Tuesday, June 6, 2017

What is Celtic Christian Spirituality?

For the certificate program I am enrolled in, we are asked to keep a 'Learning Journal'.  Here are a few of my reflections on Unit I: 'What is Celtic Christian Spirituality?'

The Foundation for Holistic Spirituality defines spirituality as ‘everyone’s naturally connection with the wonder and energy of nature and all existence. The question was then posed to me, 'How would I define spirituality.'

Though incomplete, here is a quick answer to that question:

Spirituality is the recognition that we are more than our flesh, yet we are also nothing without our flesh.  We connect with God, the Ground of All Being.  Spirituality is the journey of maintaining conscious contact with the Divine.

Ray Simpson, the author of Exploring Celtic Spirituality (the primary text for my course) wrote, “I sensed that my new experience was not an isolated incident: it was part of a tapestry that God was weaving across the ages.”

A realization of mine: It seems a vibrant spirituality is key to discerning the new things God is doing in our midst.  To use a phrase from Alcoholics Anonymous, conscious contact with the Divine enables us to discern, to see the patterns and the signs, to be tapped into the creativity of the Divine Energies.

As part of my learning, I was asked to reflect on five key words and two phrases that best reflect my understanding of ‘Celtic Christian Spirituality.’

1. Trinity: Central to Celtic Christian Spirituality is the Holy Trinity.  However, this is not a static adherence to doctrine.  There is a real sense that all of life occurs within the loving embrace of God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  The mutual love of the Trinity shines forth in the lives and hearts of those believers, and it expands not just to human life, but to all of the created order.

2. Mystical: There is the sense that the beating heart of God is not so far away…that through prayer, sacramental participation, and right living, we truly can be more attuned to the energies of divine grace.

3. Sacramental: The Eucharist is central to this spirituality.  But more than just the Eucharist, there is a deep sense of the capability of material things to convey divine graces.

4. Creative: With some of the original missions, we see innovative approaches to evangelism, church order, and spirituality.

5. Flexible: There is the sense that Celtic Spirituality is inherently contextual, that it adapts to the circumstances, to the land, to the people.  It is not entirely prescriptive.

6. Creation-Affirming: There is a deep love for the created world.  Through nature, we can indeed connect to the energy of God our Creator.

7. Supernaturally Inclined: Angels, saints, even the Enemy…there is the belief in the presence of a world we cannot see with our eyes, but is nevertheless as real as the forest or the rivers.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Choose Your Own Adventure

Growing up, I read a series of novels called Choose Your Own Adventure. They were written as if you yourself were the protagonist of the books.  Filled with crazy and wondrous adventures, reading one of these novels was to truly enter another world.  But what made them special, what made them compelling, was that they had a variety of possible endings.  Every couple of pages, you were forced to make a choice.  “Turn to page 37 if you want to bravely head into the deep, dark Mystic Forest, or turn to page 41 if you want to take the safer road home.” Every choice you made led to another series of choices, and so on and so forth, until you reached one of the 30 or so possible endings.  It was awesome because you could actually read the book several times over and chart a wildly different path, and reach a different conclusion every single time.  Each moment of choice was like a heart-stopping cliffhanger, and as the reader you had to branch out in faith, hoping that the choices you made were going to result in your profit, and not your doom. “You’re the star of the story,” the tagline said. “Choose from over 30 possible endings.”

It’s funny, how connections are made in our minds, but as I pondered this momentous event, when Jesus ascended into Heaven, I kept coming back to those old books. Choose Your Own Adventure. Because truly, the Ascension is its own kind of cliffhanger ending.  The disciples had to witness the brutal death of their Master, and they felt all of the crushing pain that came with his death.  Yet, death was not to have the final word.  In defiance of the finality of the Cross, Jesus burst forth from the Tomb.  He presented himself in the disciples’ homes, which were actually their prisons of fear, showing up even though the doors were locked, offering them a touch of grace precisely when they needed it.  He cooked breakfast for them on the shoreline after he had guided their nets to a gigantic catch.  He fellowshipped with them for 40 days.  But then, after a blessing and a promise of greater power, he left them.  He left.  The one who first left in death was now the one leaving them in life.  After all they had experienced, after the emotional roller coasters they had been on, Jesus left them once again.  It’s like the cruelest of cliffhanger endings.  Just when they thought everything was going to be okay, he left them.

But what he left them with, now that is truly something. “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.” Yes, he left them physically, his body ascending into heaven.  But he didn’t leave them rudderless, adrift on a sea of uncertainty.  He left them with a mission.  He lifted up his hands, blessed them, and commissioned them to carry on his ministry…to continue the wonderworks that he himself accomplished…to go even to the ends of the earth in order to proclaim his saving Gospel.

Yes, he left them physically, and what an emotional cliffhanger that must have been.  But, he also left them with a choice. “Will you carry on my ministry, or will you simply return to the lives you once knew?” And we see something of this in the Scriptures themselves.  As any human being would do, past, present, or yet to come, when they saw their Lord ascend into heaven, they gazed with eyes wide open to the sky, perhaps full of both anguish and surprise.  But their gazing was interrupted by the cutting voices of the angels: “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” I imagine this message was delivered not with a sympathetic voice of comfort, but with something more like a tone that said, “Get on with it.  He told you what to do.  Don’t waste your time waiting around!”  And thus, they found themselves in the crucible of choice: do we stay here, waiting, or do we go out to the ends of the world, preaching?

As much of a cliffhanger as the Ascension is, it reveals some incredible truths.  As we have prayed in the collect of the day, “Jesus Christ ascended far above all heavens that he might fill all things.” There is nowhere that we can go where Jesus Christ is not present.  His Ascension was not simply a physical departure, but it was also his being taken up to the right hand of the Father…transcending those limits of space and time by which we find ourselves constrained.  And with this Ascension comes another realization: Jesus Christ is subject to no one, no thing, no power or principality, no earthly dominion or kingdom.  St. Paul said as much in Ephesians: “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.” Though the disciples may have been filled with surprise, anguish, and fear, they came to believe that there was actually nothing left for them to fear when they truly believed in the supremacy of Jesus Christ. And because we are in this place today, keeping this feast, we are living proof that the disciples chose not to give into fear.  Rather, being awakened from their daze by the voice of the angels, they went to the ends of the earth, preaching the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

This supremacy, this Lordship, this absolute victory over death… we too are called to trust in these things and proclaim them with loud voices, even to the ends of the earth.  Even if we find ourselves in a similar crucible of choice, being confronted with either fear or faithfulness, we are called to trust more deeply in the power of the Ascended Lord and his continual presence with us.  Jesus once said to his disciples, “I will not leave you as orphans.”  And the same thing is true today. He is present with us even as he reigns far above any earthly power or principality. So, like those books of my childhood, we get to choose our own adventure.  Will you stand in fearful waiting, hoping that the Lord Jesus will come back soon to set us free?  Or will you go into the world, preaching and proclaiming his Lordship over all things, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit? The choice is yours!


I call it dime-store theology.  You know, the kind of theology that sells the Gospel short…that takes the radically reorienting truth of the Gospel and makes this whole Christian enterprise into something more like religious self-help.  Dime-store theology…the kind of theology that not only sells God short, but sells us short too. That doesn’t truly open us up to transformation…that tells that who we are at the present moment is the best we will ever be.  It’s dime-store theology because it really does belong on the shelves of discount closeout stores, next to the off-brand cereals and the knockoff purses…an imitation of the highest caliber. Certain theologians across the ages have taught us that we are a people totally depraved, perpetually broken, festering from the wounds of original sin.  Wealthy televangelists have taught us that what God really wants for us is a house in the suburbs with a white picket fence, a robust bank account, and 2.5 children.  Oh, and a Lexus.  We just can’t forget about the Lexus.  And lest you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not.  Theological heavy weights like John Calvin made such claims about our total depravity, and talking heads like Joel Osteen, Creflo Dollar, and Pat Robertson have replaced the Gospel with the American Dream of material and financial success. And because we are a people always searching for meaning, it’s easy to take those things as gospel truth.  But they are not.

On the other hand, here is a bit of the stone-cold truth: “Jesus said, “Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwelling places. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. And you know the way to the place where I am going.” Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him…Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” As his own death was approaching, Jesus wanted to make sure his disciples knew the truth…the truth about God, and the truth about themselves.  It’s one of his ‘Farewell Discourses.’ And what a farewell it is!  “My friends, remember when I raised Lazarus from the dead? And how about the time I healed that blind man with just a bit of spit and mud? Oh, and what about when I said a blessing and we fed five thousand people with the most pathetic of picnic baskets? Do you remember?  Good, because not only are you going to do things like that, but you’re going to one up me, and do something greater!”

Now, I’ll be the first to tell you that I don’t think I’ve ever done a greater work than Jesus.  I’ll also confess to not knowing exactly what he meant when he said that we would do ‘greater works than these.’  When it comes to Jesus, we are all novices in understanding his teachings.  But what I do know is that his belief and trust in the disciples, despite their best efforts to fail at following him, leaves very little room for a belief in the total depravity of human beings.  In fact, it seems to be totally opposed to such a belief.  While we may be accustomed to and conditioned by a world that seems lost to the darkness, Jesus seems more convinced of the light and the promise dwelling with us. What’s curious to me is that we spend so much time talking about our believing in Jesus that we don’t really stop to ponder the great mystery that, apparently, he believes in us.  Through the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, we become the means by which the redemptive work of Jesus Christ continues in the present.  His work is not bound by history, geography, or cultural location.  His light lives on in us, and we are called to burn brightly in the world.

Because of this belief, this trust…the entrusting of the Gospel work to us, we know that we are not totally depraved, nor are we meant only for mere happiness, success, and financial health.  We are not called to simply be a well-adjusted citizen of the world, doing tiny acts of common courtesy when presented with the opportunity.  As it says in 1 Peter, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure, spiritual milk, so that by it you may grow into salvation— if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good…you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” Just simply paying attention to the particular words Peter uses should open us up to the wild and adventurous call God has for us.  We are chosen, as in God wants you. You, with all of your fragility, your scars, your shortcomings…God wants you.  We are a royal priesthood, a people who are called not only to be holy, but to work and labor for the holiness of the whole world.  And though it is rendered here, “God’s own people,” a better translation would be “God’s possession.” We are possessed by God to be set apart, made holy, to be the agents of sanctification in the world.  We, the ones who have found the way out of darkness, are called then to proclaim to the world precisely where they can find the light.

This is serious business my friends.  But, after all, this is the Gospel…a proclamation of Good News based on the stunning truth that death was overturned in the resurrection of Jesus Christ…that we, the people who were once lost, once subsisting only the milk of infants…we have found the light.  We have found the food that doesn’t just sustain us, but also causes us to grow up, to become who God is calling us to be.  And we then take this message to the hurting and broken world around us.  It is our primary purpose.  Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of the hearing of the Gospel, let us endeavor to carry this message to anyone we encounter still trapped in a prison of darkness and despair. May our faith then not be found on the shelves of discount closeout stores, next to the off-brand cereals and the knockoff purses.  May it be the faith once delivered to the saints…the faith that burned in the heart of St. Stephen even as the stones flew towards his face…the faith that caused Peter to write such uplifting yet convicting words…the faith that filled Jesus with hope when he looked at his disciples. Very truly, I tell you, the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these,