Monday, January 29, 2007

The Cost

The price it too high...the cost is way too high! I imagine something like this went through the young ruler's head when he encountered the all encompassing cost of discipleship.

"Surely God wouldn't want me to squander all the blessings that He has poured out in my life, by offloading them on the poor. They are poor for a reason, such uneducated and slow-minded people would only waste my money! They would likely pour it all down the drain...and for what - a few moments of self-induced pleasure. What a waste!

Well, he must not be the prophet and teacher that I thought he was...sell everything I have and give it all to the poor - what a lunatic. He's got to be nuts! The other commandments, those I can abide by, I'll follow the teachings of Moses till I die. But, to follow this man - No! The cost is too high.

What a waste of my time. I actually thought that he might be the One; the Messiah that we've been waiting for...the one to deliver us from Roman rule. Well, I'm much better off under the rule of Cesar, rather than under the leadership of a man like this. I guess I was wrong."

When I think of the cost of discipleship, I'm not only lead to this biblical image, but I'm also reminded of the amazing witness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Not only because he wrote a book, that when translated was given the title The Cost of Discipleship, but also because of the life that he lived; a powerful witness of that all consuming cost. This book of his begins with these words, "Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace." Words that we need to hear again and again.

I often find myself in "God's story" sounding much like the Rich Ruler...making excuses because the cost is too high. I search for theological reasons that might ease my conscience. But, then I hear the voice of the Master - come and follow me. At first, the words sound harsh and demanding because I don't want to listen, I don't want to follow...I want to go my own way, make my own rules, be my own boss. My immediate reaction is, No! The cost is too high!

But, the voice persists...Richard, come and follow me! I listen again, and the harshness seems to melt away, I begin to hear the compassion...the love...the costly grace. And the more I listen the more I understand that the call is costly, but that it is the only way. It is the only way to the life, purpose, love, and peace that I truly desire. It is the only way to life with God. Listen closely and you just might hear the voice calling to you..."Come, follow me." Listen closely.

More about Bonhoeffer

I would encourage you to read Bonhoeffer's book, it is probably one of the best books out there on the subject. Karl Barth seemed to thinks so, here is what he had to say in his little book The Call to Discipleship, "Easily the best that has been written on this subject is to be found in Discipleship, by Dietrich Bonhoeffer. We do not refer to all the parts, that were obviously compiled from different sources, but to the opening sections, "The Call to Discipleship," "Simple Obedience" (omitted in the earlier English-language editions), and "Discipleship and the Individual." In these the matter is handled with such depth and precision that I am almost tempted simply to reproduce them in an extended quotation. For I cannot hope to say anything better on the subject than what is said here by a man who, having written on discipleship, was ready to achieve it in his own life, and did in his own way achieve it even to the point of death. In following my own course, I am happy that on this occasion I can lean as heavily as I do upon another." Blessings ~ RLS

Monday, January 22, 2007

Certitude or Understanding

In a recent seminar at NTS titled "Is the Reformation Over? A dialogue among friends," Father David Burrell, C.S.C., proposed a dichotomy that stuck with me. He suggested that all people might be divided into those who "need certitude" and those who "seek understanding." This is a summary that he has taken from the work of Bernard Lonergan.

At first, it seemed like an overly simplified platitude to describe the human condition. However, the more that I thought about it, the more this simple division made sense. Can the world truly be divided into two camps - those who need certitude (a psychological need) and those who seek understanding (an intentional quest)? And if this division is true, which camp do I belong to?

As I contemplated these questions more and more, it became evident that my life has been a process of wavering back and forth between these two spheres. There have been times when my need for certainty dominated everything (typically in times of change or transition). But there have been other times when I was on a journey toward deeper understanding. This dichotomy is quite telling of our spiritual condition. Further, I would suggest that the overarching forces in our culture impress upon us a deeper need for certainty than encouraging us in the open-ended quest for meaning. A pressure that, I believe, stunts our growth in Christ and impedes our ability to be obedient to Him.

Our need for certitude is a natural human response to fear. "Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid." (John 14:27) Again and again, Jesus comforts us with these words "Do not be afraid." Yet, I think our desire for certainty is deeper than simply our response to fear - I think it actually comes out of our desire to control. We want to master and control all of life, rather than walking into the unknown trusting in the Lord of life. Especially in the West (modern post-enlightenment world) we have an overarching need for certainty and control, illustrated by our ubiquitous use of mechanistic rather than organic metaphors. This vision leaves us without the understanding or language to engage the mysteries of life and more importantly the mystery of God. Ultimately, this need for certitude is rooted in the primordial human sin - our attempt to replace God.

Yet, it seems to me that when we truly come into the presence of the Holy One all of our false certainties unravel and our true condition is illumined. Think of Isaiah's encounter with the Lord in the temple. Here is Peterson's translation of that encounter:

"In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Master sitting on a throne—high, exalted!—and the train of his robes filled the Temple. Angel-seraphs hovered above him, each with six wings. With two wings they covered their faces, with two their feet, and with two they flew. And they called back and forth one to the other,

Holy, Holy, Holy is God-of-the-Angel-Armies.
His bright glory fills the whole earth.

The foundations trembled at the sound of the angel voices, and then the whole house filled with smoke. I said,

"Doom! It's Doomsday!
I'm as good as dead!
Every word I've ever spoken is tainted—
blasphemous even!
And the people I live with talk the same way,
using words that corrupt and desecrate.
And here I've looked God in the face!
The King! God-of-the-Angel-Armies!"

Then one of the angel-seraphs flew to me. He held a live coal that he had taken with tongs from the altar. He touched my mouth with the coal and said,

"Look. This coal has touched your lips.
Gone your guilt,
your sins wiped out."

And then I heard the voice of the Master:
"Whom shall I send?
Who will go for us?"

I spoke up,
"I'll go. Send me!"

Everything that Isaiah might have been certain of as a member of the "Chosen People" was revealed to be empty and void in the presence of the Wholly Other. His very life and existence was even called into question. But, in this unraveling he is called into a deeper understanding of God, himself, the community, and creation. His life swept up into the theological quest.

Let me explain what I mean by that last sentence. You see, theology is simply our "God-talk." It literally comes from the Greek words: Theos = God and Logos = word or rationality. So, we might say that theology is a word about God. However, a better way to think of theology is to think of it as the science of God, which is one way that St. Thomas Aquinas describes theology in his Summa Theologica (I just began reading through the Summa this week. It is fascinating and I would encourage anyone with even a minimal interest in the history of Christian thought to pick up a recent translation of this monumental work). What he means by science, though, is not the way that we tend to think of science today. We tend to narrowly define "science" as only referring to the "natural sciences" and those fields of study that are limited by the "scientific method." The word that Aquinas is using, is actually the Latin term scientia meaning "knowledge" and the ways human knowledge is received and formed is in no way limited to the so called "scientific method" from his perspective.

A better definition for theology or the science of God might be "the articulation of our knowledge of the Lord God as He has revealed Himself to us." (T. A. Noble) The theological quest that Isaiah is compelled to embark on is the quest to truly encounter and know the Lord. It is then our desire to seek understanding and articulation for this relational knowledge that we might engage one another along the journey. As Augustine and Anselm both said in various ways, theology is "faith seeking understanding."

We will never truly achieve certainty as we encounter the mysteries of life and a fortiori (even more so) as we encounter the mystery of God. If we allow the need of certitude to consume us it will hinder and quite possibly destroy our engagement with the Creator. Instead, I invite you to join me on the theological quest to release our need for control and manipulation and instead open our lives up to the Mystery! As we go deeper into the life of mystery may we seek understanding and articulation for that which we cannot "fully" know. It is a risk, that is to be sure, because we don't know what we will find, but if Jesus is who He said He is then it is a risk worth taking. Step out of the boat leaving certainty behind and join us in the adventure of following Christ.

Monday, January 15, 2007


Have you ever had one of those days when everything seems to converge on one particular topic. One of those days when it seems pretty obvious that you are meant to learn some lesson or at least reflect upon some subject. I'm having one of those days right now!

Faith . . . what is it all about? I was confronted with this question last night. The movie Simon Birch happened to be on television. We haven't had cable for a while - it is simply a luxury beyond the means of poor graduate students or maybe we just have different priorities - needless to say, our choices are quite limited. So, when a quality and entertaining movie like Simon Birch comes on you take the opportunity to watch it.

The entire movie is wonderful exploration of the foundational faith questions. Is there meaning and purpose in our lives? Or, can we simply explain all of existence through causal relationships? Is there an overarching narrative within which we all play a part? Or, do we explain all things by reducing them to their simplest parts - mass and energy? Questions that go all the way back to Herodotus, Thucydides and byond. The movie thrust me right into the center of our human quest for meaning. I went to bed with questions, and no answers.

Providential guidance has continued to direct me on this quest throughout the day. I'm not quick to make that assumption; however, all of my predetermined devotion, study and reading for the day has revolved around the meaning of faith.

It is a simple word in the koine Greek - pistis. I know, it sounds kind of vulgar when transliterated into English . . . get your mind out of the gutter. Most importantly it is a relational word that carries the connotation of trust and commitment. Moreover, variations of this word can be translated as belief, faith, or trust. It is evident, when the term is used in the Bible that in almost every case it is not referring to belief or faith in abstract concepts or principles, but rather belief, faith, or trust in a personal being.

Even in my reading of James, in preparation for a small group study this evening, faith is used over and over in a relational context. It seems to me that Martin Luther really misunderstood this epistle. In his attempts to exclude it from the canon; regarding it as empty and down right strawy, he missed out on the deeper relational meaning in this powerful paraenesis. While there is an emphasis on the "law" and "works" in conjunction with faith, they are completely understood in a relational context to the Lawgiver! As the author says, "For whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become accountable for all of it. For the one who said, 'You shall not commit adultery,' also said, 'You shall not commit murder.' Now if you do not commit adultery but if you murder, you have become a transgressor of the law." (James 2:10) You see the unity of the "law" is based on the one Lawgiver.

Faith, then, evokes a way of life that is shaped by the One in whom we trust. We do not believe in or have faith in abstract propositions; rather, we have faith in the Living God. This is evident in the recurring call in the Gospel according to John - "come and see." The two disciples of John ask Jesus (their new Rabbi or Teacher), "Where are you staying." Jesus says, "come and see." And the very next verse says, "They came and saw . . . " Then Philip proclaims to Nathanael that they have found the Messiah and he's from Nazareth. Nathanael said, "can anything good come from Nazareth?" Philip replies, "Come and see." It is only through this real encounter that faith is possible because faith is personal, experiential, and relational.

When I find myself struggling with faith it is usually because my attention has been diverted toward abstract ideals, instead of focusing the One in whom I trust. I still don't have any answers, but maybe this was what I was meant to discover and explore today. If you are struggling with questions of faith, I would encourage you to lay aside the abstract belief systems and structures, at least for the moment, and as the Psalmist says, "Taste and see that the LORD is good, blessed is the one who takes refuge in Him." Is Jesus worth checking out? Come and see!

Blessings ~ RLS

N.B. I'm in no way suggesting that belief systems and structures are unimportant. They enable us to flesh out this personal knowledge linguistically, which is of great importance from a relational perspective. However, the theological language itself must not take the place of first order knowledge.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Be Thou My Vision

Be thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart;
Naught be all else to me, save that thou art;
Thou my best thought, by day or by night,
Waking or sleeping, thy presence my light.

Be thou my Wisdom, and thou my true Word;
I ever with thee and thou with me, Lord;
Thou my great Parent, and I thy true child,
Thou in me dwelling and I with thee one.

Riches I heed not, nor all empty praise;
Thou mine inheritance, now and always;
Thou and thou only, first in my heart,
High King of heaven, my treasure thou art.

High King of heaven, my victory won,
May I reach heaven's joys, O bright heaven's Sun!
Heart of my own heart, whatever befall,
Still be my Vision, O Ruler of all.

Rather than offering my inadequate thoughts and ruminations, I thought I would offer one of my favorite hymns for reflection today. Blessings ~ RLS