Archive | Spiritual Formation

Divine Echoes | Mark Gregory Karris

The cover of Karris' Divine EchoesHave you ever prayed for something desperately only to be left with silence? Now I’m not talking about, “Lord help me to win the lottery tomorrow,” or some manipulative quid pro quo like, “If you only get me out of this I’ll go to church every Sunday for a whole year!”

What happens when we pray according to what we know is God’s clearly revealed will only to be stymied by cruel circumstance? That’s when we pull out the time-worn answers:

  • God’s timing isn’t our timing
  • There must be some unconfessed sin in your life
  • God is using this to develop your character
  • There are mysteries we just can’t know (I call this the “Job” answer)

For Mark Gregory Karris, these answers didn’t satisfy on a theological or a personal level. In Divine Echoes, Karris presents a new theological perspective on prayer rooted in the theodicy model of “essential kenosis” (18) developed by Thomas J. Oord in his book, The Uncontrolling Love of God.

Essential Kenosis

Is God a powerful being who loves or a loving being who is powerful? The essential kenosis model assumes the second. Consider this quote from Oord’s Uncontrolling Love of God:

God’s eternal nature is uncontrolling love. Because of love, God necessarily provides freedom/agency to creatures, and God works by empowering and inspiring creation toward well-being. God also necessarily upholds the regularities of the universe because those regularities derive from God’s eternal nature of love. Randomness in the world and creaturely free will are genuine, and God is not a dictator mysteriously pulling the strings. God never controls others. But God sometimes acts miraculously, in noncoercive ways. God providentially guides and calls all creation toward love and beauty. (94)

For Oord (and Karris), God does not intervene unilaterally in the world—to do so would be to deny his nature as love. God works with his creation for the restoration of all things. Karris puts it bluntly:

It is not that God can control creatures but chooses not to do so. It is that God cannot control creatures due to his loving nature. Simply put, love does not control (126).

Oord’s model provided Karris with a way out of a philosophical problem he had with prayer.

The Philosophical Problem with Prayer

Let me qualify that heading. Karris’ problem is with petitionary prayer—the sort where you ask God to act even when the pray-er is disconnected from the situation. These prayers include:

  • Lord, please help the people in [foreign country].
  • Lord, show your peace to the people suffering from [latest tragedy].

Karris defines this traditional understanding of prayer as “talking to God and asking God to love in a specific manner in which God was not doing so beforehand” (34).

These sort of prayers imply that God is not already loving those people to the fullest. They imply that by the act of praying, you are somehow increasing God’s capacity to love. Let me put it negatively: if you did not pray, God would not care as much. With this comes incredible stress and pressure!

On the contrary, says Karris,

God always loves to his greatest ability in every moment, respecting our free will and other agencies in the process. (21)

If this is true, then petitionary prayer at a distance does nothing other than assuage the heart of the pray-er. It could actually undermine God’s work by relieving the burden of action from the pray-er.

What About the Bible?

Here’s the rub. Scripture tells stories that don’t align very well with the essential kenosis model. Jonah’s fish was a pretty coercive move! When it comes to prayer, there are many places where people petition God to act in power at a distance. Karris tackles this problem head-on in two ways.

First, he notes that words have more than a literal meaning. Consider Paul’s request for boldness:

Pray also for me, so that when I speak, a message may be given to me to make known with boldness the mystery of the gospel (Ephesians 6:19 NRSV).

On the surface, it appears that Paul needs the Ephesians to pray or God will not empower him to be as bold as he could otherwise be. Karris looks deeper and considers the community-forming value this prayer request would have on the Ephesian church. Furthermore, “the people making the requests feel comforted knowing others are praying for them” (44).

Second, he challenges traditional evangelical models of interpretation. Karris cites Peter Enns’ The Bible Tells Me So and Gregory Boyd’s Crucifixion of the Warrior God as ways to interpret scripture which “loosen the grip of a reductionist, literal view” (115). It would have been helpful for Karris to explain these models of interpretation further since the average reader might not know the theological freight they carry.

Karris offers enough exegetical insight to make the average reader question the traditional interpretation of scripture on petitionary prayer. Perhaps that’s all we can reasonably expect from one chapter in a broader argument.

Conspiring Prayer

The most important part of Divine Echoes is not the deconstruction of classic views, but the constructive project based on the word conspire:

The English word conspire comes from the Latin word conspirare, which literally means “to breathe together” and figuratively “to act in harmony toward a common end.” (151)

Conspiring prayer is something the pray-er does “with God rather than to God” (151). Instead of praying, “Lord, help the victims of [this tragedy],” we pray, “Lord, how can I help to demonstrate your love to the victims?” Here the people praying acknowledge the uncontrolling love of God while at the same time assume their God-given responsibility.

Personally, these chapters were the most inspiring. Even if you choose not to jettison the traditional view of prayer, the conspiring prayer model is a powerful corrective to works-less faith.

Bonus Material

Karris provides appendices full of conspiring prayers which confirm and illuminate the work he did in the main body of the book. There is also a study guide available for small groups. The questions are well thought out and will help any prayer group wrestle with the problem of theodicy and the role of conspiring prayer.

Karris, Mark Gregory. Divine Echoes: Reconciling Prayer with the Uncontrolling Love of God. Orange, CA: Quoir, 2018.

Karris, Mark Gregory. Divine Echoes Study Guide: Reconciling Prayer with the Uncontrolling Love of God. Orange, CA: Quoir, 2018.

Deliverance to the Captives | Karl Barth

The cover of Barth's Deliverance to the CaptivesKarl Barth is a theological giant of the Twentieth Century. His fourteen volume, 9,200 page Church Dogmatics has cemented his legacy. This background is what makes Deliverance to the Captives so interesting. It’s a collection of sermons Barth delivered to “avowedly critical and ‘un-Christian'” (Schwarz in Barth 12) prisoners. Is it possible for Barth to simplify his theology to connect with the every-man?

The answer is a resounding “Yes!” For each message, Barth takes a short snippet of scripture and simply reflects on it. “You Shall Be My People” (60-66) is a good example. In preaching on Leviticus 26:12, “I will walk among you, and will be your God, and you shall be my people,” he simply breaks the passage down into its three statements and shares his thoughts on them.

I was impressed by Barth’s bold humility. He didn’t shy away from the fact that he was preaching to prisoners. In fact, he specifically chose passages like Romans 11:32, “For God has made all men prisoners, that he may have mercy upon all.” He didn’t hesitate to include himself as “prisoner.”

Barth’s messages in Deliverance to the Captives have the power to speak to spiritual and physical captives even today.

Barth, Karl. Deliverance to the Captivesds. Translated by Marguerite Wieser. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1961.

The Way of Discernment | Elizabeth Liebert

The cover of Liebert's The Way of Discernment“What’s God’s will for my life?” might be the single most common question asked of any pastor. The question usually comes from a person at the crossroads of a major life-decision. Should I change career or stay safe? Should I commit to that mission trip or stay at home? Should I marry him or move on? Elizabeth Liebert provides a holistic way to bring the decisions of life to God.

Three elements set this book apart from the rest.

  1. Grounded. Liebert grounds her discernment practice in the writings of Ignatius of Loyola. From the initial prayer of examen to reflections on consolation and desolation, Ignatius’ fingerprints are all throughout this book. From those Ignatian roots, Liebert moves out to glean wisdom from a variety of other sources, from Jonathan Edwards to the practices of the Quakers.
  2. Practical. Liebert is not only interested in providing a theology of discernment. She invites readers to “begin [their] own discernment process, rather than just thinking about discernment” (xi). To facilitate discernment, Liebert has included a series of exercises throughout the text which will give the reader the practical tools necessary to develop their own discernment practice. The book is so practical, I suspect it will become one of my most lent-out volumes (and re-purchased when my book isn’t returned)!
  3. God-Oriented. While some of the discernment practices included would find a welcome reception in a corporate boardroom, the overall thrust of the book is to determine God’s will (or to use Liebert’s preferred word, “call”). To retain this focus she emphasizes spiritual freedom through indifference. By this, Liebert stresses indifference to anything other than God’s fundamental call.

The Way of Discernment is theologically rich yet easy to follow. I will be sharing it with anyone who is seriously concerned with determining God’s next steps for their life.

Liebert, Elizabeth. The Way of Discernment: Spiritual Practices for Decision Making. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008.

The Discourses | Symeon the New Theologian

The cover of Symeon's The DiscoursesThe man was intense!

One the eve of a rebellion, when the monks under his supervision ran to the Patriarch of the city to get relief from their severe Abbot, Symeon spoke to them:

I cannot endure to be silent about the things I have seen, about the wonders of God I have known by fact and experience. Rather, I testify of them to all others as in God’s presence, and say with a loud voice, “Run, all of you, before the door of repentance is closed to you by death. Run, that you may take hold of it before you depart this life; make haste that you may receive it, knock, that your Master may open to you before you die, and that He may show himself to you.” (349)

Symeon was not only severe. In a compassionate moment towards those who insufficiently fasted during Lent, he said:

[God] it is who in great generosity gives crowns to the zealous and duly rewards their labors, and also in mercy and loving-kindness grants forgiveness to the weaker. (181)

Symeon was driven by a vision of God that would not let him relax. Having experienced the inexpressible light of God, he was compelled to urge the people around him to press on towards that light.

My biggest struggle with Symeon (and all the ancient Orthodox saints) is their spirit-flesh dualism and extreme asceticism. They are constantly preoccupied with escaping the material world which God deemed “very good” and validated by becoming incarnate. That said, Symeon’s passion and insight into the spiritual condition made the struggle worthwhile!

Symeon’s Discourses are deep devotional material. Written for those in a monastic life, they are still relevant today for those with a passionate commitment to Christ.

Symeon the New Theologian. The Discourses. The Classics of Western Spirituality: A Library of the Great Spiritual Masters. Translated by C. J. deCatanzaro. Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1980.

To Know As We Are Known | Parker J. Palmer

The cover of Palmer's To Know As We Are KnownThe way in which we know things—our epistemology—matters. If we view the world objectively, as an object to be categorized and filed, we do damage both to the world and to ourselves. True knowing “requires the knower to become interdependent with the known” (32).

Parker Palmer, author and educator, develops his philosophy of teaching in To Know As We Are Known.

To teach is to create a space in which the community of truth is practiced. (xii)

Teaching has to be more than the passing down of objective facts. Genuine teaching brings learners into a community where they interrelate in faithfulness to the subject. Palmer even offers some practical advice for teachers to transition in this direction.

Stories are important for Palmer. A film about the nuclear weapons program, the account of a desert father, and the confrontation between Jesus and Pilate are all illustrative fuel that Palmer uses to flesh out his ideas.

To Know As We Are Known is an important book for both teachers and students that challenges the epistemology of the Enlightenment.

Palmer, Parker J. To Know As We Are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey. New York: HarperOne, 1983, 1993.

Slow Kingdom Coming | Kent Annan

The cover of Annan's Slow Kingdom ComingWe like things fast. Chrome now pushes Facebook notifications to the front of whatever page I am browsing so I get the message the instant it arrives (that is, until I figured out how to disable it). We lay massive transoceanic fiber cables under the sea to shave milliseconds off financial trades.

In a world that glorifies speed, how do we handle a 2,000 year old promise? How can we pray, “Your kingdom come,” without expecting to see immediate results?

In Slow Kingdom Coming, Annan urges us to take the long view when it comes to kingdom work. Rather than frantically running around and throwing starfish back into the water (if you haven’t heard that story, it’s in the book), we need to focus on doing things the right way, even if it takes time.

Annan quotes Kierkegaard on this:

He is not, therefore, eternally responsible for whether he reaches his goal within this world of time. But without exception, he is eternally responsible for the kind of means he uses. And when he . . . only uses those means which are genuinely good, then, in the judgment of eternity, he is at the goal. (125)

In sum: the means matter.

This is a wise and practical book that gives speed-addled Christians five practices to employ in their kingdom-work:

  1. Attention
  2. Confession
  3. Respect
  4. Partnering
  5. Truthing

If you have ever been frustrated by the slow pace of change or question your ability to make an impact for the Kingdom of God, Annan’s book will inspire and encourage you.

Annan, Kent. Slow Kingdom Coming: Practices for Doing Justice Loving Mercy and Walking Humbly in the World. Downer’s Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016.

Between God and Satan | Helmut Thielicke

The cover of Thielicke's Between God and SatanImagine the scene. After decades of life as a tradesman, with growing awareness of his true vocation, Jesus goes to the Jordan River to be baptized by his cousin. What relief! The heavens open, the Spirit descends, the voice of the Father validates his Son and his Son’s ministry.

Immediately, the same Spirit that descended gently like a dove throws the Son into the wilderness where he encounters Satan and wrestles with the depths of temptation. This trial will define his ministry.

Helmut Thielicke, a German theologian, first published this meditative study on the temptation of Jesus in 1938 in order to “strengthen the followers of Jesus Christ in their resistance to ideological tyranny” (v). The book was reissued in 1946 after the collapse of the Nazi regime. The book was most recently reissued in 2010 emphasizing the fact that the tempter works in every era.

If we are going to resist the tempter, we need to look to Jesus, the perfect human, who resisted temptation until the end. Thielicke approaches the temptation of Jesus with a keen understanding of anthropology and human weakness.

Between God and Satan is an excellent devotional book which will open up many avenues for understanding the significance of Jesus’ temptation.

—Helmut Thielicke, Between God and Satan Translated by C. C. Barber (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1958).

The Advent of Justice | Sylvia Keesmaat

The cover of Keesmaat's The Advent of JusticeAdvent is often misunderstood in the evangelical world. For years, I saw it as a mere prelude to Christmas. Only recently have I started to search out the depths of the season. Advent is a season of absence, of waiting, of anticipation. In Advent we come face-to-face with the judgment of God before receiving His gospel.

The Hebrew prophets are foundational figures in the season of Advent. More than anyone, they understood the spiritual depravity of their culture and desperately tried to connect their people to the heart of God. In The Advent of Justice, the four authors (Brian J. Walsh, J. Richard Middleton, Mark Vander Vennen, and Sylvia Keesmaat) mine the riches of First Isaiah and offer both critique and hope to our own culture.

While every author had something valuable to add to the season, Brian J. Walsh’s writings for the first week of Advent stuck home the hardest. He tells the truth of the prophet clearly:

The problem is that good news without prophetic critique invariably is a cover-up. Good news that will not openly and honestly confront that which perpetuates brokenness and sin is not good news at all. An Advent without judgment isn’t Advent at all. It is a secular Christmas with a store-bought peace. (15)

These authors bring you face-to-face with judgment which will challenge the way you live. Your Christmas will be the richer for heeding them.

—Sylvia Keesmaat, ed., The Advent of Justice: A Book of Meditations (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2014).

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