What is more…

an excercise in getting to the point

Tag: Community

Agape Love in the Desert Fathers

The Desert Fathers of the 3rd and 4th centuries were famous for their asceticism and their heroic world-denying practices. They sold all that they had in order to achieve the higher perfection that Jesus commends to the rich young man (of course, their way of interpreting this verse differed widely from Clement of Alexandria, who preferred to “spiritualize” the meaning of Jesus’s command).  They moved into the desert in order to “mortify the body and [keep] it under subjection” and to (quite literally) wrestle with their demons.[1] The goal of such askesis was the purification of the soul and the attainment of a particular sort of virtue or perfection—a mixture of Stoic resolve and Christian humility. It was said of Antony, after he emerged from 20 years of solitude in a cave in the desert that “when he saw the crowd, he was not annoyed any more than he was elated at being embraced by so many people. He maintained utter equilibrium, like one guided by reason and steadfast in that which accords with nature.”[2]

Such a description seems to tend toward a self-regarding ethic that focuses on one’s own welfare (spiritual, not material). What seems most remarkable about the ethic of the desert fathers, however, is the place of other-regarding love. This is most explicit in the sayings of the desert fathers XVII.xviii:

“A brother asked a certain old man, saying, ‘There be two brothers, and one of them is quiet in his cell, and prolongs his fast for six days, and lays much travail on himself: but the other tends the sick. Whose work is the more acceptable to God?’ And the old man answered, “If that brother who carries his fast for six days were to hang himself up b the nostrils, he could not equal the other, who does service to the sick.”

In addition to service and hospitality toward those outside the monastic vocation, many of the desert fathers also stress the importance of compassion and grace toward those who are struggling against their own demons. Older men and women are not to be harsh toward younger ones, but are “to have compassion on those who are harassed by temptations of this sort” (V.iv.). There is a recognition, at least from the wisest fathers, that temptation comes to different people in different ways, but it does indeed come to all. The tone is certainly far from that of Tertullian, who does not seem to be the most patient and graceful of church fathers.[3]

My favorite demonstration of love in the sayings of the fathers occurs when a young man, beset by repeated temptations of lust, visits an old man (elder?) for help. The old man comforts him until his temptations go away. After returning to his cell the young man is again tempted and returns to the old man who comforts him again. We are told that this happens eleven times, until the old man said “Believe me, my son, if God permitted the thoughts which my own mind is stung to be transferred to thee… thou wouldst dash thyself headlong” (V.xiii.). So it was that by his “great humbleness, [the old man] did quiet the goading of lust in the brother.” Here is a picture of gentleness, patience, compassion, and humility. Rather than banishing the young man as a distraction from prayer and asceticism, the old man cares for him and identifies with him. This saying of the desert father shows me what mentorship and accountability can look like in Christian community, and it encourages me to aspire to it in my own life.


[1] See Athanasius, Life of St. Antony, 36-40.

[2] Ibid., 42.

[3] Of course, the desert fathers are talking about the young monk wrestling with temptation—not the penitent monk admitting to outright sin. I would be interested to know if there are sayings of the desert fathers that deal with the latter topic.

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Primal Blog Tour…

This morning I finished reading my review copy of Mark Batterson’s new book, Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity. I remember hearing about Mark’s church, National Community Church (www.theatrechurch.org) while I was living in Northern Virginia, and I have been reading his tweets and blog posts for a while now. This book, however, was the first time I have been able to get a glimpse into what he is all about. And I liked what I saw.

The basic premise of Primal is that we tend to overcomplicate Christianity. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he said “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12). The problem with Christianity in our day, according to Batterson, is this simple: we do not live out the Great Commandment.

In Primal, Batterson explores what it means to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. He identifies a key inward characteristic and a key outward characteristic of what it means to love God with each of these four dimensions of our personhood. Loving God with our heart is exemplified by the experience of compassion and the act of generous giving. Loving God with our soul is exemplified by the experience of wonder and the act of meditation on and obedience to Scripture. Loving God with our mind is exemplified by the experience of curiosity and the act of prayerful creativity. Loving God with our strength is exemplified by the experience of energy, and the simple act of relying on God’s energizing Spirit.

The content of this book is great. At times, however, I wondered whether his “vehicle” [as my wife, the former speech competitor calls it] was the most effective one he could have chosen. Batterson alternates between the metaphors of (a) stripping away the layers of history, (b) being great at the Great Commandment, and (c) starting the next Christian Reformation in order to deliver his message. Each of these “vehicles”  would be effective on their own (and granted, they are certainly related), but at times the mixing of them was confusing.

That being said, I found the book very enjoyable to read. Batterson’s strength lies in his ability to incorporate psychology, sociology, and the natural sciences in ways that make the Gospel come to life. In doing so, he shows how the Christian message is relevant–how it relates to the way we think and interact and how it relates to the world in which we live. He has a great ability to explain theological concepts in accessible, engaging ways. Also, I was pleasantly surprised by the punch-line of his chapter on loving God with all our strength: namely, that loving God with all our strength means to rely on God’s strength in us. Batterson manages to make his book a call to action, while affirming the Reformation Era slogan Sola Gratia (“by grace alone”).

There are no new theological ideas in this book. As a seminary student at the end of a long semester, that was refreshing. Primal is a reminder of the basics, and an encouragement to see the profundity of the Great Commandment. I would confidently recommend this book for an adult education team looking for a 4-week curriculum on the Great Commandment, or for a youth group leader looking for a book to go through with a small group of high school kids.

Primal: A Quest for the Lost Soul of Christianity can be purchased here.

This Happened…

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This morning I was sitting at a local coffee shop reading some Schleiermacher (a little light reading, ya know?) when a friend walked in. He sat down with me and I gladly put the book down to enjoy some good conversation. While we were talking, I couldn’t help noticing a middle-aged woman with an intrigued look on her face listening in on our conversation. As I looked up and made eye-contact with her, she began to talk to us. The conversation -if you can call it that- went something like this…

Her: “It’s so great to see young men with Bibles in a coffee shop” (she smiled as she gestured toward my book)

Me: “Oh thanks. That’s not a Bible though (far from it, I thought). I do have one in my backpack though!”

Her: “You know. I’ll tell you what. The world is just so crazy. I was just thinking about, in Revelations, where it talks about the plagues…”

Me: (oh gosh, where is she going with this?… I wonder if she knows the book is called Revelation?)

Her: “… and I’ll tell ya, those plagues are man-made. And that swine-flu… I’ve been doing alot of research, and I just heard more this very morning, about what they are putting in the vaccination…”

Kyle and I are speechless. We look at each other. I just barely keep myself from laughing.

Her: “…not only aluminum but deadly chemicals. It just… I’m ready to go out and buy some land at a higher elevation and stay away from the hurt and the destruction that is coming. It is going to be bad. Alot of pain and suffering… oh well. You all make sure that you stay away, and keep your kids away from that swine-flu vaccine as long as you can, ok?”

Me: “Oh definitely. Thanks for chatting. Have a nice day.” (OMG, what the heck was that about?)

I have been thinking about this incident all day long. It was just so weird. No wonder people think that Christians are crazy. What would possess someone to talk to two total strangers about something so ridiculous. Did she assume, because we were Christians, that we would instantly share her fears about the imminent end of the world; that we, too, would be about one more deadly outbreak away from moving to a shelter in the Appalachians? As I looked at her children listening to their mother speak, I couldn’t help but wonder what sort of picture of Christianity they would grow up with? How would that version of Christianity stack up with competing world-views and philosophies which focus less on apocalyptic conspiracy theories than on loving people and promoting peace? Would they even be able to envision Jesus as someone who lived, died and was resurrected for the world; not so people could be saved from the world, but so that they could then love others in the world in a radical way?

When I told Sarah about this, she had the word that I should have had for the crazy conspiracy coffee-shop lady. Does she not know that “God gave us a spirit, not of fear, but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:7)? I wish I would have had the wherewithal to speak the truth in love to this lady, but I didn’t… I was completely shell-shocked. Until the next time I see her I will just have to pray for her… and her kids.

Theological Worship

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First of all, I am sorry for the long delay in posts. Not that anyone was particularly on the edge of their seat waiting for a new one, but I realize that some people may have been wondering if I ever came back from Nicaragua. You may now stop worrying, I did make it back (although I wasn’t sure that I would when I was pulled over by a corrupt police officer in Managua one night!). The trip was so amazing! God worked through the teams that came in amazing ways, and perhaps more poignantly he did an exciting work in the hearts of many of the team members. Sarah and I, of course, were confronted and transformed by God as well: being reminded of the transience of material wealth, the complete insanity and complete joy that ensues while following Christ into wild situations, the importance of relying on God’s power and presence in the face of suffering, and the humility of learning that a five year old Nicaraguan can often be closer to the heart of Jesus than we are.

Over the past few weeks Sarah and I have been traveling every weekend (mostly to weddings – congrats Georgia and Warren, Scott and Meg, and Madison and Pamela!) and I have been doing summer Greek at PTS. I have had the chance to read and think about some great things but I haven’t yet taken the time to process much of it, let alone write about it.

I am quickly learning something about how my brain works. My brain is something like a pond. As new thoughts and ideas are introduced they enter the reservoir and float around for a while. However, if all that ever happens is more and more coming in, then the water stagnates, movement stops, and the pond becomes murky and overgrown with algae. This can be a terrible problem for a pond or lake. It can similarly be a problem for my own thinking.

What is needed is an outlet. As water moves out of a pond or lake, new water inevitably moves in and stimulates movement, clarity, and ultimately growth. Typically, school provides a ready-made outlet for my thinking, but there is no substitute for taking time to write thoughts on paper, or for face-to-face conversations in which ideas can be challenged, clarified, and applied to everyday life. Of course, we have all met people who seem to have no sharing their opinions on their blogs or in person, and yet seem to have had no real meaningful input behind them. A pond will drain out in the absence of rain leaving only mud and muck, and that isn’t good either.

So, here’s to a proper balance of input and output, of reading and writing, of reflection and conversation. I want my thinking to be clear, meaningful, practical and dynamic and to that end, I hope to get out of my own introverted head more. Martin Luther defined sin as a heart curved in on itself. I guess you could say that intellectual sin in a brain turned in on itself.

Recently, I sat with a friend here at seminary on his porch, smoking cigars and talking about everything under the sun: sports, God, school, relationships, cigars, technology, etc. At the end we reflected on the tendency toward isolation that many people feel while at a seminary like Princeton and we further reflected on how our time on his porch had been some of the best fellowship we had experienced. We called it “theological worship.” It was probably one of the best reminders that I have had that the best theology is not done in isolation (i.e. reading one book with the resolve to finish it just so I can move on to the next). The best theology is done in community, in fellowship, in shared worship and in wonder in the face of an unimaginable God who meets us “whenever two or three are gathered” in his name.