Tonight at Asbury Seminary, St. Francis will lead our community in heart-formation. We will contemplate with the thoughts of the one, who eight hundred years after his death, gets to have little concrete statues of himself in billions of gardens across the world. You will see why. This session will be held on the Wilmore campus in the Richard Allen Chapel, 6.30-8.00pm.
When you first read St. Francis three things immediate surface: 1. He is deeply Roman Catholic (so for us protestants, we have some translation work to do), 2. One-in-two words he writes is a quotation of scripture. We see Jesus eminating even from the few words St. Francis wrote, 3. His vision remians just as vital today as it did then. And for “Thriving Among the Lilies”, this means we are especially interested in his vision for Global Community Development. Here are some passages to get you started:
“And all of us lesser brothers, useless servants (Luke 17.10), humbly ask and beg all those who wish to serve the Lord God within the holy, catholic, and apostolic church, and all the following orders: priests, deacons, sub deacons, acolytes, exorcists, lectors, porters, and all clerics, all religious men and all religious women, all lay brothers and youths, the poor and needy, kings and princes, workers and farmers, servants and masters, all virgins and continent and married women, all lay people men and women, all children, adolescents, the young and old, the healthy and the sick, all the small and the great, all peoples, races, tribes, and tongues, all nations and peoples everywhere on earth who are and who will be—that all of us may persevere in the true faith and in penance, for otherwise no one will be saved.”
“No brother should preach contrary to the form and regulations of the holy Church nor unless he has been permitted by his minister. And the minister should take care not to grant [this permission] to anyone indiscriminately. All the brothers should preach by their deeds. And no minister or preacher should appropriate to himself the ministry of the brothers or the office of preaching, but he should set it aside without any protest whenever he is told.”
African theologian Kwome Bediako makes the claim that African religious DNA more closely matches the worldview of the Early Christians. I am attempting to weigh his six-fold claim. Here I will deal with the first two: 1. kinship with nature, 2. a deep sense of humanity’s finitude.
Kinship with Nature: St. Francis writes about his brother sun and sister moon, but that is in the early 13th century. We are exploring the Christianity of 11 hundred hears prior. Parables with sparrows, a star to guide the magi, speaking donkeys, a Holy Spirit showing up as dove, the list could go on. But one passage sticks out among the rest (Romans 8): “The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected in, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” Paul seems to think here that we exist with the whole of the cosmos in an interrelated kinship relationship. When we are redeemed so will the creation. Our destinies now and in the future are interdependent.
A Deep Sense of Humanity’s Finitude. Of course, we can look to the stories like the Rich man an Lazarus and know that the early Christians experienced vividly their mortality. But one verse stands out among the rest (I Corinthians 15), “Now if there is no resurrection, what will those do who are baptized for the dead?… If I fought wild beasts in Ephesus for merely human reasons, what have I gained? If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'” Now, the point is this: the Early Christians lived in a culture where some if not many knew well their fate. Take note of the quote Paul uses. They realized that the were not infinite in time or space. Theirs was a posture of dependency, espeically on Christ’s resurrection.
In 1978 Walter Bruggemann gave us the Prophetic Imagination. It is time in 2010 that we explore the Primitive Imagination.
In his book on African Indigenous Theology, Kwome Bediako affirms a six-layered description of what can also be called Indigenous Ways of Knowing or Primal Worldview: 1. kinship with nature, 2. a deep sense of humanity’s finitude, 3. a conviction that humanity is not alone in the universe, 4. a belief that humanity can enter into relationship with a benevolent spirit-world, 5. an acute sense of the afterworld, 6. and a mental structuring of a sacramental universe with no sharp dichotomy between the physical and the spiritual. This ‘primal imagination’, heralds Bediako, not only matches with the primal imagination of the early Christians, but as such, “Africans have found a principle of understanding and interpretation which is superior to any thing that a secular world-view is able to offer.”
My goal here is not to thrash the contributions of a secular world-view but to illustrate and affirm the primitive imagination of the Early Christians. I use ‘primitive’ without an evolutionary framework and with keen sense that we have much to learn from the indigenous imagination. And, like Bruggemann, I use the term “imagination” not to say “fictitious”. Rather, I suggest that by the term “imagination” we account for and honor a multitude of metaphysical perspectives on reality written within the history of humanity.
Could it be true that our African brothers and sisters might have an angle on understaning the Early Christians than we European descendants?
I once asked a great spiritual director if spirituality was gendered. Her response: up to a certain point.
It is true that as men and women, we are wired for different spiritual experiences, yet when we move the highest levels of union with the divine, somehow gender realities seem to evaporate.
For the souls our men, we must rethink the soft and hard archetypes that drive us to our knees in brokenness. We must be driven to our knees in some other way. We have been offered an image of a fiercely compassionate Son of Man who sometimes unleashes aggression against injustice. How can we learn to protect ourselves without annihilating or even wounding our enemies? How can we transform our wounds into the greatest gifts for humanity? How can we find such confidence in our worth and acceptance from an ancient source? How can our women and children find rest in a situation that evokes their best selves? How can we learn to love our brothers and stand beside them like the Son of God who became our deepest image of true manhood?
In the end, as we move into the heights of spiritual experience, and as our gender fades, union with the Son of God becomes that which can pull us out of the pride-stroking power vacuums of this world. As we embrace our destiny as a great bride, we feel our veins pumping with vibrant strength. We turn our gaze back to this warring world and learn to suffer for a peace never won through violence. We have been transformed from the savage man into a son of the most high Wild Man himself. Can I get a testimony, my brothers?
The image of the church as Christ’s bride contains striking implications. It smacks of purity, chosen-ness, beloved-ness, togetherness, mutual reverence, and more.
Take for example:
Ephesians 5:31 “Husbands love your wives just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her to make her holy, cleansing her by the washing with water through the word…This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church.”
With all my newfound responsibilities, the 30 minute devotional was bankrupt for me. I had to discover a new way. So, along side my then 3 years working with students in the areas of mercy and justice and global community, I enrolled in an academy for spirituality and encountered the thinking of Father Adrian van Kaam. Father Adrian was set to graduate from his Roman Catholic seminary six months prior to the Nazi occupation of his home in Denmark. He spent seven long and hungry months sheltering and caring for terrified Christians, Jews, and Atheists from all walks of life. That experience convinced him that our world needed and would need a practical spirituality that translated across many barriers for the sake of the gospel and rooted in the ancient 2000 year old Christian tradition.
For missionaries to North America and for Community Developers, life is never easy. They have been called into some of the deepest issues possible. And in the darkest alleyways they gain the blessed realization that God was there first. He has been working on the toughest issues long before they arrived. And it is with him there that they find our motivation, the relationship, and the the willingness to go on. Yet, what happens when they cannot sense him? What happens when they feel that he has abandoned them? How does a missionary avoid spiritual burnout? How does a Community Developer tap into a holistic spiritual life, rather than simply trying to beef up his or her life of devotions? How can we tap into the 2000 years of spiritual teaching that widens our view from isolated practices to a whole-life spirituality that leads us back to a quiet time like a thirsty deer to abundant streams? How can we say “yes” to the bridegroom who is calling his beloved even in the ugliest of moments? That’s what this blog is about.
The early Christians, following the lead of Jesus’ parables and through his other teachings, began very early thinking of the church as the bride of Christ.
Take for example:
Revelation 21.9 “Then one of the angels who had the seven bowls full of the seven last plagues came and said to me, “Come I will show you the bride, the wife of the Lamb.” And he carried me away in the Spirit to a mountain great and high, and showed me the Holy City of Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God.”
Like any relationship, like any marriage, intimacy is more than learning about one another. It is about cultivating a life of shared experiences and appreciation for one another in difficult times. It is no different with God.
Fast-forward three years from my university chapel altar. Still wearing the grad ring, I had now been offered and accepted the wedding ring. It was perhaps as I was changing a diaper or settling my bank account that reality hit. I had a wife, a baby, and a real job. I had taken on an occupation that confronted racism and poverty while preparing students to do just that. It all started to crush me really. The responsibilities of life outweighed a new realization: I could not solve local problems, let alone world issues, with my skills or cleverness. People were too complex. The human heart was far more stubborn and habit ridden than I realized. I was more broken that I had realized. Now ten years out from that night at the university altar, I am saying that it will take my whole life to learn intimacy with God.