Friday, March 29, 2019

Becoming Persons & Communities of Prayer

In God’s Companions, Sam Wells, Vicar of St. Martin-in-the-Field, Trafalgar Square, London suggests that one thing we hope to become is persons and congregations whose prayer makes sense.

Wells writes that there are patterns of life that help us become people of prayer. These patterns of life parallel aspects of prayer itself – petition, wonder, confession, gratitude, and silence.

Becoming the kind of person who can make petition to God means becoming incarnate – in other words, we are prodded to discover more about the actual flesh and blood person being prayed for, possibly to get to know them and the particulars of their life, perhaps visit them. It also means acknowledging, in humility, that we are all vulnerable, needy, and unable to rely on ourselves alone. This leads to patience with others when their brokenness or shortcomings are evident.

In a community that knows how to make petition, we learn to make petition of one another, asking “how can I help” and asking for help when we need it. It means embracing our interdependence.

Becoming the kind of person who can wonder at the goodness and mystery of God also means cherishing the splendor of the creation and exulting in our own life as part of creation. It might mean spending time with children for whom the gift of joy and wonder are still fresh.

In a community that knows wonder, we share the wonder and mystery of our own lives – our joys and sorrows, our triumphs and disappointments. It means celebrating together and comforting one another.

Becoming the kind of person who can confess sin to God also means being open to acknowledging patterns in our lives that we would just as soon ignore or deny.

In a community that knows how to confess, members positively seek to discover the ways in which they have wronged one another, never being surprised that misunderstanding, disappointment, and hurt occur, but seeing each instance as a prelude to reconciliation. It means being willing to speak and hear the truth in love.

Becoming the kind of person who can give thanks to God also means paying attention to the goodness in our lives and in the world around us and relishing it. It means understanding our life as a gift to be received rather than a prize to be seized.

In a community that knows how to give thanks, members will carefully consider those things for which they want or need to thank one another and how best to do so genuinely.

Becoming the kind of person who can be silent before God means understanding time as a gift to be shared rather than a commodity to be saved or spent. It means remembering that our time is not really our own, but God’s. It means learning to be still and to listen. It also means learning to be still long enough to listen to one another – listening (and watching) for revelation.

In a community that knows how to be silent, we make space to be silent together and share the intimacy and vulnerability of letting go of the urgency to always find the right word or the right action and resting in nothing but the grace of God.
(God’s Companions, from pp. 84-88)

May our lives make sense of our prayer and our prayer make sense of our lives.

Saturday, March 9, 2019

Gregory of Nyssa on Slavery

Gregory of  Nyssa (335-394) was one of the most consequential theologians of the early Church. His preaching and writing helped to shape how Christians think about God and the life. Unfortunately, to the Church's shame, some of his teaching did not shape things as much as they should have. For example, he preached a scathing rebuke of slavery. We can only wish that Christians generally had taken that sermon to heart, repent, and commit to being more faithful in our time. 

In his 'Fourth Homily on Ecclesiastes', he references Ecclesiastes 2:7 –  'I acquired slaves and slave girls, and slaves were born in my house’ and says:

Does any of the things listed here, a sumptuous house, vineyards galore, beautiful gardens, a system of pools supplying orchards with water, suggest as much arrogance as the man’s idea that he as a human being can be master over his fellows? ‘For I acquired,’ he says, ‘slaves and slave-girls, and slaves were born in my house.’ Do you see the vast extent of his boastfulness? Such a voice as his is raised in open defiance against God.

For we have learnt from the prophet (Ps. 119.91) that all things are subject to the Power that transcends everything. If a man, therefore, regards what belongs to God as his own property, and lets members of his family share in his ownership, and if he goes so far as to think himself lord and master of both men and women, and sees himself as being different from those under his authority, surely in his arrogance he is doing nothing else than going beyond the limits of his own nature?

‘I acquired slaves and slave girls.’ What is that you say? You condemn a person to slavery whose nature is free and independent, and in doing so you lay down a law in opposition to God, overturning the natural law established by him. For you subject to the yoke of slavery one who was created precisely to be master or mistress of the earth, and who was ordained to rule by the Creator, as if you were deliberately attacking and fighting against the divine command.

You have forgotten the limits of your power. Your authority is limited to ruling over brute beasts. ‘Let them have authority,’ Scripture says (Gen. 1.26), ‘over the birds and the fishes, the four-footed beasts and creeping things.’ How is it that you ignore these creatures which are properly assigned to you in slavery, and rise up against the very creature that is free by nature? How is it that you class one of your own species among four-footed beasts or even reptiles? ‘You have made all things subject to human beings,’ cries the Logos through the mouth of the prophet (Ps. 8.6), and the passage lists what is subject to reason, namely cattle, oxen, sheep.

Surely human beings have not been born to you from cattle? Surely oxen have not provided you with human offspring? The only mastery a human being can properly exercise is over the brute beasts. Is that such a small thing for you? ‘You make grass grow for the cattle,’ says Scripture (Ps. 104.14), ‘and fresh plants for the slaves of human beings.’ But through your system of slavery you have divided the one species, making members of that species slaves or masters of other members.

‘I acquired slaves and slave girls.’ Tell me, what price did you pay for them? What did you find among your possessions that you could trade for human beings? What price did you put on reason? How many obols (ancient Greek bronze or silver coins) did you pay as a fair price for the image of God? For how many staters (gold coins) have you sold the nature specially formed by God? ‘God said, “Let us make humankind in our image and likeness.”’ (Gen.126) Tell me this, who can buy human beings, who can sell them, when they are made in the likeness of God, when they are rulers over the whole earth, when they have been given as their inheritance by God authority over all that is on the earth? Such power belongs to God alone, or rather, it does not belong even to God. For, as Scripture says, ‘The gifts of God are irrevocable.’ (Romans 11.29) Of his own free will God called us into freedom when we were slaves to sin. In that case he would hardly reduce human beings to slavery. But if God does not enslave what is free, who dares put his own authority higher than God’s?

How can the rulers of the earth and all that is on it possibly be sold? When human beings are sold, it is absolutely necessary for their property to be handed over as well. What price, then, will we put on the whole earth? What price will we put on all that is on the earth? But if these things are beyond price, tell me, how much is their master or mistress worth? Even if you say ‘the whole world’, not even then have you arrived at their true value. For One who knows very well what human nature is like said that not even the whole world is a fair price for a human soul. (Mark 8.36 and parallels) When a human being is put up for sale, nothing less than the ruler of the earth is led onto the auction block. Now obviously the property they have will be auctioned along with them, and that means the earth, the sea, the islands, and all that is on or in them. How much, then, will the buyer pay? What will the vendor receive, when property of this kind is involved in the transaction?

Have a brief document, a bill of sale, and the counting out of a few obols deceived you into thinking yourself the master of the image of God? Oh, what madness! If the contract were to get lost, or the documents were to be eaten away by moths, or if a drop of water were to fall on them from somewhere and ruin them, where then would be the proof, where the guarantee, that they are your slaves, and you their master? For I cannot see that the title of master gives you anything beyond what your slave has, apart from the title itself.

What has your power added to your nature? Neither years, nor beauty, nor good health, nor moral advantages. Both you, the master, and your slave were born in the same way; you both live under the same conditions; you are both subject to the same states of soul and body, to pain and cheerfulness, to mirth and distress, grief and pleasure, desire and fear, illness and death. There is surely no difference in these respects between master and slave. Do they not draw the same air into their lungs? Do they not both enjoy the same light of the sun? Do they not keep themselves alive in the same way, by the intake of food? Do they not have the same arrangement of internal organs? Do not the two of them become the same dust after death? Is there not one judgement for both? Is there not a common heaven, a common hell?

You, therefore, who are equal to your slave in all respects, what have you got that makes you superior enough to think yourself master of a human being, when you are just a human being yourself? How can you say, ‘I acquired slaves and slave girls,’ as if you were talking about a herd of goats, or a herd of pigs? (For having said, ‘I acquired slaves and slave girls,’ he goes on to mention the wealth of flocks and herds he had. ‘I had great possessions,’ he says, ‘of flocks and herds.’) He talks as if these animals and the slaves subject to his authority were in the same class.

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

On Giving up Murder, Cannibalism, and Cursing for Lent

I was taught growing up that we shouldn’t use bad language. That meant we should avoid using a short list of four-letter “curse” words. Indeed, one of the surest marks that one was a serious Christian was the refraining from using such words. And for some, one measure of the goodness of a movie is whether it has “language” in it. But there is almost nothing in the Bible that suggests that such language, even the “F word” is all that bad. There is only one place in the entire Bible that suggests what we usually call dirty words might be problematic: “Let there be no filthiness, nor silly talk, nor levity, which are not fitting; but instead let there be thanksgiving” (Ephesians 5:4). Interestingly, those Christians who make much about “filthiness” do not make so much about “silly talk” or “levity”. I wonder if one of Satan's most profound tricks has been to make Christians so disproportionately squeamish about so-called swearing.

I am not suggesting that we should start casually using the words generally considered vulgar. I am more and more convinced that a fundamental aspect of the deeper holiness to which we are called has to do with the words we use. Wordcare has to do with all our use of language. Among other things, it has to do with the language we use about God. The warning against taking the Lord's name in vain is, after all, one of the Ten Commandments. And it has to do with the truthfulness and integrity of our language generally. Those might be topics for another time. What I’d like to write about now is the significance of how we use words to and about others. The Bible and the Christian tradition have much more to say about that than the seven words you can't say on television.

I suggest we give up murder, cannibalism, and blasphemous cursing for Lent

The language of sarcasm is my mother tongue. I know I need to check it. I am also increasingly aware of how language that dismisses or disparages the other or refers to the other with disdain has become our common tongue. It is common in entertainment and other media. It is frequently present at work and in families. It is endemic in our polarized political discourse. And it is all too familiar in church debates. But, for Christians, it ought not to be so. We are instructed otherwise in scripture, particularly in the New Testament. From the Desert Fathers and Mothers to the Rule of St. Benedict and beyond, the importance of disciplining our speech is a common theme among the saints.


Our Lord famously warns, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire” (Matthew 5:21-22). When we speak to or about others with words of disdain, words that dismiss, words that disparage the other, we are committing a species of spiritual violence that is of the same genus as murder. And it is subject to frightful judgment. Add to that Jesus’ command to love enemies and refrain from judging and one begins to measure words more carefully.


The Apostle Paul also had much to say about our words as well as our behavior toward one another. In his letter to the Galatians, St. Paul resorts to the striking imagery of cannibalism, “For the whole law is summed up in a single commandment, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (Galatians 5:14-15). St. John Chrysostom picks up on this in a sermon on Fasting:

Let the mouth fast from disgraceful and abusive words, because, what gain is there when, on the one hand we avoid eating chicken and fish and, on the other, we chew-up and consume our brothers? He who condemns and blasphemes is as if he has eaten brotherly meat, as if he has bitten into the flesh of his fellow man. It is because of this that Paul frightened us, saying: "If you chew up and consume one another be careful that you do not annihilate yourselves."

You did not thrust your teeth into the flesh (of your neighbor) but you thrusted bad talk in his soul; you wounded it by spreading defame, causing inestimable damage both to yourself, to him, and to many others.

I wonder particularly if we would not do well to be less eager to chew on the latest revelation of some outrageous act or word from those with whom we disagree. We could also get over the taste for the put down, for patronizing, and for manipulation. It seems to me that we are often intent on accusing others of biting us even as we are picking the bits of others out from between our own teeth.

Blasphemous Cursing

In his letter, St. James warns about the tongue, “If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless” (James 1:26). He goes even further, “For every kind of beast and bird, of reptile and sea creature, can be tamed and has been tamed by humankind, but no human being can tame the tongue--a restless evil, full of deadly poison. With it we bless the Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who are made in the likeness of God. From the same mouth come blessing and cursing. My brethren, this ought not to be so” (James 3:7-10). James is onto something deeper than just worrying about four-letter words. And it’s not even simply a matter of not saying, “Go to hell" or “Damn you” though either would be blasphemous presumption. All words that destroy, tear down, or dismiss are a form of cursing. And because they disrespect those who are created in the likeness of God, they are a form of blasphemy.

Toward the end of his letter, James summarizes this concern with, “Be patient, therefore, beloved, until the coming of the Lord. The farmer waits for the precious crop from the earth, being patient with it until it receives the early and the late rains. You also must be patient. Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near. Beloved, do not grumble against one another, so that you may not be judged. See, the Judge is standing at the doors!” (James 5:7-9)

Indeed, as James wrote, it ought not to be so. And yet our public and private discourse seems full of verbal murder, cannibalism, and blasphemous cursing. The internet is especially rife with such things across the theo-political and theological spectrum.


Our wordcare both demonstrates whether or not our hearts and minds are oriented toward God and shapes that orientation. If we fear God, if we love the Lord, if we hope for any fellowship with the Holy Spirit; we would do well to take care with our words. And if we believe in the day of scrutiny (Wisdom 3:19), we should forswear murder, cannibalism, and cursing. The Judge is standing at the door and "you will have to give an account for every careless word you utter" (Matthew 12:36). Therefore, “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths” (Ephesians 4:29a), “But, get rid of all such things—anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth” (Colossians 3:8). Such language is infinitely more problematic than the usual list of dirty words.

Only What is Useful for Building Up

Finally, it is not enough not to murder, cannibalize or curse others with our words. It would be good for us to commit to speaking in ways that lead to life and peace and encouragement – “only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29b). And we might take this to heart, “But in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame” (1 Peter 3:15-16). And this, “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Romans 12:10).

The purity of our lips is about much more than a list of dirty words. The basic question is not which actual words one uses, but whether our words tear down or build up. What is impure is any rhetoric that is disdainful or demeaning of another person – rhetorical murder, cannibalism, and cursing. And that should offend our sensibilities regardless of the actual words used.