Engagement with God (Foundations of Spiritual Formation) Pt 3: ‘s’ons of God in the ‘S’on

We continued our “Engagement with God” series this past weekend at Bloom (listen to the talk here if you missed it) by diving deeper into 2 Corinthians 3:18:

And we, who with unveiled faces, all reflect (a newer version has ‘contemplate’, which I like for a whole bunch of reasons) the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.

Paul makes the claim that transformation into the likeness of God happens as we gaze at/contemplate/reflect the “glory of the Lord”.  Several verses later we will find out that this claim is “Christologically” grounded… that is to say, it is Christ himself who is the very “image/likeness” of God and who brings the “light of the knowledge of the glory of God” to us in his very face (see ch 4).  That is to say, if we were looking for a theological “shape” for spiritual formation in this verse, we could probably say that transformation happens as the Holy Spirit directs our attention to Christ and then begins to mold us into his likeness, he who is the perfect “image” of God, which we sons of Adam were called to be but didn’t live up to (cf. Gen 1-3).

But more should be said, shouldn’t it?  What could it possibly mean for us to take on the image and likeness of Jesus?  Well I think to get at an answer to that question we need to take a broad look at the biblical story – a story that begins with another “son” of God, Adam, and his wife, rebelling against God, failing to offer God the obedience through which alone they would remain happy and free.

The Old Testament story is a tragic unfolding of this fateful step into rebellious, hardhearted self-will, and even when God does choose a people (Israel) to undo what Adam did, we quickly find out that they too are part of the problem.  God repeatedly calls his people “stiff-necked” and “rebellious.”  Through one of the prophets he declared of his people, “they greatly love to wander, they do not restrain their feet” (Jer 14:10).  What a tragedy! – that the people who were called to be the solution in fact seemed to exacerbate and draw attention to the problem by their own failures.  In fact, as we’ll learn later on in the New Testament, this was part of the deep mystery of Israel’s calling – “the law was given so that the trespass might increase” (Rom 5:20).  Warped, self-willed humanity cannot follow God.  St. Augustine said that the human will was incurvatus – which meant that it was turned in on itself and as such, couldn’t please God without being broken.  Israel was Exhibit A of that truth.

So what is so remarkable then about the person of Jesus is simply that – that his will was never incurvatus.  Here, in Jesus, we meet for the first time, and most perfectly, a true “Son” of God; One whose will was never turned in on the self but always and solely directed in obedient submission to his Father in heaven.  Hence the voice from heaven at his baptism – “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3).  Hence Jesus’ model prayer – “Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.  Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, as in heaven so also on earth” (Matt 6).  Hence Jesus’ repeated claims that “the Son can do nothing from himself; he can only do what he sees his Father in heaven doing.  For whatever the Father does the Son also does” (John 5).  Hence his obedient posture in the hours before his death – “but the world must learn that I love the Father and that I do exactly what my Father has commanded me” (John 14), and then in the Garden of Gethsemane – “Going a little farther, he fell to the ground and prayed that if possible the hour might pass from him. ‘Abba, Father,’ he said, ‘everything is possible for you. Take this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will’” (Mark 14).  What Jesus models in his life from the beginning to the bitter end is simply this – an unremitting, perfect submission to the Father.  He will hold nothing back.  Here, finally, is a true “Son” of God, one who perfectly reflects the Divine will.

Seems to me, then, that for us to be transformed into the Image of this “Son” of God, who ever renders to the Father perfect, submitted obedience, is to have our selfish self-will fundamentally broken… it is to let the Spirit, who incorporates us into the person of Jesus Christ, kill off in us everything that is not submitted to God… to let him push us to total surrender and yeildedness to the Divine will.  This is ground zero for spiritual formation.  The Father will make us His obedience sons and daughters in and through The Son.  That’s what we’re in for.  Nothing less.  This is the meat and potatoes of Engagement with God.

It occurs to me that there are a handful of things that we do – all of which are not bad in themselves and can be very wonderful – to keep this will-breaking work of God at bay in our lives:

  • We get spiritual.  We practice yoga and meditation.  We go on solitude retreats and nature walks.  We listen to beautiful music and drink in gorgeous surroundings in order to achieve a sense of peace, calm, and stability in our lives, and to give us a sense of connectedness to the Transcendent… but we never yield.  We never repent.  Spirituality is worthless without submission.
  • We get religious.  We stitch together an ornate web of ancient and modern religious practices in order to give us a sense of rootedness.  We revel in our religious rhythms and systems, get serious and interested in theology, learn to pray in the way of the ancients… but we never yield.  We never repent.  Religion is worthless without submission.
  • We get moral.  We try to live our lives the best we can.  We console ourselves with a truncated view of the Golden Rule (one in which the reality of God in Christ is really not required at all).  We make sure our lives are basically upright… but in so doing we bracket out God.  Or perhaps more accurately, “God” for us becomes a mere symbol of “trying to be the best person I can be.”  But there is no Engagement with God.  None.  We are like the older brother in the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15).  At home in the Father’s house… and yet just SO distant.  Never yielding.  Never repenting.  Morality is a dangerous substitute for submission.
  • We get involved (we get political).  We tie our cart to our favorite global, humanitarian, or political cause.  We get loud about it.  We attend rallies.  We shout down the opposition.  We become righteous warriors against hunger, against greed and corruption, against Big Government, against bigotry and hatred… and on down the list.  But here again we find that it is possible to be an “older brother” – so concerned with what is “right”, but ever so distant.  Never yielding.  Never repenting.  Getting involved is a dangerous substitute for submission.
  • We criticize “the system”.  We excoriate the church for failing to live up to its calling.  We protest pastors and church leaders who “just don’t get it”.  We rail against governments that keep people down.  We decry war.  And perhaps our criticisms are not wide of the mark.  Perhaps they in fact are right.  But (and this again is where it’s all so sinister), all of our righteous indignation at “the system” may in fact be a way of keeping the work of God IN US at bay.  A smug self-righteousness settles in, and whereas we think we’re lonely prophet, we’re really just the Pharisee – forever contended in his deflection… but never yielding.  Never repenting.  Criticizing the system is a dangerous substitute for submission.

Perhaps I have been overly harsh.  But it seems obvious enough to me that the human heart is more often than not afraid of God.  And so we construct elaborate methods for coming “so” far, but stopping short of complete surrender to the Divine Will… to the Spirit who will break us and then remake us in the Image of the Son, who lived to obey his Father.  We get spiritual, we get religious, we get moral, we get involved, we criticize the system…

And all the while, we’re still holding tight.

It’s understandable… but tragic.  Repentance, the shattering of our obstinacy, is hard and often very painful.  But in the absence of a total yieldedness to God, what else is there for us?  We’ve been saying all along that salvation is participation in the Triune life of God… but that participation is impossible so long as the Creature continues to hold tight to his rebel reign against the Creator.  The flag must be raised.  Our arms must be laid down.  We’ll need to let him come in and plant the flag of his Reign in us.  It is that or nothing.  As C.S. Lewis so famously put it in The Problem of Pain:

George MacDonald, in a passage I cannot now find, represents God as saying to men, “You must be strong with my strength and blessed with my blessedness, for I have no other to give you.”  That is the conclusion of the whole matter.  God gives what He has, not what He has not.  He gives the happiness that there is, not the happiness that is not.  To be God – to be like God and to share His goodness in creaturely response – and to be miserable, those are the only three alternatives.  If we will not learn to eat the only food that the universe grows–the only food that any possible universe can ever grow–then we must starve eternally.

To share in the goodness and life of God in creaturely surrender – that is the only offer for happiness before us; that we would become sons and daughters of God in The Son, sharing in the joy and delight that the Son experiences as he Himself ever submits to his Father – that what is on the table.  The question is always, will we be man or woman enough to take it?

Ourselves not the Center

We speak glibly of your glory, Lord God

But we live as though we were the Center

 

our minds pre-occupied with our own lives

our hearts set on our own concerns

our energy spent on things not Yours

 

And they have become wearisome…

 

But then we hear a liberating word,

An echo from eternity that reminds us of the way things really are:

 

“Holy, holy, holy,

Lord God Almighty,

Heaven and Earth are filled with your glory!”

 

We are reminded

that we are not the Center

 

that the kingdom is yours

and the power is yours

and the glory too is all yours

 

Which is just the way we want it anyway.

 

Bring us home Lord God,

To You at the Center

And Us at the Fringes of Your Mercy.

Amen.

Engagement with God (Foundations of Spiritual Formation) Pt 2: Gaze

At Bloom this past weekend (click the link if you missed it), we laid out another indispensable foundation for spiritual formation, in addition to the three already laid last week (Trinity, union, and theosis or “ever-increasing participation in the divine life”).  The Apostle Paul captured it perfectly in 2 Corinthians 3 when he said:

18 And we all, who with unveiled faces contemplate the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his image with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.”

He later clarifies his comments in chapter 4 when he says:

4 The god of this age has blinded the minds of unbelievers, so that they cannot see the light of the gospel that displays the glory of Christ, who is the image of God6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of God’s glory displayed in the face of Christ.

Fascinating.  We “contemplate” the glory of God (which, Paul tells us, is revealed in the face of Christ) and so are transformed INTO that which we are looking at… that is, we are “transformed into His image”, He who is Himself the perfect “image of God”.  The ancients would have said that “contemplation leads to union” with God.  That is to say, as the human heart is turned away from self (we are broken, cracked images after all) and to God in Christ (the true Image), we begin to take on the character and likeness of that which we look at.  To gaze at Him is to be transformed by Him… into something that looks like Him.  We become true reflections – “sons” of God – in THE Son, Jesus Christ.  And all of this happens… simply by gazing.  The great Catholic theologian Hans urs von Balthasar put it like this:

After a mother has smiled at her child for many days and weeks, she finally receives her child’s smile in response.  She has awakened love in the heart of her child…God interprets himself to man as love in the same way: he radiates love, which kindles the light of love in the heart of man…just as no child can be awakened to love without being loved, so too no human heart can come to an understanding of God without the free gift of his grace, in the image of his Son. (Love is Credible, 76)

Or as the great Spanish poet St. John of the Cross put it:

…only look this way now as once before: your gaze leaves me with lovelier features where it plays. (The Spiritual Canticle)

To behold God is to undergo a fundamental alteration on the level of our beings.  And to look away from God is simply to peter off into non-existence.  No wonder the first commandment reads (literally, in Hebrew):

There shall not be for you other elohims before my face. (Ex 20:3)

That is to say: DON’T STOP LOOKING AT ME!  When the gaze of the soul is directed at God, we come alive.  When the gaze of the soul is directed at anything else, we die.  It’s just that simple.  To experience union with God, which is the goal of the Christian life, indeed the goal of all human life, we first must learn to lift up our eyes to God as he comes to us in the person of Christ, the True Man, the True God… the very “image of God”.

This is challenging for a number of reasons.  It is challenging first I think because we don’t naturally DO this.  Our natural bent is to live as though God doesn’t exist, as though his claims on our lives were not all-encompassing, totalizing claims.  But even if we do determine in our souls to run after God, it becomes challenging for yet another reason – we’re capable of making idols out of just about anything.  Let me explain.

When I was a kid, I learned to embrace the devotional life because most of the people I was surrounded by did it, and did it well.  So I did it.  And learned to love it.  As I grew older, I made many interesting discoveries… I learned to “branch out” vis a vis the devotional life, by embracing spiritual practices and routines the ancients used to embrace.  The Daily Hours, Lectio Divina, Silence, Fasting, etc etc.  Later on I learned that one could encounter the Divine beyond the devotional life.  I could find Him in art and music and good food and drink and good friends… and even more, I could encounter Him by interacting with the poor, as he promises to be found there.

But it is just there that the temptation lies – mistaking the vehicle for the destination.  The One whom we seek is God.  More specifically, it is God’s very Self-Expression, his Word, the Son.  My experience has been that it is quite easy to love prayer for prayer’s sake… and lose track of Jesus.  We get lost in the mechanics of a deeply “spiritual” devotional time, and forget the point.  Similarly, I hear people say, “Oh I just love worship”, and I think, “be careful with that.”  Or I’ll hear people say, “I find God when I make art”, and I think, “Great… but be careful that you don’t make an idol out of your art.”  It’s just all to easy to mistake the finite for the Infinite.  In so doing, we drift away from Life.

C.S. Lewis, in his classic work “The Great Divorce”, records this conversation between a famous artist allowed to make a journey into heaven and one of the spirits in heaven:

“Why, if you are interested in the country only for the sake of painting it, you’ll never learn to see the country,” said the spirit.  “But that’s just how a real artist is interested in the country,” replied the ghost.  “No.  You’re forgetting,” said the spirit.  “That was not how you began.  Light itself was your first love: you loved paint only as a means of telling about the light.”  “Oh that’s ages ago,” said the ghost.  “One grows out of that.  Of course, you haven’t seen my later works.  One becomes more and more interested in paint for its own sake.”

“One does indeed.  I also have had to recover from that.  It was all a snare.  Ink and catgut and paint were necessary down there, but they were also dangerous stimulants.  Every poet and musician and artist, but for Grace, is drawn away from the love of the thing he tells, to love of telling it till, down in Deep Hell, they cannot be interested in God at all but only in what they say about Him.” (79-80)

I love being a pastor in Denver.  It is progressive in the most beautiful sense.  That there are so many young people in this city asking thoughtful questions about their faith and showing deeper eagerness to engage in the mission of God and unearth fresh forms of faith fills my soul with constant joy.

But here’s something I know – in this city, we are constantly in danger of making an idol out of “spirituality”.  We’ll make idols out of ancient prayer and social action and beautiful liturgies… and in all of this forget WHY we do it in the first place.

It occurs to me that Christians, at their best, don’t practice “spirituality”.  Buddhists do that.  Christians worship Jesus.  And that is what makes them Christians.  When they stop worshiping Jesus, all they’re left with is the fumes of a bland, nondescript “spirituality.”

I hope desperately for my congregation that they would love Jesus more than anything.  If they (and you) do, they’ll get all the rest thrown in – art, music, ancient prayer, engagement with the poor, social action, worship, etc.  If they (and you, and me) don’t, we’ll lose it all.  For He, Jesus, is “the radiance of the glory of God”.  What God emanates is His Son.  To engage with Him, and so come alive in Him, is irreducibly a matter of falling in love with the person of Jesus.  There is no Christianity without this.

Engagement with God (Foundations of Spiritual Formation) Pt 1: Life

Well, we’re now hurtling headlong into one of my favorite periods in the Christian calendar – the season of Lent.  “Lent” is likely a scary or ambivalent for many people, but ever since being introduced to the beauty and power of the Christian calendar several years ago, it has been my ambition to recapture Lent for the Christian imagination in the 21st century.  So some definitions and clarifications are probably in order.

First, the word “Lent” is an old English word that simply means “Spring”, which is apropos, because Lent occurs in the (let me hear you say it), SPRING.  Duh, right?  But already we’re bumping up against the very spirit of the Lenten season just by connecting it with Spring, for Lent is about the re-emergence of life in our own lives and in our world after the long winter of spiritual death (I totally hate winter).  Winter, of course, is not an awful thing.  In a way, winter is a sort of “Sabbath” for the land.  The soil lies dormant and roots go deeper as everything sleeps.  It is a sort of “night” that prepares the way for the bright light of morning.  A “clearing away” of death to make room for NEW LIFE.

Ah… new life.  That’s the very center of this whole thing.  Hence the reason that Lent culminates in Resurrection… the bursting forth of God’s New Creation in the midst of the Old in the Person of Jesus, the God-Man who welcomes humanity into the God-life.

That leads to the second point.  It seems that the Church first began practicing Lenten spirituality as a way of helping initiate would-be converts into the faith.  The “catechumens” would undergo a 40 day process of learning the essentials of the faith and counting the cost before the stood up, on Easter Sunday, “repudiated” the world, the flesh, and the Devil, and expressed their solidarity with the victorious Christ and his people through baptism.  (AWESOME!  I’m gonna have some people at Bloom do some “repudiating” in the tank pretty soon I think.)  Over time, the rest of the Church started saying, “Hey, a 40 day period to revisit the foundations of our faith and rededicate ourselves to God’s not a bad idea… let’s all do it.”  And so, Lenten spiritual discipline was born.

(For my traditional evangelical friends who aren’t used to such language, let me assure you that this is not far from your own experience.  Anyone ever heard of “40 Days of Purpose”?  Ever been in a church where the pastor called the congregation to several weeks of prayer and fasting as a way of kicking off the new year?  Or 24-7 prayer in the middle of the year?  Corporate return to God is nothing new… that’s what Lent is all about.)

With all of that in mind, I thought it would be good at BLOOM to spend the several weeks leading UP TO Lent revisiting the Foundations of Spiritual Formation… in other words, what is the “shape” of our engagement with God and what does that look like?  We began our series this past weekend (if you haven’t, you can listen to the talk here), and so I’d like to offer a brief summary and then encourage you to peek in here over the next few weeks as I recap what we’re chatting about (and of course you can listen to the podcast too!).  Without further ado…

Foundation 1 – Who is God and What is He Like? The Christian tradition is unequivocal about this issue, and sadly, while most Christians take it for granted, it has almost no impact on the way that they live their spirituality.  God, we are taught, is a Three-Personal being.  That is, he is Trinity.  From before all eternity, the Son issues forth from the Father, the Father delights in the Son, the Son looks up to and magnifies the Father, and the Spirit serves as the bond that holds the Union in tact.  The basic FACT about God is that He is not a solitary, autocratic, sullen, loveless, joyless, lonely monarch.  Far from it.  God, we could say, is from the first a Family.  He is an eternal communion of self-giving love.

Think about what it must be like to be God.  I imagine that in the Being of God there are constant explosions of joy, delight, and celebration.  And how could it be otherwise?  God has everything, and lacks nothing, each Member of the Godhead eternally giving himself away to the others and receiving himself back again in the face of the Other.  Think about the time when you felt MOST connected to the world, and to people around you, or even to one human being.  Oh the joy and ecstasy!  GOD, the Scriptures lead us to believe, has never not felt that ecstasy, but of course in a measure that you and I could never imagine.  This has massive implications for our spiritual formation, because…

Foundation 2 – Where We Come In (Union with God).  Too much of recent “pop” Christianity has conceived of salvation as some kind of marketplace transaction.  We give God something he wants (belief, devotion, whatever), he gives us something we want (a get out of jail free card).  Despite the predominance of that view throughout much of the Western Christian world, we ought to regard it as AT BEST a despicably bastardized view of salvation.  The Christian view… even better, the BIBLICAL view, is just so friggin much better, for the Scriptures claim not merely that God has something to give us (forgiveness), but that the thing that he has to give us is available ONLY IN HIS VERY PERSON.

That is to say, he doesn’t give us “salvation” in the ticket-to-heaven sense so much as he gives us HIMSELF.  As the old man Simeon said when he saw the Christ-child, “Sovereign Lord, you may now dismiss your servant in peace; for my eyes have seen your salvation…”  He’s talking not about a marketplace transaction or a four-spiritual-laws tract.  He’s talking about Jesus.  GOD IS SALVATION.  And the offer that he makes to us is NOT MERELY ESCAPE.  It is participation.  Jesus said to his disciples in John 14, “In that day (the day they meet him resurrected), you will realize that I am IN the Father, and you are IN me, and I am IN you!”  That is to say, JESUS WELCOMES US INTO THE TRINITARIAN LIFE OF GOD!  So that we now share in the eternal, ecstatic, joyful communion of that is the Trinity.  We can be caught up in the cyclone of infinite joy that is the inner being of God.

(Can you tell that sometimes I feel like I’m preaching when I’m writing?!  AHHH!)

But there’s more still…

Foundation 3 – Theosis.  The Eastern Orthodox Church has a concept for describing the journey of salvation that I find simply inspiring.  It’s called “theosis.”  The Western Church (Catholic and Protestant included) for the most part describes the journey of salvation in terms of “sanctification”.  That is, the human life is purified and cleansed from what defiles it.  And while that concept is certainly biblical, and certainly helpful, I find that it leaves out the intensely RELATIONAL component of salvation that the Bible is very intent on making us aware of.  It is not SIMPLY that we are “cleansed” as a dirty cup is “cleansed” when placed in the water, scrubbed, and then put in the strainer to dry.  No, it is more like a bit of metal is “cleansed” by being heated by the fire to incredible temperatures.  The fire penetrates the metal AND AS IT DOES SO, pushes impurity out.

Of course, the end result of purifying something by fire is that you take it OUT of the fire and do something with it.  But when it comes to God, that’s not the case.  And that’s what “theosis” or “divinization” is all about – it’s the process of ever-increasing participation in the Divine Life so that OUR LIVES increasingly come to take on the character of the Divine.  Paul puts it best when he says, “And we all, who with unveiled faces reflect the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into His Likeness (think Jesus) with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit” (2 Cor 3:18).

A cyclone of Trinitarian life… Human beings caught up into it… Having their own lives transformed and transfigured by that same Life.

To my mind, those are three UTTERLY INDISPENSIBLE foundations for spiritual formation.  We’ll have no idea what we’re talking about without them.  Of course there’s much more to say, and we’ll get to that in the coming weeks.  But for now I leave you with a quote by the great CS Lewis that summarizes it best, as only Lewis could do:

The whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us: or (putting it the other way round) each one of us has got to enter that pattern, take his place in that dance.  There is no other way to the happiness for which we were made.  Good things as well as bad, you know, are caught by a kind of infection.  If you want to get warm you must stand near the fire: if you want to be wet you must get into the water. If you want joy, power, peace, eternal life, you must get close to, or even into, the thing that has them.  They are not a sort of prize which God could, if He chose, just hand out to anyone.  They are a great fountain of energy and beauty spurting up at the very center of reality. If you are close to it, the spray will wet you; if you are not, you will remain dry.  Once a man is united to God, how could he not live forever?  Once a man is separated from God, what can he do but wither and die?

Take us up into your life Lord God!