I Want God: Entering Into the Lenten Journey

I am most grateful today for the ice storm which brought forced rest into my life this week. This rest allowed time for reflection, which seems like the most appropriate way to honor Shrove Tuesday as I prepare to enter into Lent. You may wonder why someone who is so very Baptist might observe a liturgical season such as Lent. However, it is my very autonomy as a Baptist which allows me the latitude to explore seasons that would more typically be observed by higher churches, like The Episcopal Church or the Catholic Church.IMG_5751

Lent looks pretty different for the diversity of folks who observe it. Some folks are more comfortable adding something to their routines/ lives to focus on God, while other folks remove routine items/ practices so that they may better focus on God. Either way, the idea is to prepare yourself spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically for the high Holy day of Easter, the day of celebration of the resurrection of the Christ. This is the day, which I believe theologically, that the Creator God gave a finality to Death (read: evil, sin, and greed) insofar as saying “Death does not win.”

Practically, Lent can be a structured time (six weeks) that one brings a level of discipline to one’s life which, oddly enough, creates liberation. I use liberation here to mean a time where one is freed from the rat race that one’s life can snowball into in pursuit of the completion of the eternal to-do list, the pursuit of self-affirmation through external sources (especially other people), or even the pursuit of service to others. In naming these things, it is easy to see that though they may not necessarily be harmful, however, the pursuit of them necessarily detracts from the pursuit of their opposites (ie. stillness; self-affirmation through internal/ spiritual means; self-care). These lists may not be entirely fair, but I suspect they are plausible enough that they sound familiar.

So alas, here is my impetus to observe the Holy Lenten season. Most simply put:

I want God.

I want to prepare myself (as much as possible in my feebleness) for the observance of the birth, life, death, resurrection, and ascension of the Eternal Word, the Son, the second person of the Triune God, Christ Jesus. I want to slow myself so that I may open myself to the mystery of grace, mercy, and love that the Creator God, the first person of the Triune, gifted creation with in the act of the Incarnation. Because of this act, God, Emmanuel is with us. This is a gift that I must seriously consider in the next six weeks.

To find a starting point for my Lent practice, I dwell on the words of an Anglican systematic theologian, Sarah Coakley. For Coakley, contemplation (which she classifies as an ascetic discipline) must be a serious endeavor in a Christian’s life. She defines contemplation as particular kind of prayer, wherein one repeatedly waits on God in silence. This practice cultivates the work of the Spirit, the third person of the Triune, who is often reduced to fluff, but who is actually a fierce subverter of powerful and evil institutions. Further, contemplation is a vulnerable act as one sits and receives the divine gifts that God gives, but in this process, the self is expanded. This makes much sense to me; when one is quiet and open, one can see much more about oneself and the world than one could in the midst performing a series of tasks.

I foresee this practice of contemplation (along with the removal of activities which preclude me from contemplation), as being a dear companion through the journey of Lent. I want God. I want to be opened, filled, humbled, and challenged by the Creator who first prepared this journey for me. My prayer is that this season would be as meaningful for you as I hope it will be for me. May we sustain ourselves through this Lenten season with the richness of God’s mercy, God’s justice-making, and God’s Love.

In closing, I’ll leave you with a last quote from Coakley, which can be easily re-written into a prayer:

Contemplation makes great ethical demands– to lose one’s life in order to gain it, to turn the other cheek, to love one’s enemies. It is not a form of disengagement, but of passionate reordered engagement.1

May it ever be so.

1) Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self: An Essay ‘On the Trinity‘ (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013) 340-344.

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Asceticism: Past & Present (And what that has to do with John Piper)

Wearing a chain around one’s neck to remember the weight of one’s sin. Or leading a life of complete celibacy in order to focus more on the divine.

What is asceticism, and how are the ancient practices of asceticism relevant to 21st Century theological conversation and praxis? In other words, what purpose did asceticism serve for early Christians and is asceticism still relevant today? Popular evangelical theologian, John Piper, seems to think it is as relevant today as it was for the early Desert Fathers and Mothers and has used it to support his idea of “Christian Hedonism.” I suggest that Piper’s version of asceticism and his view of its role in modern Christian discipleship are skewed and misdirected; further, I suggest that asceticism is useful today in Christian theology and praxis but only insofar as it is practiced for the sake of our neighbors and not for avoiding idolatry.  … more on that to come.

What is asceticism, exactly?

Asceticism in early Christianity was defined by devotees renouncing worldly pleasures (sexual, familial, monetary, social, etc.) for the sake of spiritual ascent. The Desert Fathers and Mothers are oft referred as “ascetics,” they lived around 300-500 CE in remote desert areas of solitude. Some of their practices were literal and extreme, such as one wearing a weighty chain around one’s neck to be consistently reminded of the weight of one’s sin, or fasting from sleeping and eating for days to focus on prayer. Richard Finn on Oxford Bibliographies offers a helpful general definition of asceticism here. Asceticism grew during a time in which the Roman political authority was imperializing Christianity. You see, Christianity was evolving from a subversive, persecution-filled experience to a state religion under the Roman Emperor, Constantine. A martyr’s death at the hands of Roman officials for one’s faith was not necessarily an empire-wide reality any longer, rather, it was but a memory for these early Christians. Martyrdom was held as one of the highest Christian acts; it was an ultimate act of inversion as persecutors sought to degrade and stamp out Christians. It achieved the opposite, giving martyrs a high honor in the faith. It was a literal manner of giving up one’s earthly, sinful body to emulate Christ in his sacrifice; in other words, it was a way of spiritual ascent. Many of the martyrs are still venerated in church traditions today.1, 2  So, if persecution was no longer a widespread threat, how did Christians achieve spiritual ascension?

The church?

Maybe.

But what if the church was too close for comfort to the Roman government? What if the ideals of the faith had been watered down? What if bishops were controlled by the emperor? Better yet, what if the emperor was venerated as a deity?

Moving away from church and state authority, ascetics chose to reside in the solitude of the desert, finding spiritual ascent in self-denial of worldly pleasures. Their teachings began subsuming anti-empire sentiments during a time when the debate of authority was rampant. There is no doubt that ascetic teaching was a valuable theological practice for early Nov. 2013 038Christians, but it also could very well have been a subversion of church authority with the intent to place that authority in the hands of those who were willing to adopt lives of renunciation.

So is asceticism relevant today?

Rev. Dr. John Piper thinks so.

Piper, a reformed, Calvinist, popular theologian, believes that asceticism as self-denial is necessary to American faith because of the lack of persecution experienced in America the Comfortable. In the 1990s, Piper revived the language of asceticism as he believed it was an essential element to his theological scheme of “Christian Hedonism.” He drew widespread criticism when he wrote a post entitled:  We Want You to Be a Christian Hedonist!.” Piper asserted that a human is made to pursue pleasure, and the chief end of a human is for him/her to find pleasure in God. In fact, he stated that this pleasure is salvific. In his book, Desiring God, he wrote:

The pursuit of joy in God is not optional. It is not an extra that a person might grow into after he comes to faith. Until your heart has hit upon this pursuit, your faith cannot please God. It is not saving faith” (Desiring God, p. 73). 3

Given his belief that a saving faith is one which finds ultimate pleasure in God and not idols, Piper finds asceticism to be an essential faith practice. In a video interview at a Desiring God conference, Piper stated:

“I’m more inclined today at age 58 watching my life and its ease… I’m more convinced than ever that I need asceticism in my life with all of its risks and dangers because I think, in my experience, I am more likely to be deceived right now that I am leaning on God, when I’m leaning on a retirement, or my wife, or successful pastorate, than any other danger. Therefore, I feel like I need some conscious self denials to put myself to the test and see if I get angry, or irritable, or fretful by not having something I want so bad every day or every week…might be sex, might be food, might be approval… wherever I am leaning for pleasure. …when really it’s idolatry. So how do you find out which it is? One of the ways is asceticism.”

So Piper finds that full pleasure in God leaves no room for other idols; he sees asceticism as a litmus test for determining the presence of idols. The denial of self in order to achieve spiritual ascension. Sound familiar?

Perhaps asceticism is relevant today, but not Piper’s version. 

Spiritual discipline and self-denial is valuable to one’s faith, and honestly, one’s sanity. I suspect a deep and profound experience can be found in prolonged solitude and prayer. But in a society of gross economic, sexual, and social injustice, Piper chooses to focus on denying self, not because one’s neighbor is in need, but because denial helps avoid idolatry. And then he calls it saving faith. It takes a fairly privileged view to maintain this theology. Such a theology seems to have not considered hunger, marginalization, or economic despair. To say that the highest calling of a human is to find pleasure in God is to assume an entirely heavenly vision, but what if one does not have the privilege of looking up because one cannot see past the hell?

Racism.

Genocide.

Female mutilation.

Rape.

Cycles of Poverty.

There is a place for self-denial in Christian faith BUT it is needed because of our neighbor’s lack and not because it is the way to avoid idolatry or a way for our salvation.

A sole focus on Christian hedonism clouds the church with a focus on inward, ascetic worship while there is much to be done outside the church in the ways of justice making. I suggest that we get back to the basics of believing that if we can even possibly know how to glorify God, that God is most glorified when we love God and when we tend to the imago Deo in our neighbors by our love for them. I suggest that the self-denial of asceticism is important in our theological praxis, but only insofar as it stems from our neighbor’s lack. I suggest that if we have a highest calling, it must be to love, living ethically in that love.

The way of choosing love is salvific.

So in summary, does asceticism have merit in 2013? Yes, I believe it does. So let us practice self-denial and renunciation. Let us renounce the pressure we are under to achieve the American Dream at the cost of other’s lack. Let us renounce the willful ignorance that we become comfortable in. Let us renounce our fear of those who we think are not like us. Let us give up what we think is ours so that we may share it with our neighbors.

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Citations:

1. Wilken, Robert Louis. The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2012.

2. Harmless, William. Desert Christians: An Introduction to the Literature of Early Monasticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

3. Piper, John. Desiring God: Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. Colorado Springs: Multnomah Books, 2011.