The Thoughts and Adventures of Sarah Harris

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Archive for the category “Theology”

To the Me of Ten Years Ago

I thought this was a lovely little post by a mother of a little girl with epilepsy. She writes to herself 10 years ago when her daughter was born.

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Women of Virtue: Makrina the Younger

I recently came across this post which has become quite popular in the social media context. The photographer decided that instead of dressing up her daughter in princess dresses for her 5th birthday portrait session, she would dress her up like REAL women who have made a difference in the world – in an attempt to show her daughter what real women she could strive to become.

Here she has her daughter taking after Amelia Earhart:

li-460-amelia-emma

This got me thinking, as I’m sure it has many, what women in history I would want my future daughter (Lord willing) to look up to as role models. So as I come across amazing women in history, I’ll post them here, specifically addressing why she should look up to them as role models. Women of virtue that she can take after. So for starters:

Fresco in Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev from the 11th century

Makrina the Younger (Macrina, Μακρίνα) 330 – 379 AD. Died around age 49.

I won’t go at length to describe her life, but rather briefly sketch her accomplishments and then address my favorite things about this woman that I think we can all learn from, especially our children. So first, to give a VERY brief sketch of her life, she was the sister of St. Basil and St. Gregory of Nyssa and had a total of 9 siblings of whom she was the oldest. When she was young, her father arranged a marriage for her for when she came of age. However, her betrothed died before she was old enough to marry. Instead of looking for another suitor (there were many since she was a very beautiful woman) she chose to remain a virgin “since in the nature of things there was but one marriage, as there is one birth and one death. She persisted that the man who had been linked to her by her parents’ arrangement was not dead, but that she considered him who lived to God, thanks to the hope of the resurrection, to be absent only, not dead; it was wrong not to keep faith with the bridegroom who was away” (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/macrina.asp#life).

She helped raise her siblings, especially the youngest, St. Peter. After her father died, she led her mother into a life of simplicity. Although they were a family of means, Makrina and her mother simplified their lives so that there was no distinction between themselves and their maidservants. Together they established a convent on their estate. She is thought to be the spiritual leader in her family and had great influence over her brothers. She was well educated and in his work, her brother St. Gregory calls her the Teacher and relays a conversation they had just before her death concerning the body and soul in the resurrection.

What I like about her:

She died well. Macrina was not afraid of death. She understood that Christ trampled over death and defeated it and that the passing from this life was not the end. Rather, one was merely absent for a time and would one day be reunited.  These beautiful words she said during her last days which her brother, Gregory, recorded:

” You, O Lord, have freed us from the fear of death. You have made the end of this life the beginning to us true life. For a season you rest our bodies in sleep and awaken them again at the last trump. You give our earth, which You have fashioned with Your hands, to the earth to keep in safety. One day You will take again what You have given, transfiguring with immortality and grace our mortal and unsightly remains. You have saved us from the curse and from sin, having become both for our sakes. You have broken the heads of the dragon who had seized us with his jaws, in the yawning gulf of disobedience. You have shown us the way of resurrection, having broken the gates of hell, and brought to naught him who had the power of death-the devil. You have given a sign to those that fear You in the symbol of the Holy Cross, [984 D] to destroy the adversary and save our life. O God eternal, to Whom I have been attached from my mother’s womb, Whom my soul has loved with all its strength, to Whom I have dedicated both my flesh and my soul from my youth up until now-do give me an angel of light to conduct me to the place of refreshment, where is the water of rest, in the bosom of the holy Fathers. You that broke the flaming sword and restored to Paradise the man that was crucified with You and implored Your mercies, remember me, too, in Your kingdom; because I, too, was crucified with You, having nailed my flesh to the cross for fear of You, and of Your judgments have I been afraid. Let not the terrible chasm separate me from Your elect. Nor let [986 A] the slanderer stand against me in the way; nor let my sin be found before Your eyes, if in anything I have sinned in word or deed or thought, led astray by the weakness of our nature. O You who have power on earth to forgive sins, forgive me, that I may be refreshed and may be found before You when I put off my body, without defilement on my soul. But may my soul be received into Your hands spotless and undefiled, as an offering before You” (I changed some old English words such as “Thy” and “Thou”; http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/macrina.asp#life).

macrina

 

What we can learn from her:

She lived out her roles as both a mother and a teacher. Although Makrina was well educated and apparently could even rival her brother in philosophical discussions as seen here, she did not at all neglect her role as mother. She had no children of her own, of course. But she raised her brother Peter like her own. St. Gregory says: “[She] took him soon after birth from the nurse’s breast and reared him herself and educated [972 C] him on a lofty system of training, practicing him from infancy in holy studies, so as not to give his soul leisure to turn to vain things. Thus having become all things to the lad – father, teacher, tutor, mother, giver of all good advice-she produced such results that before the age of boyhood had passed, when he was yet a stripling in the first bloom of tender youth, he aspired to the high mark of philosophy” (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/basis/macrina.asp#life).

In her brother’s account of their conversation about the resurrection we see another side of Makrina. She is not just mother. She is also a woman who is highly education in philosophy and scripture. She has spent her time on this earth devoted to God and in pursuit of Him. This was done, not neglecting her siblings, but done alongside her role as mother. The two aspects of her life were intertwined. The things that she learned both philosophically and spiritually, she joyfully passed along to her siblings. She desired that they would also pursue God, and so she made great effort and sacrifice to make sure this occurred.

I think the thing our young daughters can take away from St. Makrina, is that as women we impact others as both mother to our children and to those in our community. Women are not confined solely to the role of mother nor solely to a career. A woman has an important role in the home because she is able to instil virtues into the sons and daughters in her life, who will in turn impact others. In that sense, there is great value and worth in being a good wife, running an orderly home, and raising children in the disciplines of the faith. A woman is also highly capable of making an impact on her community and extended family in other ways – whether it be though the study of theology and running a convent as Makrina has done, or though some other way. My daughter can impact the world through art, as a musician, or as a scientist. The important thing to note is that those who surround her in life (in the home and in work) are the people she is shaping, and that is an important role to have.

Death is not something we have to fear. We might be inclined to say that children don’t really worry about such things, but I think it’s important that we teach our children about death. When I was younger, although it didn’t continually worry me, I certainly feared death. It was a place I did not know or understand. A place where we are a different sort of people and where our purpose was to sing praises to God. It seemed like a place where I would feel trapped and bored and I really did not want to go there – which I was ashamed to admit. I remember being taught in Sunday School that we should love and desire to be with God more than those here on earth. But how was I to love a Person I had never seen more than those I knew personally? He was distant, and though I knew some truths about Him, and though I talked to Him, and read His Words, the distance still led me to fear life with Him, apart from those I loved…where all we did was sing to Him. I know I am not the only one who had this experience as a child. This may in fact be what numerous people felt as a child.  And though, perhaps, “I know better” now, the way you are trained as a child is formative, and it carries over into adulthood.

For this reason, I think conversations with our children about death are important. How will they come to think well about death if we instill images within them are frightening? Hell seemed awful as a child, but heaven didn’t seem that great either (perhaps using images like fire and streets of gold with children who take things very literally, is not the best thing to do). We don’t know a whole lot about what the after life will look like, but we do know, as Makrina says in her dialogue with Gregory, that the resurrection is the restoration of our bodies to their original nature (http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/npnf205.x.iii.ii.html). We also know that God is going to restore all of creation, not just our souls. The God-Man is not coming again to smite the earth, He is coming again to bring about total and complete restoration to both earth and heaven (Romans 8: 18-24; Colossians 1:15-19). The simple fact that (the life after) death does not mean going to some unknown place but rather, means that I will be here in this world as part of God’s restored Kingdom, brings about peace and hope. We would do well to talk about death with our children, that they might have the courage Makrina had because she understood that the body would be raised in all its glory. Death no longer has a hold on man.

The Counter Liturgical Practices Needed in our Church

The Church as counter liturgy to the world’s practices must be more than a jesufied version of secular liturgies. If all we do in the church is produce head knowledge and don’t intentionally practice liturgy that shapes us towards a kingdom of God, then we’ll likely produce people who desire a kingdom that is antithetical to God’s.

James K.A. Smith states that, “Christian worship should be seen and understood as counter formation to the secular. . . . Not all that currently passes as Christian worship will do that. . .  .If you’ve just turned Christian worship into a jesufied version of the mall, don’t be surprised if your worship doesn’t function as a counter to consumerism. You’ve just made Jesus another commodity”  (Smith, Desiring the Kingdom presentation).

So what should the church look like if it is to be counter formative? Smith provides a list of necessary practices that should be integrated into our worship. They are practices that have been formed and shaped over the centuries of church history. Not only does he show us what we should do, he shows us what desires they form in us as we do them, and thus, why they are important as counter liturgies.

These counter liturgies include: a call to worship, greetings, song, reading of the law, confession, assurance of pardon, baptism, the creed, prayers of the people, prayers of illumination, scripture reading, the sermon, the Eucharist, offering, sending as witnesses (benediction), worship, discipleship, and discipline, to name a few. These liturgies are meant to instill in us a certain vision of the kingdom. In the different congregations I’ve been a part of, we were often lacking between 10 to 13 of these liturgies. In fact, when Dr. Nicholas Wolterstorff (Emeritus Professor of Philosophical Theology at Yale) was here about a month ago he told us about his experience at a church service where he was invited to speak. He said the band came up and played loud concert type praise music and then he came up to give his guest talk (not sermon, but talk). That was it. There was no recognizable form of liturgy in the service at all – no scripture reading, no prayer, no confession. This happens to such a great extent that churches often cannot be distinguished from a secular concert or a speaking engagement.

If Church is meant to be counter formative, then the liturgical practices are crucial. Smith takes some time talking about each practice but I’ll go through only a few of them here, especially those that are often missing in church services.

I previously hadn’t been to a church that practiced public confession each Sunday until moving here to Canada. During this confession, that is said out loud and in unison with the congregation, we acknowledge that we fail to love rightly. However, unlike the billboard that tells us we are lacking and in need of a cure, the time of confession at church ends with forgiveness. Christ gives assurance of pardon. The following is an example of what might be said together as a church body, presented by Smith and taken from the Book of Common Prayer:

Most merciful God,

We confess that we have sinned against you

In thought, word, and deed,

By what we have done,

By what we have left undone.

We have not loved you with out whole heart;

We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.

We are truly sorry and we humbly repent.

For the sake of your Son Jesus Christ,

Have mercy on us and forgive us;

That we may delight in your will,

And walk in your ways,

To the glory of your name. Amen.

A liturgy of confession and assurance forms us to both realize our own guilt and responsibility as well as be assured of reconciliation. It does not leave us in despair, but gives us hope for the coming kingdom where creation is renewed.

While this next one, prayer, might not seem neglected in most churches, I’d venture to say that it is. Not that prayer isn’t included even in the churches that reflect the mall or the concert hall, it usually is. But there does seem to be some form missing. When Smith speaks of prayer he’s talking specifically about intercessory prayer and prayer of illumination – said right before the Word is read (193). Intercessory prayer, commonly known as prayers for the people, is a time where we pray for those within our congregation, those within our community, and people throughout the world. We take the time to name those who are sick, families who have lost loved ones or families who have just given birth to new life. Prayers are given for the poor and suffering, for those in government leadership, and for those who are suffering in other countries. Smith states: “. . . in intercessory prayer we give words to articulate the vision of justice that is at the heart of the biblical vision of shalom. Often we do this in a backward sort of way: we pray precisely for the things that are continued evidence of the curse, of the way things are not supposed to be, and that thus makes us hunger after the kingdom” (194). Intercessory prayer is often a lament at the way the world is – a place of sickness, disease, war, and racism – and thus, it is a looking forward and a hope for the kingdom to come.

I’ll briefly touch on the Eucharist, knowing that this is something taken in most churches – some quarterly, some monthly, and some weekly. But as I’ve read the Church Fathers and studied this practice that has been done through the centuries of the Church, I’ve come to see how important it is – so important that I’d implore churches to make this a weekly practice. According to Smith, the Eucharist “rehearses God’s blessing of creation” (200). Christ blesses the wine and the bread, there by blessing His creation – for He is the Creator of grapes and wheat. But also implicit in the taking of the Lord’s Supper, Christ is blessing the work of human hands – the making of wine and the baking of bread.

In addition to it being a blessing on creation, it is also a meal that is looking forward to the time when Christ comes and no longer will anyone hunger or thirst. All people from all tongues and all tribes can come and partake in communion with the Son. The poor man will not be shunned and given scraps, there will be no one who hoards a surplus allowing others to suffer and die in poverty and hunger, the refugee will have a place even if he cannot speak the language or understand the culture (201). The Church, in taking the Eucharist, looks forward to a time when all who are struggling in this world will find rest.

The Eucharist also requires that we forgive one another. We take this meal in communion – “it is a witness of the renewal of creation, required to be a community of dependence – a body that can’t possibly function, let alone flourish, without the collaborative contribution of each member” (201). I recall Easter service at our church, and we took the Eucharist in a very unique way. We got up as a row or two of pews, stood around a table together as the disciples might have, passed the bread and wine (or juice in this case) stating “He is risen” as we passed. We took it together and standing there I felt such unity – and yet with people I did not know or hardly knew. Yet, there, at that table with very different people who led very separate lives, I felt as though I was part of a community.  That practice on Easter Sunday was far more formative than the information that was being put into my head. In fact, while I can’t recall what was said in the sermon, I can remember that formative moment taking the Eucharist in communion. The Eucharist is not simply a time to remember or a symbol of what is past. Rather, it actively does something to us when we take it. It is a formative act of worship.

The last liturgy I’ll mention here is what I call benediction and it’s become one of my favorite parts of liturgy. At the end of each service, our pastor reaches out his hands over us, palms down, in a gesture of giving, and we place our hands out palms up, in a gesture of receiving. During that time he sends us away with a blessing often from a scripture passage and usually something like this:

The Lord bless you and keep you;

The Lord make his face shine upon you

and be gracious to you;

The Lord turn his face toward you

and give you peace (Num 6:24-26)

And in this sending, we go with the knowledge that we are to be servants to the world “by showing what redeemed human community and culture look like, as modeled by the One whose cultural work led Him to the cross. In short, we are sent to be martyrs, witnesses of the Crucified One” (207). We leave blessed and with hope of a new kingdom.

Smith elaborates on each one of these liturgical practices in his book and many more, but for the sake of this blog post not being insanely long, I’ll stop there. At least, I hope, the picture is clear. What we practice shapes our desires for the good life. The Church as a historical body has worshiped for centuries, putting together a form of worship that is meant to be counter cultural and formative. A jesufied rock concert service, or a jesufied mall is formative – but perhaps it is forming us in the wrong way. Perhaps it is forming us to believe that Jesus is a commodity – something that I need to make my life better or perhaps it is forming us to believe that Jesus is our entertainment – fulfilling our desires in the moment.

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