Tag Archives: Spirituality

Defining an Ignatian Spiritual Exercise (ii)

Yesterday’s post asked what a spiritual exercise is. Today I continue unpacking Ignatius’ definitions to explore his intent for those undertaking the Exercises.

Ignatius gives the purpose of the Exercises: the overcoming of self and the (proper or ideal?) ordering of one’s life in relation to God. Expanded, this means that one undertakes the exercises to free oneself from ‘disordered attachments’ so that they may decide freely to dispose their life in accordance with what is good for the soul.

Ignatius presupposes that the self develops all manner of attachments which are detrimental to the spiritual life, although seemingly beneficial to the self. There appears to be a contrast between the ‘self’ and the ‘soul’ where the former identifies the person independent of their relation with God, while the latter speaks, as already noted, of the person in light of their relation with God. Ignatius presupposes that what is good for the self may not be good for the soul. What is good for the soul, however, will (ultimately) benefit the whole person. That Ignatius argues on Christian grounds is evident. He is presupposing a Christian understanding of life and after-life, of sin and salvation, etc., a worldview taken for granted in sixteenth century Christian Europe. What is good for the soul may in fact not appear to be beneficial for the self but makes sense in the light of eternity.

The word ‘attachments’ here is one of the “key terms in the psychological vocabulary of the Spiritual Exercises” referring to the feelings, judgements, and emotional structures and responses of the heart. Some attachments are positive while others are ‘disordered,’ perhaps opposed to reason and good judgement. These can operate in many ways and at many levels within the self, even to the point of altering perceptions of reality.[1] It likely is equivalent to what Jonathon Edwards and others referred to as the ‘affections.’ One’s attachments are disordered to the degree that they limit or hinder one from seeking and finding the divine will. Any commitment or judgement that constrains one’s response to God would, I imagine, be considered by Ignatius as ‘disordered,’ that is, as an attachment that is wrongly related to God and his will, and which functions therefore against the welfare of the whole person seen in the light of eternity.

Ignatius seeks an ordering of one’s life in freedom from disordered attachments. It should be noted that some attachments might preclude a decision to seek and find the divine will. The self is bound by its attachments in ways which turn or distract the person from relationship with God. It is also possible, however, that one might seek the divine will under the impulse of disordered attachments, by coercion for instance, or to find acceptance with one’s peers. Ignatius indicates that a true decision for God and his will can only be made in freedom.

Anyone undertaking the Spiritual Exercises or any form of spiritual discipline has already made a ‘decision for God and his will’ in some sense. Ignatius is obviously aiming at a deeper, whole-of-life, and transformational decision. He is aiming at the ‘overcoming of the self’ in its alienation from and resistance to God in favour of an existential deposition of the self into an entirely committed form of life—an existence wholly ordered toward God.

Then Jesus said to them all, “If any want to become my followers,
let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.
For those who want to save their life will lose it,
and those who lose their life for my sake will save it”

(Luke 9:23-24).

[1]  Joseph A. Munitiz and Philip Endean, ed. Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings, Penguin Classics ed. (London: Penguin, 1996; reprint, 2004), xv.

Defining an Ignatian Spiritual Exercise (i)

In the opening paragraph of his Spiritual Exercises Ignatius provides a statement of purpose:

Spiritual exercises having as their purpose the overcoming of self and the ordering of one’s life on the basis of a decision made in freedom from any ill-ordered attachment [paragraph 21].[1]

In the first of his Annotations—directions given to those giving and receiving the Exercises—he writes:

The term ‘spiritual exercises’ denotes every way of examining one’s conscience, of meditating, contemplating, praying vocally and mentally, and other spiritual activities, as will be said later. For just as strolling, walking and running are exercises for the body, so ‘spiritual exercises’ is the name given to every way of preparing and disposing one’s soul to rid herself of all disordered attachments, so that once rid of them one might seek and find the divine will in regard to the disposition of one’s life for the good of the soul [paragraph 1].[2]

These two definitional statements provide an entrée into Ignatius’ intent with respect to the Spiritual Exercises. In today’s post we use these statements to understand what a spiritual exercise is. Tomorrow I will unpack the statements a little more to understand their purpose.

First, Ignatius tells us what a spiritual exercise is: any form of prayer undertaken for the specific purpose of the development, health, and strength of the ‘soul,’ analogous to physical exercises undertaken for the health and strength of the body. Although this is not a novel thought, it is useful. Paul the Apostle uses similar language in 1 Timothy 4:8 to affirm the superior value of spiritual endeavour: “For bodily discipline is only of little profit, but godliness is profitable for all things, since it hold promise for the present life and also for the life to come.”

The familiar image of physical exercise applied to the spiritual life carries notions of regularity and consistency, focus on particular developmental activities, the nurture of health through practice, the pursuit of greater excellence, consistent performance, and other similar ideals. This exercise is undertaken for the good of the ‘soul,’ which is probably best understood here as a reference to the whole of one’s life and existence viewed from the perspective of one’s relationship to God. It is better to avoid the idea as a reference to some constituent aspect of the human person, some faculty or part of the person, distinct from their other ‘parts.’

These spiritual exercises primarily are forms of prayer, though other activities are also in view. One might think of such things later identified commonly as spiritual disciplines, including activities of service, or solitude or fasting or confession and so on. In this definition Ignatius identifies the examination of conscience, prayer, meditation, and contemplation. During his Exercises Ignatius will develop some of these at length.

[1] Joseph A. Munitiz and Philip Endean, ed. Saint Ignatius of Loyola: Personal Writings, Penguin Classics ed. (London: Penguin, 1996; reprint, 2004), 289.

[2] Ibid., 283.

Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards (2)

In my earlier post on Richard Rohr’s Falling Upwards I endeavoured to set forth sufficiently and sympathetically, the central tenets of his spiritual vision. It is a vision of ageing gracefully by finding a way—being led—to personal and spiritual maturity. The measures of this maturity are indicators such as being freed from the narrowness of self-serving ego needs, and of dualistic and exclusivist patterns of thought. The mature person has learnt to accept reality, and others, as they are, and have become more self-critical than critical of others. They have learnt that the secret of internal freedom and happiness is to ‘receive and return the loving gaze of God every day’ (159).

The book sets forth a range of perceptive insights and warnings that we do well to reflect upon. For example, Rohr insists that change and growth, movement and direction are integral aspects of a mature spirituality. Similarly, he warns that sin repressed or denied will surely break-out elsewhere. He wisely admonishes his readers toward practices of solitude and friendship, and reminds us that there is a connection between personal and spiritual maturity, and that we cannot ignore the one in the pursuit of the other. He speaks of the place of Jesus and of the church in his spiritual vision: ‘I quote Jesus because I still consider him to be the spiritual authority of the Western world, whether we follow him or not. . . . Jesus for me always clinches the deal, and I sometimes wonder why I did not listen to him in the first place’ (81).[1] The church he regards as ‘both my greatest intellectual and moral problem and my most consoling home’ (80). The church functions like a cauldron:

A crucible as you know, is a vessel that holds molten metal in one place long enough to be purified and clarified. Church membership requirements, church doctrine, and church morality force almost all issues to an inner boiling point, where you are forced to face important issues at a much deeper level to survive as a Catholic or a Christian, or even as a human. I think this is probably true of any religious community, if it is doing its job. Before the truth ‘sets you free,’ it tends to make you miserable (74).

At the heart of his spiritual vision lies what he calls an ‘incarnational mysticism,’ a two-sided spirituality deeply grounded and engaged in the world and in ‘mystical union’ with God (75-78). It is incarnational as it is open to, inclusive of, and embracing the world in all its diversity, suffering, and beauty; mystical in its desire for immediacy, to abide in, as we have already noted, the loving gaze of God.

Despite the various strengths and claims of the book, I find I remain ambivalent toward this vision. Behind every exposition of spirituality lies a theological or philosophical vision of God and reality that in turn shapes the distinguishing features of the spirituality being proposed. As I understand it, Rohr’s theological vision is the product of a pluralist understanding of divine operations and revelation, and of human encounter with and participation in the divine. The spiritual quest is a universal impulse and Christianity is just one expression among many religious and non-religious quests for the truth. It is one expression of the primary spiritual insights which are found also in the writings of other religious leaders, poets, myth-makers, mystics, psychologists, and so on.

The portrayal of God in this book is remarkably thin and one-sided:

There is not one clear theology of God, Jesus or history presented, despite our attempt to pretend there is. The only consistent pattern I can find is that all the books of the Bible seem to agree that somehow God is with us and we are not alone. God and Jesus’ only job description is one of constant renewals of bad deals. The tragic sense of life is ironically not tragic at all, at least in the Big Picture. . . . Faith is simply to trust the real, and to trust that God is found within it—even before we change it (62-63).

The tactic applied here is not uncommon; find and emphasise the diversity of witness in the biblical documents and then use the fact of this diversity to discredit the reliability of the whole. This is lazy theology, though very convenient, for then one can introduce one’s own ‘reading’ as the explanation, or the meaning, or the key. In this case the knowledge we might have of God is stripped back almost to an empty abstraction. Is the gospel as vague and as bland as presented here—somehow God is with us and we are not alone? Is this really the extent of that for which we might hope? Is it the case that this ‘god’ exists merely to clean up our mess—and that we are those who will change the real? Somewhat ironically, just two pages earlier Rohr had complained that ‘organised religion has not been known for its inclusiveness or for being very comfortable with diversity’ (60). Although social diversity is an imperative, diversity in Scripture renders it questionable.

Rohr’s reading of Scripture and of the gospel thus appears somewhat reductionist, as he selects and emphasises only some aspects of the biblical-gospel narrative at the expense of other elements. His reading of the atonement, for example, is exemplarist and Girardian, and discounts the testimony and imagery of Paul, Peter, John, and Hebrews with respect to Jesus’ saving death on the cross (68-69). He interprets God’s forgiveness as a sign that ‘God is saying that God’s own rules do not matter as much as the relationship that God wants to create with us’ (56-57). It seems to me, however, that this is precisely the opposite of what the New Testament declares, that the very act of forgiveness, together with its necessity, presupposes that the ‘rules’ matter a great deal. In this respect Rohr’s position not only diminishes the New Testament portrayal of the cross of Jesus, but also treats the idea of sin—which surely includes the inhumanity and abuse of some towards others—as something negligible or easily dismissed. The Bible, on the other hand, approaches all kinds of sin with great seriousness.

Rohr argues for a spirituality based in ‘Big Picture incarnational mysticism.’ The Big Picture is a mechanism for side-stepping the particularities and details of a biblical vision in favour of a few generic universal principles. The image of the incarnation is employed with a dual purpose. On the one hand it affirms a spirituality of service amid the harsh realities of life in the world—something I also affirm. On the other hand, however, Rohr also uses it to affirm Western cultural priorities as though these are a religious obligation. This is cultural Christianity, something he otherwise rejects when it differs from his own cultural preference. Mystic desire or experience grounds the spirituality as a religious phenomenon without tying the adherent to any particular portrayal of God beyond the notion of God as absolute and unconditional love.

In the end Rohr’s spirituality appears as related variety of the ‘moralistic therapeutic deism’ that Christian Smith argued has become a major religious faith in North America. To me, this is not so much an exposition of Christian spirituality (and certainly not a biblical spirituality), as an exposition of a generic ‘spirituality’ suited perhaps for those who might claim to be ‘spiritual but not religious.’ This is a spirituality amenable for those who consider themselves ‘progressive’ whether religiously inclined or not. Richard Rohr himself is, of course, religious—he has been a Roman Catholic priest for most of his life, and finds his ‘most consoling home’ in the church. But he also admits that this is not a necessity per se. Other religious communities could just as easily assist and guide a person on their spiritual journey. I suspect, however, that some of his followers will not have the same degree of attachment to the church that he has, and may be led by this account of spirituality away from the God and the Jesus portrayed in Scripture, and into a spirituality and form of life of their own devising. Christians, whether Roman Catholics, Protestants, or disaffected evangelicals can do better much than this.

[1] It would be of interest, however, to assess Rohr’s understanding of Jesus in light of his more recent The Universal Christ (2019) in which he aims, according to one reviewer, to distinguish between Jesus and ‘Christ,’ with Jesus understood as limited, particular, and earthbound, while ‘Christ’ is unlimited, universal, and cosmic. I suspect that this move would allow him to displace the particularity of what Jesus actually says and does as recorded in the gospels, with an idiosyncratic content predicated upon his vision the universal Christ.

Richard Rohr’s Falling Upward

Richard Rohr, Falling Upward:
A Spirituality for the Two Halves of Life

(San Francisco: Jossey Bass, 2011), xxxvii + 199.
ISBN: 978-0-470-90775-7

Most of us tend to think of the second half of life as largely about getting old, dealing with health issues, and letting go of our physical life, but the whole thesis of this book is exactly the opposite. What looks like falling can largely be experienced as falling upward and onward, into a broader and deeper world, where the soul has found its fullness, is finally connected to the whole, and lives inside the Big Picture (153).

This citation gives, I think, a brief definition of what Rohr means by the title of his book. Life may be considered in two ‘halves,’ though this is a conceptual rather than temporal division. Some people, perhaps even most people, never get to the ‘second half.’ The entry to the second half of life is conveyed by the sense of falling. One falls, perhaps on hard times, or perhaps ‘from grace,’ or perhaps from a high estate or a good reputation. Usually the fall is unsought, unheralded, and unwanted but occurs anyway. But such a fall can become the entry into a new broader and deeper world, where one’s soul is rediscovered, and one’s ethos, direction, and desire are fundamentally re-ordered. To fall upward is to discover our True Self, our inner connection to all things and all people, and to live, as Rohr says, inside the Big Picture of God’s love. The great purpose of life is to ‘grow’ our unique God-given self and return or offer it in love and service to God and the world. It is to be the me I was created to be.

The first half of life is concerned with what Rohr calls ‘ego needs’: identity, security, boundaries, order, safety, relationships, affirmation, and some experience of ‘success.’ In his view we all need our ‘narcissistic fix’ and without it, we will continue in and through life carrying a woundedness that often if not usually leaves us seeking to fulfil these needs in some other way. Somewhat paradoxically, these needs are fulfilled best when one is raised in a more traditional or conservative environment with an emphasis on law and tradition, loyalty, respect, and responsibility. Such an environment disciplines the ego so that it does not become an all-consuming drive. Becoming mature requires learning to live within the creative tensions of law and freedom, and so one must ‘learn and obey the rules very well, so you will know how to break them properly’ (citing the Dalai Lama, xxviii). The purpose of the first half of life is to ‘write the script’ or ‘build the container’ that we will, in the second half of life, enact or fill.

Yet despite the obvious strengths of these characteristics, there is more to life than identity, security, boundaries, order, affirmation, success, and so on. Somehow we carry an innate memory of ‘home,’ a deep-seated longing that can be assuaged only as our true self rests in union with God. Such a longing might call us to leave the security of our first-phase-of-life home in search of this true home. And so we begin a journey beyond the journey of the first phase of life. Or perhaps tragedy or suffering befalls us, a crisis by which our first-phase-of-life is up-ended and we are thrust out of our life, as it were, and into a further journey. Typically, suggests Rohr, we are led into the second half of life by an experience of loss, failure or brokenness we did not want, foresee, or choose, and which we cannot handle with the resources we presently have.

Nor does one arrive suddenly at the second half of life but grows into it, a process that continues through the rest of one’s life. Whereas the first half of life is characterised by ego-goals, the second half is concerned with ‘soul goals.’ In the second half of life one has ceased from self-defining, from the endless fighting and doing to make one’s way prevail. This person rests in God and simply is—being. They have become self-critical, though not self-loathing. They engage in ‘shadow-boxing,’ confronting the shadow-side that previously they kept well-hidden from others. They acknowledge and accept the truth about themselves, leaving go of pretence or subterfuge. They are able to live this way because they have found a friend or a Friend by whom they are ‘mirrored.’ They find that they are known deeply and fully yet loved and accepted anyway. And so a deep integrity ensues in which what one is, now is what is done. One enters what Rohr refers to as a ‘second simplicity,’ an innocence, a willingness to accept mystery, doubt, etc., and relinquishes the need for certainty or control because they trust in the overarching ‘coherence, purpose, benevolence, and direction’ of the universe. That is, they have a sense of underlying meaning, a Big Truth that satisfies the soul, even in the midst of continuing trouble, heartache or suffering. The gift they have now to offer is themselves.

*****

In this post I have provided a synopsis of Rohr’s book.
In a later post I will offer my reflections on what I have read.

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:15

James 3:15
This wisdom is not that which comes down from above, but is earthly, natural, demonic (NASB).

Such ‘wisdom’ does not come down from heaven but is earthly, unspiritual, of the devil (NIV).

In this verse James continues his contrast of the behaviour that stands opposed to his understanding of wisdom presented in verse thirteen. The way of jealousy, envy, and selfish ambition may have an appearance of wisdom, but it is not that wisdom which is ‘from above.’ Indeed, for James, it is not even ‘wisdom’ at all (note the scare-quotes used in the NIV). Literally James says, ‘This is not the wisdom from above…’ (ouk estin hautē hē sophia anōthen; οὐκ ἔστιν αὕτη ἡ σοφία ἄνωθεν), where the this is a demonstrative pronoun referring back to the behaviour of those he is chastising in verse fourteen. James refuses to use the term wisdom to describe this manner of life.

James describes this manner of life using three graphic adjectives, which are listed in an order of increasing alienation from God (Davids, 152; Vlachos, 123). First, it is earthly (epigeios, ἐπίγειος) as opposed to that which is ‘from above,’ heavenly, of the earth or belonging to the earth, or arising solely from human existence. Second, it is natural, the Greek word psychikē (ψυχική) referring to the life in which human feeling and human reason reign supreme (Moo, 134). It has to do with that which is governed by the senses or sensual appetites and as such, refers to life apart from the divine Spirit—‘unspiritual.’ Finally, demonic (daimoniōdēs, δαιμονιώδης) simply means that which comes from or pertains to demons.

Where jealousy, envy and selfish ambition are the order of the day, the manner of life is not that which is from above, divine in origin and nature, meek and full of good works (v. 13). Rather, it is human or even demonic in origin and character, although it seems better to assign this wisdom a human rather than demonic origin. This person might be better described as selfish, as ‘worldly-wise,’ rather than demonically inspired, although the latter is possibly the case in some circumstances. Moo’s comment, however, is insightful:

The wisdom that does not produce a good lifestyle (v. 13) is, in sum, characterized by ‘the world, the flesh, and the devil.’ In each of these ways it is the direct antithesis of ‘the wisdom that comes from above’—heavenly in nature, spiritual in essence, divine in origin (134).

James is evidently contrasting two types of teachers (3:1) or two types of leadership, and aligning them with two types of wisdom. The fulcrum between the two seems to lie in the fundamental impulse at work in each model. Is the leader’s activity, work and motive directed toward the self (self-promotion, improvement, or aggrandisement), or the kindliness of God toward others, and the promotion and benefit of their welfare? Most leaders are not under the thrall of demons, but their leadership may have characteristics that are opposed to the purposes, way and wisdom of God, and detrimental to the welfare and common good of those people for whom they are responsible. Further, while many religious teachers and leaders claim to be spiritual, if their manner of life is that described here by James, they are in fact unspiritual and devoid of the Holy Spirit. ‘“You claim,” says James, “to have the Holy Spirit. Impossible! You are inspired, all right—you are inspired by the devil!” (Davids, 153).

In the contemporary world of organisations (including churches and other Christian agencies), we have much leadership technology—technical knowledge and skill; depth of understanding with respect to the pragmatic dynamics of leadership in diverse communities, contexts, and human affairs; skill in diagnosis, management, and application; a vast range of tools, resources, and equipment to enhance our capacities. Is such technology ‘wrong,’ or something to be avoided? Perhaps not. But James focusses on the character of leadership in verse thirteen (and also verses seventeen and eighteen) contrasting it with the alternate mode in verses fourteen to sixteen. To the extent that leadership technology subverts kingdom priorities such as those enumerated in 2:5 or 1:27—personal engagement with the lowly and apparently ‘insignificant’—it is ‘earthly, natural, and demonic.’

Scripture on Sunday – James 3:13

James 3:13
Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom.

James 3:13 begins a new little section in this epistle, following a long teaching on the power of the tongue which seems to have been directed at those in James’ congregations who sought to be teachers (3:1). The verse starts with a rhetorical question, literally, “is anyone among you wise and understanding?” Vlachos (120), however, suggests that the question functions as a conditional clause along the lines of, “If any of you are wise and understanding…” James intends to teach his readers what true wisdom actually looks like, and in so doing, adds to his statements in 1:26-27 about the nature of ‘true religion’ or what we might call ‘authentic spirituality.’

That sophos (‘wise’) has a moral sense in James is clearly seen in the description of wisdom that follows in these verses. Wisdom is not merely intelligence or knowledge. Richard Bauckham has suggested that wisdom is “the God-given ability of the transformed heart to discern and to practice God’s will. It is the way in which Torah is internalized, so that outward obedience to Torah flows from an inner understanding and embracing of God’s will expressed in Torah” (Bauckham, James: Wisdom of James, Disciple of Jesus the Sage, 152). God’s will as expressed in Torah is not merely known, but understood and embraced, and so brought to expression in one’s life, and in ways which go beyond a mere adherence to the letter of the law.

‘Understanding’ translates epistēmōn, which denotes the possession of expertise: “being knowledgeable in a way that makes one effectual in the exercise of such knowledge” (BDAG, 381). Together the terms portray the truly wise or spiritual person who understands both what the will of God is, and how it might be applied in the contingencies and circumstances of everyday life, and who actually applies it in this discerning way.

James’ question seems to assume that there are some among them who are actually ‘wise and understanding.’ Certainly there seem to be some in the congregation who claim to be wise, just as there are those who claim to be spiritual, to have faith, and perhaps, who boast in their riches. To those who would make a show of their wisdom, James counsels: display (deixatō, ‘show, demonstrate’ [cf. 2:18]) your wisdom by your good conduct. Make a show of your wisdom by and in your works. This verse, like James 2, contrasts words and works. True wisdom, like true faith, is revealed in works. Wisdom is displayed and recognised rather than claimed. Wisdom is revealed in the ‘beauty’ and ‘attractiveness’ of one’s life—the adjective kalos (‘good’) likely retaining here something of its classical meaning (Vlachos, 121). Just as true wisdom has its source in the good and generous God, so it shows itself in a good and generous life.

Such wisdom is also meek (en prautēti sophias). Wisdom does not parade itself with ostentatious boasting, or merely with words. It does not boast great things for itself, but quietly and consistently works. Many English translations speak of the gentleness of wisdom. Since it is likely that the phrase is qualifying the works which express wisdom, it indicates that these works are gentle, kindly intended and executed, and good.

There is a possibility that this verse is referring back to the first verse of the chapter, and thus to James’ warning about teachers. The role of teaching in the early Christian community provided an opportunity to display one’s wisdom in the performance of the rhetorical art. If we accept this interpretation (see Davids; cf. Moo), it has the advantage of holding the whole chapter together, and of elevating the significance of the teaching role either for good or for ill.

But the teacher’s wisdom is demonstrated and displayed, not in their rhetorical performance, nor in their mastery of the content, but in their character and relationships – do they bless or curse those made in the image of God (v. 9)? Is their tongue a fountain of goodness, justice and righteousness, or does it set the world aflame with the fires of Gehenna (v. 6)? Is their wisdom that which is revealed in humble and gentle service and the generous use of riches? James’ words provide a means of assessing whether or not those spiritual leaders and teachers in our midst are truly wise.

We can ask similar questions of our own lives and our own practice of Christian spirituality. Are we genuinely wise and understanding, in the sense set forth by James? Is our spirituality characterised by an active life of good works undertaken in gentleness and humility?

 

Scripture on Sunday – Luke 10:38-42

The story of Martha and Mary is well known. Jesus visits their village and Martha welcomes him into her home. With Jesus, of course, comes his whole entourage: disciples and other followers. Martha gets busy making preparations for meals and other hospitality. Mary, on the other hand, sits down at Jesus’ feet to listen to his teaching. Martha is more than a little put out:

But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” (v. 40).

She was probably not merely distracted, but pressured and stressed. She could have approached Mary directly and asked her help, but instead approaches Jesus, asking him to address Mary on her behalf. I wonder if things might have gone differently if Martha had quietly addressed Mary directly. Instead she questions Jesus—with a question that has a hint of accusation; “don’t you care?” Martha’s annoyance was not without cause: there was much to be done, and it is likely that Mary would usually participate in all the work of preparation. Showing hospitality to guests was a crucial cultural requirement in ancient Israel, and Martha was doing what she and Mary could be expected to do. We need also remember that Martha was doing good, working hard to serve others, to serve the Lord.

Jesus answers Martha, but not as she might have hoped. He ignores her request, refusing to act as a go-between between Martha and her sister. It suggests that perhaps she should have been more direct. (Note to self! How often do I pray that God might do something because I am hesitant to address a situation that I am, in fact, responsible for?) But nor does he take her implicit criticism personally. He does gently correct her, however, his “Martha, Martha” naming, acknowledging, and recognising her.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her” (vv. 41-42).

Somehow Jesus perceives that Martha’s upset in this instance is characteristic of her life in many things. Nevertheless, only one thing is needed—“man does not live on bread alone” (Luke 4:4)—and this, Mary has chosen. Jesus’ words here are revolutionary in at least two ways. First is his insistence that only one thing is needed; the one necessary thing, the one crucial element without which we cannot go on, the one essential of all discipleship and ministry—to sit in Jesus’ presence and hear his teaching, his word of instruction, command, and promise. Second, Mary has chosen this. A woman might normally be expected to be working behind the scenes, involved in the preparations, doing that traditionally assigned as women’s roles. But Mary has chosen something different “and it will not be taken away from her.” “No,” Jesus is saying, “I will not tell your sister to help you. What you are doing is good and important, valued and required. What Mary has chosen is better.” A woman might choose a different path to traditional expectation, and Jesus will commend rather than rebuke her, if that path is to sit at his feet as a disciple, and to hear his word.

A prominent feature of Luke’s gospel is his frequent—and surely deliberate—use of women as models of discipleship. The contrast between Martha and Mary is that between good and better, and Mary serves as an example of the ‘better’ that every disciple might emulate. At the beginning of another year which will likely be just as busy, just as difficult and pressured and demanding and work-filled and distraction-filled and stressed as the last year was, it is imperative that we pause to remember the one thing needed: to sit in Jesus’ presence and listen to his teaching, allowing him to address us, hearing his word, and of course, doing it (Luke 11:28).

Scripture on Sunday – 1 Samuel 3

In this chapter Samuel grows up. The most significant aspect of his growing years was his hearing the call and word of Yahweh. The story presents him as just a boy when Yahweh calls him—an encouragement to children and children’s ministers! At first Samuel does not recognise Yahweh’s voice, mistaking it for Eli. Indeed, like Eli’s sons, Samuel “does not know the Lord”—yet (v. 7; cf. 2:12). Eventually Eli discerns the truth and gives the best advice, telling Samuel to respond, “Speak Yahweh: your servant is listening.”

But God’s speech is a word of judgement against Eli! (cf. Isaiah 6), and so not at all what one wants to hear. Like the prophecy given in the second chapter, the judgement is against Eli and his house, on account of the activities of Eli’s sons and his failure to restrain them. While it is possible to reflect on this passage with respect to parenting responsibilities, it is more likely that Eli is presented in terms of his role as high priest responsible for the work and worship of the tabernacle. Many years will pass before these words of prophecy come to pass by which time Samuel is an adult. There will, however, be no forgiveness for Eli, neither by sacrifice nor offering. This is a harsh, or at least a stern, word of unremitting judgement.

I find the portrayal of Eli in these chapters to be somewhat ambiguous. He confronts his sons but does not restrain them, nor remove them from their position. It seems likely that he too was benefiting from their misappropriation. Nevertheless, it seems he does much better with Samuel than he has with his own sons. His blessing of Hannah is twice fruitful, and here, he is alive to the possibility that God may be or is at work. He bows before the word of judgement and acknowledges Yahweh’s sovereign right to judge. Yet even this acknowledgement will not save him from this judgement. It seems that his acknowledgement is not equivalent to repentance. “Eli stands as a warning against drifting through life with a well-meaning attitude but without taking up the responsibilities that are really ours” (Evans, 40).

1 Samuel 3:1, 19, 21 
And the word of the Lord was rare in those days; there was no frequent vision. … And Samuel grew, and the Lord was with him and let none of his words fall to the ground. And all Israel from Dan to Beersheba knew that Samuel was established as a prophet of the Lord. And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord.

Under the ministry of Eli and his sons, the word of the Lord has been rare. Whether the spiritual condition of Eli’s house and of the people was due to the lack of divine revelation, or whether the lack of divine revelation was due to the failure of the people may be speculated. What is plain in this passage, however, is that the Lord takes the initiative, addressing Samuel by name, calling him in the night, speaking his word and then confirming it publicly, establishing Samuel as the Lord’s prophet.

Samuel hears but does not recognise Yahweh’s voice: “Now Samuel did not yet know the Lord, and the word of the Lord had not yet been revealed to him” (v.7). Learning to hear and recognise God’s voice takes a certain sensitivity, quietness, openness, and readiness. It is unsurprising that Samuel hears in the period before dawn when he and all around him is quiet. It is difficult to hear “the still small voice” in the cacophony of daily busyness. It seems the voice was “audible” for Samuel but was not actually audible, for Eli was not awakened and did not hear. Initially Samuel mistook the divine voice for a natural occurrence, and needed the instruction and encouragement of Eli to recognise the subtlety of Yahweh’s speech. With Eli’s instruction Samuel returned to his bed and waited, and when addressed, was ready and responded as he had been instructed, “Speak Yahweh: your servant is listening.”

The gracious divine initiative here is unmistakable: God comes to Samuel, addressing and calling him. The response of readiness, openness and humility is required if one is to hear the voice of the Lord. The posture is one of a servant, serving the Lord, serving the word. Samuel obeys. Samuel declares what he has heard, though he is afraid to do so. His response is full. He hears, he obeys, he declares. “And the Lord appeared again at Shiloh.”

It appears in this context that God’s primary way of revelation and communication with his people is via the prophets—despite the word addressed to Joshua after the death of Moses (see Joshua 1).  Later in Israel’s history, Amos warns that in a time of judgement God will send a famine upon the land:

Amos 8:11-12
Not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea and from north to east; they shall run to and fro to seek the word of the Lord but they shall not find it.

God has raised up a willing, responsive and faithful hearer of the word of God, who also becomes a speaker of the divine word that others might hear with the result that “the Lord appeared again at Shiloh, for the Lord revealed himself to Samuel at Shiloh by the word of the Lord” (v. 21). “Recovery for Israel began with a new hearing and a new speaking out of the word of God” (Evans, 41).

The Virtues of Prayer

In his discussion of the usefulness of Scripture in moral formation, Allen Verhey, drawing on Alasdair MacIntyre, considers the virtues of prayer:

Prayer is learned in Christian community, and it is learned not only as an idea but also as a human activity that engages one’s body as well as one’s mind, one’s affections and passions and loyalties as well as one’s rationality. Prayer is an activity that focuses one’s whole self on God. In learning to pray, one learns the good that is “internal to that form of activity”; one learns, that is, to attend to God, to look to God. … In learning to pray, we learn to look to God; and after the blinding vision, we begin to look at all else in a new light.

In learning to pray, we learn as well certain standards of excellence that belong to prayer and its attention to God, standards of excellence that are “appropriate to” prayer and “partially definitive” of prayer. 

We learn reverence, humility, gratitude, hope, and care. Prayer-formed persons and the prayer-formed communities — in the whole of their being and in the whole of their living — will be reverent, humble, grateful, hopeful, and caring. One does not pray in order to achieve these virtues. They are not formed when we use prayer as a technique. They are formed in simple attentiveness to God, and they spill over into new virtues for daily life and discernment. (Verhey, Remembering Jesus, 63-64.)

“That Pretentious Business”

Luther by Lucas CranachScott Hendrix notes Martin Luther’s comments on holiness from a sermon by Luther given on June 24, 1525.

The greatest holiness one could imagine drew us into the cloister. . . . We fasted and prayed repeatedly, wore hair shirts under woolen cowls, led a strict and austere life. In short, we took on a monkish holiness. We were so deeply involved in that pretentious business that we considered ourselves holy from head to toe.

Luther had lived as a monk for 16 years by the time he was excommunicated in 1521. Nevertheless, he came to see that monastic holiness was an unattainable goal. Luther ultimately sought a less demanding and more merciful Christianity, says Hendrix, which would liberate people from anxiety about reaching heaven and redirect their concern toward others in place of themselves (in Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer,  27, 13).

In an earlier letter, written to George Spenlein, another monk, Luther said, “Beware of aspiring to such purity that you will not wish to be looked upon as a sinner, or to be one. For Christ dwells only in sinners” (April 8, 1516, cited in Hendrix, 47).