedly attempt (and fail) to keep God and my fellow humans at arm’s length.  I say, no, when I should say, yes.  I say, yes, when I should say, no.  I stumble into holy moments not realizing where I am until they are over.  I love poorly, then accidentally say the right thing at the right moment without even realizing it, then forget what matters, then show tenderness when it’s needed, and then turn around and think of myself way too often.

I simply continue to be a person on whom God is at work.  And I don’t even seek that out, to be honest.  I admire those who take on “spiritual practices,” who seek a sense of well-being through yoga or meditation or quiet times, but other than lifting really heavy weights every morning at my CrossFit gym, I honestly can’t think of what practices I do that help me become more spiritual.  I can, however, talk endlessly about the way I’ve been thrown on my ass over and over by the Bible, the practices of the church, and the people of God.  That is to say, by religion.

I recently was asked by an earnest young seminarian during a Q&A, Pastor Nadia, what do you do personally to get closer to God?

Before I even realized I was saying it, I replied, What?  Nothing.  Sounds like a horrible idea to me, trying to get closer to God.  Half the time, I wish God would leave me alone.  Getting closer to God might mean getting told to love someone I don’t even like, or to give away even more of my money.  It might mean letting some idea or dream that is dear to me get ripped away.

My spirituality is most active, not in meditation, but in the moments when:

I realize God may have gotten something beautiful done through me despite the fact that I am an asshole, and when I am confronted by the mercy of the gospel so much that I cannot hate my enemies;

and when I am unable to judge the sin of someone else (which, let’s be honest, I love to do) because my own crap is too much in the way;

and when I have to bear witness to another human being’s suffering despite my desire to be left alone;

and when I am forgiven by someone even though I don’t deserve it and my forgiver does this because he, too, is trapped by the gospel;

and when traumatic things happen in the world and I have nowhere to place them or make sense of them but what I do have is a group of people who gather with me every week, people who will mourn and pray with me over the devastation of something like a school shooting;

and when I end up changed by loving someone I’d never choose out of a catalog but whom God sends my way to teach me about God’s love.

But none of these things are a result of spiritual practices or disciplines, as admirable as those things can be.  They are born in a religious life, in a life bound by ritual and community, by repetition, by work, by giving and receiving, by mandated grace.

This is the form church takes at House for All.  As Stephen, one of my parishioners, puts it, Our “ministry” is Word and Sacrament – everything else flows from that.  We see a need, we fill it.  We fuck up, we say sorry.  We ask for grace and prayers when we need them (a lot).  Jesus shows up for us through each other.  We eat, we pray, we sing, we fall, we get up, repeat.  Not that complicated.

There are many reasons to steer clear of Christianity.  No question.  I fully understand why people make that choice.  Christianity has survived some unspeakable abominations: the Crusades, clergy sex scandals, papal corruption, televangelist scams, and clown ministry.  But it will survive us, too.  It will survive our mistakes and pride and exclusion of others.  I believe that the power of Christianity – the thing that made the very first disciples drop their nets and walk away from everything they knew, the thing that caused Mary Magdalene to return to the tomb and then announce the resurrection of Christ, the thing that the early Christians martyred themselves for, and the thing that keeps me in the Jesus business (or, what my Episcopal priest friend Paul calls “working for the company”) – is something that cannot be killed.  The power of unbounded mercy, of what we call The Gospel, cannot be destroyed by corruption and toothy TV preachers.  Because in the end, there is still Jesus.

And I can’t shake Jesus, though I’ve tried.  The gospel, this story of a God who came to us through Jesus and who loved without bounds and forgave without reservation and said that we have the power to do the same, cannot be destroyed by all our stupid mistakes.  These mistakes, sins, and failings are mine, but perhaps they are also ours.  And the redemption is ours, too.  Because if Alma White cannot destroy the Light that shines in all her darkness, maybe we can’t either.

On that All Saints’ table, between the basket of saint cookies and the card showing Alma White’s name, we set our first paschal candle, recently purchased at the Catholic bookstore.  During the Easter Vigil and throughout the coming year, we would use it to symbolize Christ’s presence in our midst.

That year, the candle was new and white.  But each paschal candle since then has been created by Victoria out of the melted down remains of all the candles used in the previous months of liturgies, so that, like our church itself, the candle in our midst has a lot of beautiful imperfections in it.  The beeswax is smooth and golden but flecked with bits of burned wick and debris.  Like the burned-down remains of our own stories that we carry with us, and like the imperfect bits of our humanity that bring texture to the divine love we also carry.

We melt and are formed into something new, but the burned bits remain.

PAUL: “I Am The Very Least Of All The Saints,” by Eugene H. Peterson

From Practice Resurrection

Paul is characteristically reticent when it comes to talking about himself.  He has a much larger subject to deal with than himself.  He is working through the vast territory of Christian living, the deep and wide realities of God’s action in creation and salvation, the resurrection of Jesus that brings us from death to life, the church in which we are all built “into a dwelling place for God.”  He doesn’t want to distract us from the gospel message, from the Jesus presence, by intruding himself.

But every once in a while the door opens just a crack – a word, a phrase.  We get a glimpse of Paul the man at work, writing, praying.  There is a living person involved behind these sentences: a prisoner, a servant, an allusion to his story, “how the mystery was made known to me by revelation.”  His self-deprecating reference as “the very least of all the saints” catches our attention by creating a novel form of the adjective “least” that doubles its comparative emphasis.  Translated literally it comes out, “I am the leaster or smallester of all the saints.”  In 1 Timothy 1:15 he identified himself as “foremost” of sinners.  Last in the roll call of saints; first in the roll call of sinners.

First-person personal pronouns, “I” and “me” pronouns, start appearing, eleven of them in this paragraph.  Fragments of his story come into view.  Paul lets himself into the story, but as inconspicuously as possible.

It’s enough, just enough to be reminded that the language of mature spirituality cannot be depersonalized into abstract propositional “truths.”  This man is living everything he is saying.  This resurrection life is never disembodied, never abstract, never an objective truth that can be analyzed and argued and defended.

The mature, resurrection life is irreducibly personal; it is about us.  But it is also a life that is mostly not about us.  It is about God.  Paul keeps it personal, but he does it with considerable reticence.  Christian spirituality is not well served by confessional monologues.  Egotistic verbosity diminishes the authenticity of the language of witness.  Paul is unmistakably present.  But he is also unassumingly present.  He doesn’t take over.  Here’s another observation: this unexpectedly relaxed tone interrupts a very intense, packed, single-minded focus on the action of God that has carried us along thus far.  This undeviating intensity is very effective.  Our imaginations are being retrained to think first “God” and “Christ” and “Spirit” and then, as we have a chance to catch our breath, to think “me” and “I.”  But the intensity is also exhausting.  We cannot sustain it for long.  We need time to step back, pause, get our bearings.

The Christian life has a goal, famously put by Paul in an earlier letter: I press on toward the goal for the prize of the Heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus.  Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind.  The mature life in Christ does not dillydally.  It doesn’t chase after fads.  But any focus on a goal that dismisses, ignores, and avoids spouse, children, and neighbors who are perceived as impediments to pressing on to the “Heavenly call” simply doesn’t understand the way the goal functions in a mature life.

The Christian life is not a straight run on a track laid out by a vision statement formulated by a committee.  Life meanders much of the time.  Unspiritual interruptions, unanticipated people, uncongenial events cannot be pushed aside in our determination to reach the goal unimpeded, undistracted.  “Goal-setting,” in the context and on the terms intended by a leadership-obsessed and management-programmed business mentality that infiltrates the church far too frequently, is bad spirituality.  Too much gets left out.  Too many people get brushed aside.

Maturity cannot be hurried, programmed, or tinkered with.  There are no steroids for growing up in Christ more quickly.  Impatient shortcuts land us in the dead ends of immaturity.


POETRY: All Saints’ Day, by John Keble

Why blow’st thou not, thou wintry wind,
Now every leaf is brown and sere,
And idly droops, to thee resigned,
The fading chaplet of the year?
Yet wears the pure aërial sky
Her summer veil, half drawn on high,
Of silvery haze, and dark and still
The shadows sleep on every slanting hill.

How quiet shews the woodland scene!
Each flower and tree, its duty done,
Reposing in decay serene,
Like weary men when age is won,
Such calm old age as conscience pure
And self-commanding hearts ensure,
Waiting their summons to the sky,
Content to live, but not afraid to die.

Sure if our eyes were purged to trace
God’s unseen armies hovering round,
We should behold by angels’ grace
The four strong winds of Heaven fast bound,
Their downward sweep a moment stayed
On ocean cove and forest glade,
Till the last flower of autumn shed
Her funeral odours on her dying bed.

So in Thine awful armoury, Lord,
The lightnings of the judgment-day
Pause yet awhile, in mercy stored,
Till willing hearts wear quite away
Their earthly stains; and spotless shine
On every brow in light divine
The Cross by angel hands impressed,
The seal of glory won and pledge of promised rest.

Little they dream, those haughty souls
Whom empires own with bended knee,
What lowly fate their own controls,
Together linked by Heaven’s decree;—
As bloodhounds hush their baying wild
To wanton with some fearless child,
So Famine waits, and War with greedy eyes,
Till some repenting heart be ready for the skies.

Think ye the spires that glow so bright
In front of yonder setting sun,
Stand by their own unshaken might?
No—where th’ upholding grace is won,
We dare not ask, nor Heaven would tell,
But sure from many a hidden dell,
From many a rural nook unthought of there,
Rises for that proud world the saints’ prevailing prayer.

On Champions blest, in Jesus’s name,
Short be your strife, your triumph full,
Till every heart have caught your flame,
And, lightened of the world’s misrule,
Ye soar those elder saints to meet,
Gathered long since at Jesus’s feet,
No world of passions to destroy,
Your prayers and struggles o’er, your task all praise and joy.


POETRY: Called To Be Saints, by Christina Rossetti

The lowest place. Ah, Lord, how steep and high
That lowest place whereon a saint shall sit!
Which of us halting, trembling, pressing nigh,
Shall quite attain to it?

Yet, Lord, Thou pressest nigh to hail and grace
Some happy soul, it may be still unfit
For Right Hand or for Left Hand, but whose place
Waits there prepared for it.


SAINTS: At The Well Of Tears — Margery Kemp, by Colin Dickey

From Afterlives of the Saints

Tears did not enter the world through the saints; but without them we would have never known that we cry because we long for a lost paradise.  So wrote the Romanian philosopher E. M. Cioran, whose nihilism and atheism didn’t stop him from approaching the saints.  As I searched for tears, he tells us, I thought of the saints.  The two are inextricably linked: weeping and sainthood.  Despite the various stories and legends, the transcendent artwork and architecture and literary masterpieces, perhaps it is only in tears that we can really hope to understand the saints.

More then laughter, mourning, or sex, crying (which can encompass all of these things) is the truly excessive gesture, the limit of emotion available to us.  If the saint, as I want to believe, is the human who lives poised at the edge of humanity – who might even move beyond humanity – then weeping is the act that most closely corresponds with this position.  Saints cannot be known,” Cioran says.  Only when we awaken the tears sleeping in our depths and know through them, do we come to understand how someone could renounce being a man.”  Only humans, out of all animals, cry, but only in weeping, Cioran seems to be saying, do we transcend our humanity.

Tears have long fascinated the church.  Gregory the Great first coined the term gratia lachrimarum, which can mean either, “the tears of grace,” or, “the gift of tears,” as though to be moved to tears is a gift given by God to evidence our own salvation.  The fifth-century desert hermit Abbot Isaac tried to make a taxonomy of wordless Christian weeping, classifying four kinds: tears caused by “the pricks of sin smiting our heart,” tears “from contemplation of eternal good and desire of that further glory,” tears from a fear of the day of Judgment, and tears caused by the knowledge of the sins of others.  All of the saints, in one way of another, sought such tears; Saint Francis, it is said, wept so much that he went blind.

One woman among the saints wept more copiously, more spectacularly, than anyone before her or since.  Her name was Margery Kempe, of Lynn, England.  She was a middle-class wife and mother of fourteen children who was born sometime in the 1370s and lived until the middle of the next century.  Margery had been a brewer and a miller and had held a half-dozen other occupations when, in the middle of her life, Jesus appeared to her fully and radically.

And then she began to weep, a torrent of tears that never stopped.  You cannot open her autobiography anywhere without stumbling on a passage of her weeping; it saturates the text.  Most often, it seems that her tears fall into the first of Abbot Isaac’s categories: Beholding her own wickedness, Margery sorrows and weeps and prays for mercy and forgiveness.  She wept the third kind of tears at the thought of her own damnation until Jesus appeared to her and assured her of her salvation, and then she wept the second kind of tears instead.

Margery became a holy pilgrim, traveling among the various communities in rural England and on to Canterbury, then London.  In London, she began to build a following as more and more people gathered to hear the weeping woman – her communication was so much of the love of God that the hearers were oftentimes stirred through it to weep right soberly.  From there, she went to Julian of Norwich, the mystic anchoress, and then to Jerusalem and Rome.  And endless wanderer, she stayed among monks and in convents, sometimes with her husband, sometimes without.  All the while crying.

She wept copiously, profusely, bitterly, loudly, ecstatically, endlessly.  She was a torrent of tears.  She wept at sermons, at the mention of Christ’s Passion, or whenever the Holy Ghost moved her.  In the Church of Saint John Laterne, she wept bitterly, she sobbed violently, and cried full loudly.  There is a struggle for more words to name this phenomenon, words beyond “wept,” “sobbed,” “cried,” words that appear hundreds of times throughout the book.  She wept so much while staying in an abbey in Canterbury that the monks would not let her eat in their presence.  Her weeping drove away a traveling companion in Germany, and in Rome, she wept so bitterly that the congregants around her thought her possessed.  While staying with the priests of Saint Thomas of Canterbury, she wept so much that the head of the order kicked her out, and then she wept the fourth kind of tears at the thought of his callousness and wickedness.

Weeping was Margery’s vocation.  It is a singular and a special gift that God has given you, Jerome told her in a vision, a well of tears which man shall never take from you.  In another vision, Jesus told her it was her lot to weep, unceasingly, for fifteen years.

When she was not weeping, she performed her share of miracles – her prayers interceding on behalf of those at the edge of death.  How many she saved isn’t clear – to write them all should perhaps be a hindrance to more profit, she tells us, cutting herself off.  Besides, Margery’s real miracle is her tears, the endless torrent of weeping, as though she invented her own language of wordless moaning.  Margery’s autobiography is a book of tears, and she ends it with a defense of her crying:

As for my crying, sobbing, and my weeping, Lord God almighty, as surely as you know what scorns, what shames, what despites, and what reproofs I have had for it, and, as surely as it is not in my power to weep either loud or still for any devotion nor for any sweetness but only through the gift of the Holy Ghost, so surely, Lord, excuse me before all this world.

And yet, she was not a saint.

The process of canonization is long, resembling a court proceeding more than an intervention by God.  Petitioners may recommend a candidate as a “Servant of God” no sooner than five years after death, and after the local bishop reviews extensive documentation and confirms that the candidate is not the focus of a cult or other heretical worship, the congregation petitions the pope to elevate the candidate to “venerable.”  The next step beyond venerable is beatified; though this state is easily achieved in the case of martyrdom, non-martyrs have to perform at least one after-death miracle, which is rigorously investigated by the church.  A second miracle is required, ultimately for full canonization.

Lengthy, but in its own way fairly straightforward.  The reasons Margery has never been canonized are painfully obvious.  She was already a married woman, with children, when Christ came to her fully, so she could not be his virgin bride.  She could have retired to a convent but chose not to do so, nor did she subordinate herself under a powerful male protector, as many other female saints (including Teresa of Avila) did.  She chose instead to remain her own person, to wander, to cause trouble.  None of her children worked very hard to keep her name alive or spread tales of her miracles, and certainly the various hospices and monasteries along the road to Jerusalem were glad to be rid of her.

There was no one to advocate on Margery’s behalf, which is what is truly involved in achieving sainthood.  More than performing miracles or crying over the Passion of Christ, canonization requires a community to believe in you after your death; it requires that you be kept alive in the minds of those you leave behind.

The church was wrong to canonize so few women saints, Cioran argues.  Its misogyny and stinginess make me want to be more generous.  Any woman who sheds tears for love in loneliness is a saint.  The church has never understood that saintly women are made of God’s tears.  The church’s official position is that it does not “make” saints; it only recognizes and affirms the saints already among us.  It falls to God to designate the saints, and so, the church might respond, it is God’s stinginess, God’s misogyny, that has provided for so few women saints.

Certainly this accords with the long-standing popular belief that men are closer to God than are women – him to love God, her to love God in him.  Milton writes in Paradise Lost, apportioning out the spiritual roles of Adam and Eve.  Medieval Christian theologians took justification for their misogyny in part from Aristotle, who argued that semen was “frothy,” composed of water and pneuma, hot vapor (this, so he claims, is why semen does not freeze) – it is the hot vapor that contains and transmits the soul.  This hierarchy of bodily fluids held throughout the medieval Christian world.  Men were closer to God, as evidenced by the hot vapor in their semen, whereas menstrual blood was pure water – no froth there, no air inside the woman, who was far more earthly, somewhat lacking in soul.  In 1579, the French physiologist Laurent Joubert noted that weeping is easier for those weaker and moister.  So perhaps Margery’s copious tears guaranteed that she would never be a saint – there was too much water in her, too little air.

Or perhaps she spent too much time weeping in public.  Augustine, after all, held back tears at his mother’s funeral, fearing that a public display would show him guilty of too much worldly affection, offering his sincere tears to God only in private.  Margery’s tears were too public, her emotion indecorously shoved in the faces of the faithful.  Her weeping was never the quiet, demure crying of a good lady martyr.  She did not yoke herself to a powerful male figure, and she did not die pure.  After her death, her body did not lie uncorrupted, proof of her pure negation of the natural world.  Margery could not make of herself a symbol.

Samuel Beckett once wrote, My words are my tears.  Margery Kempe, finally exhausted by tears, turned to words and traded the immortal life of a saint for the immortal life of a writer.  It was perhaps because she feared she would never be canonized that she did so.  Her autobiography became a substitute for the hagiography that would never be.  Hers is as compelling and strange a story as one could hope – and the first autobiography written in English.  In it, she never calls herself, “I,” but always, “this creature”: Then this creature thought it was full merry to be reproved for God’s love; this creature dared not otherwise to do than she was commanded in her soul; and so on, distancing us from her even while drawing us in.

This creature turns out to be surprisingly frank about her sexuality, with regard to both her husband and her lovers.  After she stopped sleeping with her husband, he began tormenting her with hypothetical questions: If someone threatened to cut off his head unless she slept with him once more, he asked, would she do it?  Margery’s response was blunt: I had rather see you be slain than we should turn again to our uncleanness.

But around the same time, she began an affair with a brute of a man who told her he would lie by her and have his lust of his body, and she should not withstand him, for, if he might not have his will that time, he said, he should else have it another time, she could not choose.  After he’d satisfied himself, this creature returned to him, infatuated and still “labored” with him, only to be told that he wouldn’t for all the good in this world lie with her again, that he had rather been hewn as small as meat for the pot.  A strange way to begin the autobiography of a holy woman, with infidelity compounded by a fairly pathetic rejection.

All this was before her great conversion, and before all the weeping, but it’s still too much information for a would-be saint.  Margery’s autobiography is too messy, too candid, and it could never guarantee that she would be remembered.  Her book was quickly lost and forgotten as this would-be weeping saint faded from sight.

Then, in 1934, the autobiography was rediscovered and brought to the public eye once more.  It should have been the perfect time for Margery’s voice to reemerge; Virginia Woolf had opened up new possibilities for writing women’s consciousness only a decade before, and Djuna Barne’s Nightwood was only two years away.  Instead, Margery’s writing was met with derision, particularly its representation of so much uncontrolled emotion in a woman.  She was denounced as a “terrible hysteric,” a “neurotic,” “quite mad,” and “epileptic,” with “a large paranoid trend,” and all sorts of other epithets.  Margery could have expected this; in one of her earliest visions, she heard Christ tell her, You shall be eaten and gnawed by the people as any rat gnaws the stockfish.  It hardly matters, then if the rats gnawing at her were fifteenth-century monks or twentieth-century psychoanalysts.

Sometimes one meets a woman who is beast turning human, Djuna Barnes writes.  In our new century, though, one sees in Margery a beast that is woman becoming saint.  Slowly, in the decades since her rediscovery, she has found her admirers.  She replaced existence with the desire to exist, Robert Glück explains in his book Margery Kempe, which weaves her story alongside his narrative of a contemporary love affair.  I kept Margery in mind for twenty-five years, he writes, but couldn’t enter her love until I also loved a young man who was above me.  Margery’s love is difficult, uncompromising, but readers and writers like Glück keep finding her, finding kinship with that love in an equally impossible contemporary landscape.  A community of believers, the wasted and the hopeful, the freaks and the dreamers, gradually grows around her.  Perhaps sainthood will find her yet.


LEADERSHIP: Saints Aren’t All They’re Cracked Up To Be, by Arthur Boers

From Servants and Fools

The word, saint, can be contested and controversial terminology.

New Testament Greek employs hagios, a word translated as “saints,” over sixty times.  It has connotations of holiness, being set apart.  “Saints” is originally a designation that refers to all believers, people we might now just plainly call “Christians.”  Paul writes, for example, “to all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints,” (Romans 1:7).  This term carries both affection and an aspirational challenge to grow into holiness.  (Paul uses hagios frequently but not in his letter to the Galatians, a group about which he had significant reservations and no small anger.)

“Saints” gradually came to be associated with exceptional Christians, no longer all believers.  My father (a hard-drinking, chain-smoking businessman with a ferocious temper) once had a friendly argument with our pastor.  The pastor had talked about my parents being “saints”; he was right in the original New Testament sense.  But my father refused that label, finding it dishonest: English was not his first language, but he knew the connotations of this term.  He was in his own way a believer and churchman, but was also aware that he did not measure up to some people’s pious standards.  Perhaps he did not even want to measure up.

One problem with talk about saints is that we may celebrate people who behaved in extraordinary ways that appear out of our reach.  Who can live up to the joyful sacrificial challenges of Francis of Assisi?  Dorothy Day used to growl something to this effect: Don’t call me a saint.  I don’t want to be dismissed that easily.  She worried that someone might suggest that her dedicated ascetic lifestyle was unattainable to “regular” Christians.  Then her commitment could be written off as an anomaly and not in fact a challenge to all.

Yet another issue with saint terminology is that saints can be portrayed in flat, two-dimensional, pious clichés so that most of us do not actually believe the stories about them.  Hagiography first referred literally to biographies of saints, but the term now may implicitly suggest whitewash.

There is understandable suspicion when sainthood gets discussed.  In “Reflections on Gandhi,” George Orwell wrote: Saints should always be judged guilty until they are proved innocent.  Diarmid MacCulloch reminds us that, one definition of a saint is someone who has not been researched well enough.

I admire how our pastor tried to broaden my parents’ understanding of sainthood, but I also believe there is usefulness in acknowledging that some believers are especially exemplary and enduring in their witness and life.  Hebrews 12 celebrates the “cloud of witnesses” and All Saints’ litanies identify key categories of faithfulness.  It is also worth admitting that many believers could benefit from setting higher aspirational goals.  Our bar is often too low.

Roman Catholicism developed an elaborate method of recognizing and canonizing saints throughout the millennia, including martyrs, prophets, confessors of the faith, miracle workers, teachers, theologians, and liberators.  Because of the influence of that approach, many Protestants prefer not to use “saint” terminology at all.  Yet the Catholic system, in spite of weaknesses and flaws, does offer good things.  Margaret Visser notes: Sainthood is perhaps the only honor accorded a person without consideration of physical beauty or prowess, wealth, birth, political power, intelligence, fame, or talent; a saint is admired, and considered exemplary, entirely for being good.  This is a far cry from the celebrity adulation in our culture of personality.

Several Christian authors helpfully distinguish between heroes and saints.  Craig Dykstra writes of the distinctiveness of how Christians read history:

While human achievement is valued in the Christian story, it has a different place and meaning.  The human task is not fundamentally mastery.  It is rather the right use of gifts graciously bestowed by a loving God for the sake of the good that God intends.  So our basic task is not mastery and control.  It is instead trust and grateful receptivity.  Our exemplars are not heroes; they are saints.  Our epitome is not excellence; our honor is in faithfulness. (Growing in the Life of Faith)

Samuel Wells is particularly eloquent in delineating differences between saints and heroes.  He notes, for example, that heroes (similar to Dykstra’s point about “mastery and control”) make the story come our right.  A hero’s story is only worth telling once he or she succeeds.  Saints, on the other hand, do not have to achieve great things or win amazing victories: A saint can fail in a way that the hero can’t, because the failure of a saint reveals the forgiveness and the new possibilities made in God, and the saint is just a small character in a story that’s always about God.  Wells goes on to contrast heroes and saints in the following ways.


Hero Stories

Saint Stories

 Central to story of making everything right  Peripheral to story that is always centered on God
 Celebrate strength, courage, wisdom, or great timing  Saint may be without virtues or valor except faithfulness
 Hero fights, does battle, is courageous  Christ has already won, thus saints prioritize love, joy, peace, faithfulness, gentleness
 Soldier is icon of heroism  The icon of sanctity is the martyr
 Heroes are noble  The martyr’s sanctity makes no sense unless rewarded by God
Heroes succeed; they fear or flee failure  Saints anticipate failure; they open the possibility of a cycle of repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration that is a new creation
The hero stands alone against the world  Saints depend on God and community: Of sixty-four references to saints in the New Testament, every one is in the plural. Saints are never alone.

In speaking of Christian leadership, we set aside glamorous heroic visions and concentrate on creating saints, equipping faithful, fruitful Christ followers. We need to form Mother Teresas, not empower Terry Joneses. In cultivating saints, we focus on priorities not always evident in leadership literature, including humility and surrender. Christian leaders are – or ought to be – averse to triumphalism and self-assurance, boastfulness, and self-congratulation.

Just as the scriptures counter-culturally and subversively challenge and undermine leadership claims of so many power brokers in both the Old and New Testaments, so we too ought to treat leadership in our day (both our own and that of others) with circumspection.

Here saints have much to teach.  Acknowledged and canonized saints were, time after time, eccentric.  Curtis Almquist oversees the Society of St. John the Evangelist and observed that monks are sometimes seen as eccentric, not in the sense of being quirky or odd.  He wrote: I mean eccentric in an etymological sense, as in the Latin eccentricus, meaning “having a different center.”  Christians center and orient their lives alternatively , prioritizing values often not understood or appreciated elsewhere.

Many officially canonized and unofficially recognized saints were deeply countercultural:

Christian saints attained their exalted status and recognition in society not by taking the ordinary values of that society to a higher degree, but by inverting them.  They rejected things that most people desire, and took up a life of self-denial and poverty.  This was part of their striving for holiness. (Robert Bartlett, Why Can the Dead Do Such Great Things?)

Saintliness is not about success, “irrefutable” principles and secrets, or self-help counsel.  It is about cruciformity, being formed and shaped by the costs of faithfulness and discipleship: Martyrdom of one sort or another, suffering of one sort or another, is what kingdom-bringers must expect.

It is not likely that agenda of sainthood will be featured in MBA programs or on bookstore Business shelves (where leadership books are typically located), unless by accident.  More than ever, however, this needs to be the agenda of Christians in church, in seminaries, and elsewhere as we ponder how to form followers of Jesus who lead on his behalf.

When leaders learn to be saints, I want to be in that number


PRAYER: Why Do We Include Saints In Our Prayers?

From Orthodox Prayer

In our prayer rule we can also ask the saints to intercede for us and to help us in our worldly struggles. Saints are those holy individuals who have died as martyrs, who have made a fearless confession of faith often with the threat of death, who have demonstrated self-sacrificing service, who have a special gift of healing and perform miracles after their death when remembered in prayer.

These holy people the Lord calls his friends. You are my friends if you do whatever I command you. No longer do I call you servants, for a servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all things that I heard from my Father I have made known to you. (John 15:14-15)

They are those he has received in his Heavenly mansions in fulfillment of his words: Where I am, there you may be also. (John 14:3) Instead of praying for forgiveness of their sins, we praise them for their struggles in Christ. We make petitions to them asking them to pray for us and the remission of our sins and spiritual growth, seeking their help in our spiritual needs.

The saints are near the throne of God.

Then I looked, and I heard the voice of many angels around the throne, the living creatures, and the elders; and the number of them was ten thousand times ten thousand, and thousands of thousands, who praised the Lord. (Revelation 5:11)

Our communion in prayer with the saints is the realization of the bond between Christians on Earth and the Heavenly church. (Hebrews 12:22-23)

Sacred scripture presents numerous examples that the righteous, while still living can see and hear and know much that is inaccessible to the ordinary understanding. The saints while they were still on Earth were able to penetrate in spirit into the world above.

From the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (Luke 16:10-31) we know that Abraham being in Heaven could hear the cry of the rich man who was suffering in hell, despite the great unbridgeable gulf that separates them.

The church has always taught the invocation of the saints, convinced they intercede for us before God in Heaven. Having a prayer relationship with a saint is another way that we can gain help in our spiritual path to salvation in the church.

Additional Resources

On Intercessory Prayer (pdf) and On Prayer for the Departed (pdf) by Metropolitan Anthony Bloom

Facing up to Mary (pdf): a nice summary for those who have concerns about the whole subject of Mary (Mother of God).

Prayer and the Departed Saints By David C. Ford, Ph.D

On the Intercession and Invocation of the Saints by Reader Christopher Orr; A Protestant’s inquiry

Most Holy Theotokos, Save Us by Fr. Aris Metrakos

What we Believe about the Saints By Anthony M. Coniaris

The Place of Lives of Saints in the Spiritual Life
By Hieromonk Damascene

The saints are called stars in the spiritual firmament. May we, by remembering the saints of God, also begin to shine in that firmament. And by making the saints our friends and preceptors now, may we have them as our Heavenly companions in the never-ending Kingdom of Light.

The Role of Saints in the Orthodox Chruch

The Feasts of the Virgin Mary, the Theotokos

Saints to Call Upon for Special Needs

Book: The Orthodox Veneration of Mary The Birthgiver of God, by Saint John Maximovitch, Saint Herman of Alaska Brotherhood, 1996.

A right understanding of Mary the Birthgiver of God is essential for a right understanding of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. When her image is distorted, the image of her Son becomes distorted, also. This concise little book is a classic exposition of how the historic Christian church has venerated the Mother of God throughout the ages, and on the chief errors which have attacked this veneration. It clearly tells why the virgin Mary should be honored by all generations, and why at the same time she cannot be considered a co-Redemptress along with Jesus Christ, the only savior of the world.

And another angel came, and stood before the altar, having a golden censer; and there was given to him much incense, that he should offer of the prayers of all saints upon the golden altar, which is before the throne of God. And the smoke of the incense of the prayers of the saints ascended up before God from the hand of the angel. (Apocalypse: 8: 3-4)


PRAYER: We Are Called To Be Saints, by The Marist Brothers

Awesome in his saints is God, the God of us all.

Call to Prayer:

In the understanding of the Roman Catholic Church, a saint is someone who has practiced the Christian faith, especially the main virtues of Faith, Hope, and Love to the highest degree of heroism. Such holy men and women may be found anytime, anywhere. Saints are not persons who belong to the past. They live among us here and now. We too can become saints. We are all called to holiness.

Be holy for I am holy, says the Lord. If we do our daily job with love, if we practice Christian charity every day of our life, we will become saints. It’s not that far-fetched, not something we need shun, but something that comes with our baptismal commitment and promises.

Scripture Reading:

(The author of the letter to the Hebrews recounts the deeds of valiant men and women (saints) from the Old Testament in Hebrews 11:33-12:2.)

Sisters and brothers, all of the saints by faith conquered kingdoms, sought justice, obtained the fulfillment of promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the violence of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, recovered strength from weakness, became valiant in battling good over evil. Some were tortured, refusing to bend for their release. Others again suffered mockery and beatings, even chains and jailings. They were stoned, they were put to the test, they were killed by the sword. They went about destitute, anguished, afflicted (of whom the world was not worthy) wandering in deserts, mountains, caverns and holes in the ground. And all of these, in spite of the positive witnessing of faith, failed to receive what was promised, for God was keeping something better in store for us, so that they were not to reach their final perfection without us. And so, having such a cloud of witnesses over us, let us get rid of the sin entangling us, and run with endurance to the fight proposed to us, contemplating the author and goal of our faith, Jesus Christ.


Leader: Holiness is shown not by what we say, but by what we do in life.

All: Whoever acknowledges me before all, I will also acknowledge before my Father in Heaven.

Leader: Whoever disowns me before all, will also disown my Father in Heaven.

All: Holiness is shown not by what we say, but by what we do in life.

Reflection activity:

How can I help those that I encounter every day embrace their holiness?
How can I enhance my own pursuit of holiness each day?


Leader: The examples of sainthood are many, the daily call to make the extraordinary is constant. Let us pray for the grace to respond with courage and generosity.


Lord, hear our prayer.

  • For the grace and courage to respond without holding back to the demands of the Gospel, our life as Christians, and the invitations we receive from people during the course of each day, we pray…
  • For those who suffer inner doubt, and skepticism about the world around them, that they may be inspired by those who have gone before us and maintained the convictions and faith, we pray…
  • That our family, friends, and community may see in us a model of the Christian life, and might be inspired to follow in our footsteps, we pray…

(additional intentions)

Our Father

Closing Prayer:

Good and Gracious God, we thank you for the examples of the valiant men and women who accepted their call to bear witness to you in joy and in pain, in suffering, and even in death. We ask your grace to be as courageous as they even in the little things that befall us each day, that with joy we might radiate our convictions and our confidence in your presence with us. This we ask through Christ Our Lord.




Or Orthodoxy.

In the church.

This is a true story.  That I watched happened.  Up-close and personal, as they say.

It’s the story of a church that was beset.

The head of this church thought what was besetting it was church warfare.

But it wasn’t.

Because this particular church was actually at war with itself.

And it lost the battle.  With itself.

Let me explain.

For every person who has ever walked this Earth, there is a soul.  A distinct soul.  A soul with its own song.  Its own point-of-view.  Its own way of seeing God.  Or not seeing God.

Now souls of a certain kind tend to flock together.  It’s why there are different religions.

Each are always much, much better than the others.


This is the only area of our life where I believe in evolution.

Spiritual evolution.

Religious evolution.

But just because souls can and do evolve into a more refined understanding of God doesn’t mean that those who still make their relationship with God as simple as a stick scratching in the dirt are inferior.  In the eyes of God, that is.

We try to make it so.  We try to prejudge people, putting down unGodly people, casting them away like over-soiled rags.

But souls are souls.  And they can change.

They can evolve.

So let them be.


People who are looking for a connection in life, who may even be desperate to feel connected in life, can stumble onto the fraudulent offer made by Satan to connect with him and be part of his family.  This is where you will find cult members.  And gang members.  And lonely little girls.

As the desperate soul receives illusions of connection, Satan gets a piece of its energy.

This is way with soul-oriented evil: I’ll trade you a dream for some of your energy.

And so it goes until a person is pretty much deleted of their soul energy.  From this place, they couldn’t connect with God if their lives depended on it.

And, as it happens, their lives do depend on reconnecting with God.

So here is where the church comes in.

But not just any church.

The evangelical church.

The church that requires very little from a person.  No knowledge of the prayerbook.  No knowing of when to kneel, when to stand, how to respond.

It’s a place where simple music with almost moronic words is played.

A lot.

And the words are on the screen.

The tunes you have to learn yourself (there’s no reading music here!).  And the words repeat themselves.

A two-year old can do it.

And probably does.

You can wave your hands around.  You can speak out loud.

You don’t have to wear hats.

It is the emergency room for Satan-bound souls.

They can breathe in the friendliness, the automatic acceptance.

They can sway to the music.

They can sit and just connect.

Connect to what is being said.

Connect to who is saying it.

Connect with the idea of God.

And, eventually, connect with God himself.

My story today is about an evangelical church.

Who was court bound.

Day after day, year after year, they had to fight in court to save their building.  Their church.

Or try to save their building.

Years into the court battle, I was sent in.

I’m not an attorney.  I know nothing of canon law.

And I tend to be disinterested in church politics and church wars.

The stupidity of churches is of little interest to me.

Not that I didn’t sympathize with this church.  I did.  I just found the Anglican sentiment of, You keep the buildings, we’ll keep the faith, refreshingly appropriate.

But assigned I was.

And so I went.

And I “saw” a lot.

This is where I came to understand how vibrant, loud evangelicalism could offer solace to suffering souls.

The church even boasted that in its evangelical services, almost all the people there were unchurched.

Were at church for the first time in their lives.

I found this very impressive.

And these services were huge.

This is coming from me, the person raised on the coast of Maine, in a tiny, sweet church.

So a thousand people crying in joy with a large group of priests lined up before them seems huge to me.

And there were multiple services every Sunday.

A lot of souls coming to Jesus, as they say in that world.

So I waited to see what else I would see.

And I listened.

One day, the rector mentioned that a woman had told him that when she looked up into the lights, all she could see was demons.

Apparently I wasn’t the only one God had sent in to help this church out of its struggles.

That I still thought only existed in a courtroom.

The lights referred to were not in the evangelical space of the church, but in an old, worn-in house of worship with wooden pews.

The lights were not the blinding bright ones in the celebration romper-room.

They were soft teardrops that floated over our heads.

After hearing with the other mystic had told the rector I began to study the lights.  What I noticed is that their shades were filthy.

I wrote and advised the rector to clean the lights immediately.

He didn’t.

What a fool I must have sounded to him!

I shrugged my shoulders.

But this whole little dynamic really caught my attention.  I began to want very much to know what was going on.

So I prayed.  And waited for the answers.  And here is what I got:

As souls were being saved in the other sanctuary, demons were being expelled.  And they were staying in the church.  They were clinging to the church with the hopes of finding someone else to infect.

This is why, when I was alerted to the presence of the demons, I wanted the church—at least the lights—cleansed.

The church building was infected.  It was teeming.  If it were termites, no one would question getting help for it.

But because it was something from the unseen realm, and because evangelical clergy like to think that keeping their feet on the ground at all times and remaining logical was good, and thinking they had all the answers and knew everything, no one in the church cared.

That the church itself was becoming increasingly desperate to get the current tenants Out Of The Building.

Orthodox priests have the advantage of knowing that they are not the knowers-of-all-things.  And that the unseen world does exist, with its angels and demons and flowing motion, and that God works in mysterious ways.

Mysterious ways.

If you are looking at something—anything—if you are savvy enough you will know that you are not seeing the whole thing.  That there is always an unseen side to it all.

And so it was at this church.

The powers-that-were at the church saw only the court battle.

I saw only the dynamic that their successful ministry to Satan-bound souls had created.  One that eventually backfired on them.

It’s like a hospital.  An operating room.

A doctor takes out an infected organ.  He disposes of it.  And the staff thoroughly cleans the room afterwards.

No one just thinks that because the “seen” organ is now gone that the room is safe from infection.


We now know that all kinds of unseen thingies float around and can get us and kill us.

So we clean.

With all our might.

So that someone coming into that operating room next won’t be infected.

By what we can’t see.

But not so in this church.

We only wanted success in that which could see.

It makes me think of Jesus, in a way.  The people around him wanted him to be the Messiah, but only if he led them to victory over the people who oppressed them.

It was all, Begone with your life after death nonsense.  We want freedom here and now!

And so Jesus died.

As did this congregation.

Who was shooed out of the building.

Out you go!

I also think that any religious work that involves healing has to remember that steps must be taken to finish the job by cleansing the person, and closing all the portals that were opened in the process.

Jesus knew what he was talking about:

When an unclean spirit comes out of a man, it passes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it. Then it says, “I will return to the house I left.” On its arrival, it finds the house vacant, swept clean and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they go in and dwell there; and the final plight of that man is worse than the first. (Matthew 12:43-45)

Funny.  This is right in the Bible.

And yet this very successful church just ignored the warning.



POETRY: Impromptu Novena In September, by William Wenthe

Understand the light, then, and recognize it. (Corpus Hermeticum)

Memory is a kind of accomplishment. (William Carlos Williams)


Birdsong on the book page, birdsong on the brown rug;
fanfare of birdsong above the radio orchestra;
birdsong in shafted light of the wooden blinds.

In one moment I heard them—by which I mean
they’d all along been singing, building in my ear,
but only just then, my brain embraced what it heard—

all the neighborhood birds, a seamless textile of song.
Ordinary song, but not the ordinary time for singing—
was it something to do with sunlight, returning this afternoon

after days’ long cloud-dregs of a distant hurricane?
Maybe there’s a cause; but cause belongs to time.
What I heard was other than time.


A vow I made this year, lost with the book of butterflies.
Or mislaid. I’d vowed to learn their names.
But now the backyard flickers with the strobe of their wings,
lavender, cream, and butter, orange, black and gold,
nosing about the shrubs, or with a single wingbeat rising over the fence—
a dozen or so of the same kind, preoccupied with our oak tree
(Is it the “sweets,” as the tree man calls the sap from the broken limb?)
And in my head a flurry of names I like—
sulfurs, cabbage whites, fritillaries, checkerspots—
but cannot link with the actual butterflies around me.

Funny, but I feel
as if I’m trying, from this attention
to insects’ small motions, to piece together
evidence, to make an argument:
for what I know—that I am moved to these creatures
because they assuage some ache I cannot name;
against what I also know—that much of our knowing
is also the source of pain.

The rebuttal of butterflies….

But the angled hands of my wristwatch interrupt—
it’s time to fetch my daughter home
from nursery school; to stake a modest claim
on the future tense: a flowering plant we recently bought,
still bucketed on the porch.
We’ll dig a hole—or I’ll dig, she’ll watch
and poke with a pink toy shovel—
and we’ll plant the flowering lantana, more commonly known
as butterfly bush.


This afternoon, light spills on the trees;
The trees spill shadows beneath them. Just enough mist
for air to be liminal, silvery. Leaves steeped in light.

And that soil-leaf smell—the just-mowed lawn in the arboretum,
the rain stored within, released to the sun—a scent that spells me
from my comfortable exile here in the southern plains, and summons back

the autumn leafmold and grassy scent of earlier places—
mountain trails, or wooded lots not yet gutted for houses or parking.
Memory, they say, is most vividly triggered by scent;
and why not? The molecules are exactly the same. Descending the steps
to the cellar of a London bookshop—it’s the basement of my childhood,
bluegray light from the window wells, my father’s workbench.

Not nostalgia—but elemental remembrance. How this late season,
summer dismantling itself, writing its own elegy in gorgeous lightfall,
presses me with that mingled moral of presence and loss: ashes

of my mother, my wife away for a week, my daughter an afternoon,
and shimmer of wavelight on a duck’s breast, sheer electric streak
of blue damselflies in the lily pads—all these—crystallize, and cut.


I follow motions of a migrant warbler
feathered in drabs of olive and gray, disguised
as the underside of trees it probes in mid-September.

So precise—
the way the needle beak extracts
gnats, beetles, tiny flies

from underleaf and crease of bark—an effect
I’ve always likened to embroidery;
though, watched for long, it’s not so exact

a match, for this flitting so indirectly
from limb to limb, or between the trees
suggests another analogy:

I think of Socrates,
how his questions crept from casual
pleasantries, to overarching verities—

as sleep, he’d say, compares to being full
awake; or as the soul, scrambled
with body, compares to the soul eternal.

So what sort of a sampler
(to follow my earlier line
of thought), would the needling beak of this warbler

have stitched, if its movement through time
could remain visibly evident
like a bright thread carried behind

the bird as it goes, obliquely intent,
from twig to twig, tree to tree, backyard, park, mountains, and further—
the whole downward slope of continent—

as if time were its own rememberer?


Hardly the norm, the enlargement of these afternoons,
this charmed light. More to be expected
is more like yesterday: the mail as usual,
the white and blue van parked before my house,
as usual. Only this time, an SUV pulled up behind—
four men emerged, with nametags and clipboards,
and followed our letter carrier on her rounds.
Experts, no doubt, here to time
the footsteps, to reduce to a ratio of seconds
per house, the real-weather work of Sherri,
our mailman (so to speak)—who knows our names.

And most of what gets mailed is forgettable—
bills and advertisements, throwaways and junk.
Still, I thrill at the mail’s arrival, remembering
writing letters by hand, receiving them
from others: thoughts written in the past, calling
at my door. Anamnesis, an un-forgetting,
the return of someone held dear…. “Dear,”
that salutation of past to present;
but maybe I’m pushing it—the metaphor,
the memory—were it not for the presence,
this memory pressing upon me all day,
of a friend I once knew, and could have known better.
A letter that came, decades back, with a newspaper clipping.
Not from him, but about him: murdered in Prospect Park.

Dear Fenton from Brooklyn—Fenton,
with tombstone teeth and half-hunched shoulders
and glasses mended with a Band-Aid—that bodily frailty
that bespeaks an inner magnitude, as though strained
by the freight of soul. Fenton who came shyly
to our habit of clowning, but then came to joy in it,
cracking up our friend Mike and me as we’d wait
for rock concerts beneath the faded remains
of painted vaudeville signs on the high brick façade
of the old Academy of Music…. He went on
to study theology at Fordham; and we fell
out of touch…until the letter I received from Mike,
with a small item from the Daily News,
which as I read opened up like subway doors:
Fenton, stabbed to death, bloody, and wearing
a red dress, stockings, heels, lipstick and liner.
Carefully he must have prepared, that Saturday night,
and sauntered to the darkest part of the park—which is to say,
he walked into the garden, knowing he’ll be killed.

Asking, somehow it feels to me now, to return.


Even the evenings won’t leave me alone: dreaming, I rise
to this weather, its bluegold light, the sun angled
like an artist’s brush, burnishing the glint of leaves, deepening
the shades, even to the blades of grass we walk on:
a crowd of us wearing dark suits and dresses, in a band of meadow, wild
with lilac and tiger lily, that somehow lies beneath
the Palisades on the Jersey side of the Hudson.
Greengray water silvers downriver in steady breeze,
and I can see wharves and ferries of Hoboken, high-rises of Manhattan—
each one distinct in the special handling of the light.
I mean to say, it’s the rural past folded into the past
of the industrial port, folded again into the slick
co-ops and office towers of today: time refracted in itself
like waves of sunlight in river waves, seen underwater.

Whatever one thinks of dream logic, those occult convolutions,
its rhetoric is redundancy: the feeling
of being here persuades me I’m here. And the feeling
of recognition, as if this grassy level along the river,
where a crowd of us are walking toward a chapel,
has come to seek me out, has returned to me.
And my father hurrying there, black suit and tie, starched white shirt,
steps toward the riverbank, and I see
he is walking barefoot—and so I discover
it’s his own funeral we assemble for. Is that why
he hurries? He seems to know more than anyone
why we’re here, this old man hauling nine decades behind him.
The haul has frailed him. I want to help him cross
the rougher grass by river’s edge, so I push through the crowd;
but as I reach him he is already falling, straight
as a hammerstroke; but slowly—the moment exploded
by my own adrenaline surge. No splash—
then underwater, a swift sliding deeper, like flight.


The descent beckons
as the ascent beckoned
can I not read those words, when I sit down this evening
under a tent of lamplight in the living room,
with borrowed iPod and ear buds, to record
poems for a colleague in the hospital?
I used to pass him in the supermarket,
among vegetables or fish counter, and we’d pause
to admire our two-year-old daughters, one red, one blond,
each like a lotus blossom sitting in the cart.

We both love William Carlos Williams—Spring and All
his favorite book, and mine. Now, the hidden growth
growing inside him, pressing against
his brain, leaves him medicated and bedridden,
unable to read but hoping for news
that, if not better, may stop getting worse.
So I’m leafing through a book of poems,
looking for words that might cover the stellar distance
between my ordinary expectations
(reading and waiting for the mail,
and later to stroll my daughter to the playground)
and the unsuspected place where he’s arrived.

I imagine I can draw the whale’s belly as well as anyone—
no moralized, gothic vault of ribs, no place,
but a cramped surround of muscle, acid, and brine,
utterly lightless. But what makes me think
I could address my colleague’s need? Only this, maybe:
that Jonah found room there for prayer. I remember
in the dream, when my father’s white feet,
the last of him, slid beneath the chill water, I did not hesitate at all
to dive in after him, to that polluted river the dream
would not let me, even in full dive, reach.


Seed pods of the locust tree,
leather-brown question marks in the grass.
In shadow, the grackles
seem like black holes; in sun,
small pavilions of iridescence. I am trying to understand
another afternoon of manic light—
affecting light, connecting somehow to affection.
But does it mean? Or is it only
my damn feelings flattering me again?

Would I feel this way if I’d gone a day without food?
Would I feel this way if I were the man waking in a hospital bed?
Would I feel this way….
—Except that the sun
rebukes the subjunctive: it is the strident voice of the present tense,
raging on the blades of grass, amid the leaves, against the clouds:
this is the present, so full it cannot be contained. Touch it
and it spills over into the past—not escape from the present,
but the past emerging, where it has always been,
bearing upon us—and by us I mean myself and the loves I call forth;
this is remembrance raised up
to sacrament; this is the ancient word, anamnesis:
calling forth the past, and the past in its willingness
to come forth, to ask of us: Do this
in remembrance of me. And circled at a table,
my family at suppertime, father and mother who are gone now, sisters and
who are older now, widowed, divorced and remarried, grandparents now—
but all that yet unhappened, hidden in the future invisible
at this table set in the past, and waiting:

heart’s blood, and the leaves in the windwaves,
green at rest, glittering in the surge;
the beat of wings above flowers, blue Russian sage,
wings in the ribwork of limbs, or to and from the lawn:
these are the ways we are given to see, our secular anamnesis,
immensity pressing on us, with a particular face;
these are the details that focus this present
that brims into past, the past passing back to me now.


This afternoon a cold front crowded in, sky overtaken
by hulks of clouds, deep-bellied and dull-sheened,
unpolished armor in a museum hall.

And isolate drops of rain, little ice-kisses.
Leaves taken, letting go. Equinoctial
September, passing. Sun the same angle as March,

striking not bare limbs, but the full flourish
of leaves. Heart’s blood, and the leaves in the windwaves.
Passing, as I knew it would….

Night outside my window, barely opened
the width of a mail slot; the chill song
of a single cricket, slow.

What had come unbidden, or as if they willed it—
the dead walking again, anamnesis—now held
at a distance, only touchable by thought, flawed instrument.

I was looking up Jonah the other day,
and the thin pages of the Bible slipped
from my fingers, to a psalm, where I saw:

This knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high, I cannot attain to it.
So these days were—what?—should I say, heightened?

They came like that psalm: without my looking for them,
and bearing the thrill that what’s revealed
is revealed by something further hidden, and greater.

Thought, flawed instrument, pokes at this pearl:
Wonder conceals. Thinking and going nowhere, I fall back
to gratitude, wonder’s residue.


FOOLISHNESS: The Wisdom Of Holy Fools, by Peter C. Phan

From Being Religious Interreligiously


Folly as Virtue

The archetypal wise fool is Socrates, who explicitly claimed that his wisdom was derived from his awareness of his ignorance and whose distinctive teaching method consisted in exposing the foolishness of the wise.  Jesus, whom Christian tradition proclaims to be the Logos and the Wisdom of God, was regarded during his life as insane by his family and was deemed by his opponents to be possessed by Beelzebul.  Not only was his behavior scandalous to the religious establishment but his teaching, from his beatitudes to his parables, challenged the sacred text and offended traditional wisdom.  Even Peter, who should have known better, was shocked by Jesus’s prediction of his passion and death and had to be reminded that he was judging not by God’s standards but by human standards, an anticipation of Paul’s contrast between “God’s folly” and the “wisdom of this world.”  Jesus’s words to those who wish to follow him represent the height of folly: If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.

The cross of Christ as the paradigm of God’s folly – foolish wisdom and wise foolishness – is elaborated at length by Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians.  To these Christians who were attempting to reconcile their faith with the philosophies of the day, Paul said that he had been sent by Christ to preach the gospel, but “Not the wisdom of discourse,” that is, by employing the technique of the philosopher or the rules of studied eloquence and artificial rhetoric – the mythos and logos of our day – “lest the cross of Christ be rendered void of its meaning.”  Quoting Isaiah 29:14, Paul says that God will, destroy the wisdom of the wise and thwart the cleverness of the clever.  In the absurdity of the cross, which is, “a stumbling block for Jews and foolishness for Greeks,” God’s power has “turned the wisdom of this world into folly” since “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom.”  Paul urges the person who wants to become “wise in a worldly way” to “become a fool,” so that he or she “will really be wise, for the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God.”  Paul acknowledges that he himself has become “a fool for Christ’s sake,” so that the Corinthians can become “wise in Christ.”

This Pauline fool for Christ’s sake tradition was later developed into a spiritual discipline and became an important feature of  Christian monasticism.  The desert fathers of the third and fourth centuries were enthusiastic practitioners of the foolishness of God.  While many of them were illiterate, a few were highly educated but in self-effacement pretended to be stupid or ignorant in order to learn humility from the contempt of others.  This foolishness (Jesus’s “deny themselves and take up their cross”) was not limited to giving up family, material possessions, and career, but also included the renunciation of the ego-personality, sometimes to such extremes that these practicing fools acquired the reputation of being mad.  This spiritual practice of holy folly was continued in the Russian Orthodox Church by the yurodive, who were particularly prominent during the reign of Ivan the Terrible.  After the seventeenth century, however, the figure of the holy fool vanished from the Russian religious scene, though he lingered on as a character in Russian literature, for example, in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot.  Furthermore, with the dawning of the Age of Reason, holy fools virtually disappeared.  As Michel Foucault has shown, this was the time of the “great confinement,” in which mad people and vagrants were no longer allowed to roam freely but were publicly humiliated, beaten, and locked up in asylums or workhouses.

Though so far we have discussed foolish wisdom in Christianity and in the West, it is not an exclusively Christian and Western phenomenon.  It is also practiced in Sufism, where it is known as the path of blame.  Some Sufi mystics are known for their strange behavior as well as for their heretical doctrine of identification with the divine.  Like their Christian counterparts, Sufi practitioners of “crazy wisdom” pursued freedom and humility without concern for worldly oppositions.

In Hinduism, there is the figure called avadhuta, a Sanskrit term meaning literally “he who has cast off [all concerns].”  The distinguishing characteristic of the avadhuta, as implied by the word, is total indifference to his fate in the world.  He has no wife, children, home, job, social responsibility, or political obligation.  As a symbol of his utter detachment, the Hindu renunciate, as some fools for Christ’s sake did, would walk around naked.  In addition to the avadhuta, there is the figure of the mast, a Hindi word meaning, “numbskull.”  These are God-intoxicated individuals who roam the streets of India and whose behavior suggests psychotic disturbance.  Lastly, there are the baul, a Bengali word meaning “mad” or “confused.”  The bauls are religious eccentrics whose quest for God on the path of devotion (bhakti) takes precedence over everything else.

Tibetan Buddhism also has its share of eccentric lamas (gurus) who use weird methods to initiate their disciples into enlightenment and of “mad lamas” (smyonpa) with their rejection of the monastic tradition, ecclesiastical hierarchy, societal conventions, and book learning.  Finally, the adepts of Zen Buddhism make use of shock techniques such as sudden shouting, physical beatings, paradoxical verbal responses, and riddles to teach enlightenment.

Foolishness as a Path to Wisdom

From what has been said above, it is clear that foolishness, as rejection of the world to concentrate solely on spiritual matters, is practiced as a means to cultivate humility, to imitate Christ, to unite oneself with the divine, or to reach enlightment.  But it is also a pedagogical device to lead others to wisdom.  This aspect lays the stress on the second member of the oxymoron, “foolish wisdom,” and is more emphasized in Eastern than in Western religious tradition.  There is no doubt that for the proponents of “foolish wisdom” – Paul’ the “fools for Christ’s sake”; the Sufi mystics; the Hindu avadhutas, masts, and bauls; the Tibetan adepts; and the Zen masters – foolishness is a path to true wisdom, however this is defined.  What, then, epistemologically speaking, is so distinct about foolishness or madness or folly that it can lead to wisdom, just as mythos and logos claim to do?

In Christian theology, negative theology, or apophatic theology emphasizes God’s transcendence and our radical inability to know what God is.  Our knowledge of God is limited to what God is not, and therefore must end in ignorance and worshipful silence.  This theology, first developed by the Cappadocians, in particular Gregory of Nyssa, has always been a central feature of the mystical tradition.  For example, according to the sixth-century mystical theologian Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite, the union between the soul and God, its “deification,” is achieved by a process of “unknowning,” in which the soul leaves behind the perceptions of the senses as well as the reasoning of the intellect.  The soul enters a darkness in which it will be increasingly illuminated by the “Ray of Divine Darkness,” and brought ultimately to the knowledge of the ineffable Being that transcends affirmation and negation alike.  Similarly, according to the English mystical treatise, The Cloud of Unknowing, human reason is radically incapable of knowing God.  The “cloud of unknowing” that lies between God and the human intellect is not pierced by the intellect but by “a sharp dart of love.”  Thus, there is an essential element of ignorance in our knowledge of God.

The philosophical and theological foundation for “foolish wisdom” was however laid by two men who were deeply indebted to the mystical tradition of the “Brethren of the Common Life,” known as the devotio moderna, namely, Thomas à Kempis and Nicholas of Cusa.  Thomas is probably the author of the extremely influential spiritual manual, Imitatio Christi, in which he urges Christians to emulate Christ the Fool through “holy simplicity.”  The life of pietistic simplicity and humility recommended by Thomas is not very different from that of the “fools for Christ’s sake” and the crazy-wise adepts of Eastern religions.  Like them, he believes that nothing is more useful than self-knowledge and self-contempt.

Nicholas of Cusa is the author of De Docta Ignorantia, in which he defends two basic principles.  First, docta ignorantia or “learned ignorance” is the highest stage of intellectual understanding accessible to the human intellect, since Truth, which is one, absolute, and infinitely simple, is unknowable to humans.  Knowledge, by contrast, is multiple, relative, and complex, and therefore is at best approximate.  For Cusanus, the relationship of our intellect to Truth is like that of a polygon to a circle.  The resemblance increases as we multiply the angles of the polygon, but no multiplication, even if it is infinite, will ever make the polygon equal to the circle.  Therefore, the path to Truth leads beyond reason and the principle of noncontradiction.  It is only by intuition that we can discover God, in whom there is coincidentia oppositorum, the unification of all contradictions, which is the second principle of Cusanus’s philosophy.  Human reason, confined by the principle of noncontradiction, is demonstrably incapable of giving rational expression to the Infinite, who is the unification of all contradictions.  Herein lies our ignorance.  But the fact that we are aware of our ignorance and the basic reason for it elevates our ignorance to the status of docta ignorantia.  The more we learn this lesson of ignorance, the closer we draw to Truth itself.

It is in these two paradoxical principles of Cusanus’s philosophy, namely, the docta ignorantia and the coincidentia oppositorum, that the Renaissance elaboration of the wise fool, both substantively and stylistically, as we shall see, finds its chief inspiration.  Cusanus’s questioning of the possibility of knowledge, his antithesis between irrational absolute and logical reason, his affirmation of knowledge beyond reason through intuition, his insistence on the necessity of a conscious recognition of the limitations of our intellect as a condition for wisdom, and his unification of all contradictions in God, all of these elements pave the way for the “coincidence” of foolishness and wisdom, ignorantia and scientia, in docta ignorantia.

The work that embodies these ideas par excellence is Erasmus’s Moriae Encomium, or Laus Stultitiae, which he wrote in 1509 and first published in 1511.  Foolishness, personified as Lady Stultitia, praises “foolish wisdom” or “wise foolishness” as a way to truth, because truth, which is never simple, cannot be known by either knowledge or ignorance alone, but only by a combination of both.

It is important to note that in The Praise of Folly it is not the learned and wise that praise foolishness but foolishness that praises foolishness.  The subject and object of the encomium is the same.  Hence, it is a mock encomium.  Here lies the profound irony of Erasmus’s work.  If foolishness gives itself mock praise, then it censures itself.  But if foolishness censures itself, it is really wise, because it recognizes foolishness for what it is, which is possible only to the wise.  Thus, foolishness’s mock praise of itself is really a praise of wisdom; the path to wisdom is foolishness mockingly praising itself.  Irony is displayed again when at one point in her eulogy, Stultitia says that what she is saying may appear at first sight foolish or absurd, yet it is really profoundly true.  But if this statement if true, then it cannot be said by a foolish person.  However, if it is false, then it has been uttered truthfully and wisely by a foolish person.  What is implied here is a wise person may be foolish, and the fool may be wise, and hence foolishness may be a way to wisdom.  Here, Cusanus’s docta ignorantia and coincidentia oppositorum find a perfect literary embodiment.  Like the professional fool, whose function is to make people laugh, and like the wise person, whose role is to teach the truth.  Erasmus, by combining laughter with seriousness in his use of irony, develops the oxymoronic concept of the wise fool.  Thus, folly is necessary to reach wisdom, and to be human is to play the fool, and to be wise is to acknowledge this truth.

Stultitia proceeds to apply this technique to reversal to all that society holds as true, noble, and beautiful.  Not unlike the “fools for Christ’s sake” and adepts of Eastern religions who use shock tactics to flout the conventions of society, Stultitia scorns the pretensions of learning, especially in its medieval and Scholastic forms, and shows the limitations of worldly wisdom.  Thus she praises the drinking of wine and self-love; she attacks prudence, the enemy of foolishness; she appreciates experience as a mode of knowing and a path to wisdom; and she affirms that pleasure is virtue.

Finally, because Stultitia believes that Christians are fools for Christ’s sake, she knows she is more than a fool.  She knows that it is the wisdom of this world that is really folly and that her foolishness is wisdom.  Indeed, she says that, for her, “the Christian religion taken all together has a certain affinity with some sort of folly and has little or nothing to do with wisdom.”  The fool of fools is the pious Christian who imitates the folly of Christ by accepting the cross of Christ.  The Christian is a fool because, in accepting the folly of Christ and in rejecting the wisdom of the world, the Christian accepts that “the foolishness of God is wiser than man.”


SCRIPTURE: The Cross And The Foolishness Of God, by John Proctor

From First and Second Corinthians

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.  For it is written,

“I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the discernment of the discerning I will thwart.”

Where is the one who is wise?  Where is the scribe?  Where is the debater of this age?  Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?  For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe.  For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.  For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.

In several letters Paul uses the cross like the needle of a compass to give orientation and direction to his thought and writing.  From here he plots a course through the varied pastoral problems of his congregations.  By this he brings the values of the gospel into contact with the questions of the people.  With it he challenges attitudes and ambitions of the wider world.  When we get to 2 Corinthians, we shall find Paul reflecting on the cross as a pattern for Christian ministry.  Here in the first Epistle, he contrasts the crucifixion with “wisdom.”

For the cross is “foolishness.”  To preach about it is, by human standards, mad.  People in the ancient world knew well about crucifixion.  It was a public way to dispose of rebels and criminals with the fullest possible measure of suffering and shame.  It would have seemed utterly crazy that the world should be saved in such a wretched and awful way.

There is, thank God, no very close equivalent to crucifixion in our time.  But to speak of the cross in New Testament times might be rather like our discussing hanging or the electric chair.  These are not subjects for polite company or dignified discourse.  If you want to impress people with your wisdom, you do not take pride in execution or praise a man whom the state has killed.  Do that, and you cause only scandal and offense.  Nothing there will entice “the wise,” “the scribe,” and “the debater of this age.”  Neither Jews nor Greeks attributed much value to those who were crucified.

For Greek culture valued learning and sophistication.  It was important to sound clever.  Jews looked for a messiah to do deeds of power.  They wanted a leader who would achieve something on his people’s behalf.  By both of these standards the crucifixion was mere madness and weakness.

Yet Paul knew, and he wanted to remind the Corinthians, that the cross has a paradoxical strength.  In dying, God was weak as a way of showing power.  God looked a fool, but there was meaning in the madness.  Christians who had heard the call of the good news and begun to discover Christ’s saving love would find the cross a place of wisdom and hope.  Never again need they think that God judges by appearances.  Never again need they confuse spiritual power with human pomp and pride.  At the cross the church can gather as a united people, rich and poor, the wise and the weak, as one body in Christ.


POETRY: Reflection On “A Certain Woman,” by Enuma Okoro


I confess to stealing
healings caught on rims
of rough cotton linens.
Securing double blessings
in grief and desperation.
A master turned to claim
His own, to seal my blood flow
for a later date and
I’m lauded for a faith
that bore no options.



If I believed like She did
and pressed through my crowded thoughts
to steal healings and blessings
in desperate faith
fear and trembling kneeling
to confess my theft and my plagues…
Would my blood flow stop
as I often fear it may?