“Give your angels charge over those who sleep.”
– The Book of Common Prayer.
By Tish Harrison Warren
For close to 15 years, I forgot about the existence of angels.
I didn’t exactly decide I no longer believed in them. I simply didn’t think about them, and if I ever did, it was a passing thought about how corny the depiction of angels usually is.
I rediscovered angels by putting a baby to sleep at night.
When my first child was a newborn, I realized one night, to my surprise, that without really noticing I had developed a habit of asking God to send his angels to protect her.
Back then I worked at Vanderbilt University and became a regular at a Greek Orthodox cafe and bookstore near campus. I loved its quiet beauty, its ancient books, and its veggie chili. I got to know Father Parthenios, an Antiochian priest, and his wife (known to all as simply “Presbytera,” or “priest’s wife”), who ran the place together. One afternoon, late in my pregnancy, Presbytera handed me an icon of an angel and told me it was for the new baby. I appreciated her kindness but wasn’t particularly spiritually moved. I’m a Protestant, after all. At the time I felt no particular skepticism toward icons or angels, but I didn’t feel a deep connection either. Still, I hung the tiny wooden icon on my daughter’s wall.
Months later, as I prayed for my daughter before laying her to sleep, I would point out the icon and ask that angels would be near and protect her. I don’t know what changed in my mind or heart. My only explanation is that the towering responsibility – and love and vulnerability – of motherhood opened my heart to ask for help wherever it could be found.
I keenly sensed my daughter’s smallness and fragility in this giant cosmos and knew that all the passion of my maternal love wasn’t enough to keep her safe. I was small and fragile too. And yet, in our ordinary house in the vast darkness of night, I believed I wasn’t alone.
A Crowded Cosmos. Most of us who are educated into even mild sophistication – including Christians – proceed as if God is distant, as if the world is ours to control. It’s not full of enchantment, not teeming with mysteries, and certainly not crawling with angels.
But this was not always the case. The historic church imagined a universe jam-packed with angels, and ancient Christian leaders talk about angels a lot – more, frankly, than I am comfortable with. Thomas Aquinas called them ‘‘intellectual creatures” or “incorporeal creatures.” In the fifth century, Dionysius the Areopagite wrote, “Angels number a thousand times a thousand, ten thousand times ten thousand … so numerous indeed are the blessed armies of transcendent intelligent beings that they surpass the fragile and limited realm of our physical numbers.” Hilary of Poitiers wrote that “everything that seems empty is filled with the angels of God, and there is no place that is not inhabited by them as they go about their ministry.”
I cannot even imagine living with this view of the universe, where you can spin around on an average day and bump into a thousand angels. What was assumed for centuries – that the universe is buzzing with divine life – is something I have to stretch to believe. Yet my ambivalence about angels is not due to reason. It stems from a failure of my imagination, an imagination formed by a disenchanted view of the world – the empty ocean of the cosmos.
We Christians can be tempted to make our faith less enchanted. We try to prop it up with respectability. If we do not embrace an enchanted cosmos, we miss the fullness of reality, the fullness of God, and we will never fully embrace the mystery of our own lives.
“Give your angels …” Night is a time when we hear the whispers of a crowded cosmos and wonder about hidden spiritual realities. Our imaginations run wild with possibilities – every culture on earth is filled with stories of ghosts and other spirits that appear in the night. This nighttime prayer calls us back to the supernatural.
Prayer itself, in any form, dares us to interact with a world beyond the material realm, a world filled with more mysteries than we can talk about in urbane company. In one sense, prayer is completely ordinary. It’s common and daily. And yet it’s a doorway into supernatural reality. Gussy prayer up as a moment of silence or wrap it round with scripted and beautiful words, but still, in a culture that imagines the world in only three dimensions, prayer is inevitably and blessedly undignified.
When I became a priest at a local church, supernatural phenomena became unavoidable. It’s common for parishioners to approach a pastor on our staff asking for help with an unexplainable spiritual encounter. Physicians, professors, and businesspeople – intelligent, well-adjusted, sane people – ask if we could maybe come pray at their home because they think they saw a demon or had some other unexplainable experience. Eventually priests learn to respond to the supernatural like plumbers respond to a call about a clogged drain. It’s part of the job.
But it wasn’t ultimately being a pastor or any odd experiences that led me to a deeper belief in the supernatural. It was prayer. Prayer expands our imagination about the nature of reality.
We are discipled by nearly every impulse of our culture to believe that the here-and-now is all there is; that the only hope offered for us is found in what we can taste, smell, feel, and see. To believe in something beyond the material world we have to take up practices that form our imaginations – and hearts and minds – in light of the resurrection, in light of the possibility that, as Elizabeth Barrett Browning reminds us, “Earth’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God.”
An enchanted universe. The universe has never been anything less than enchanted. We may cease to wonder at mysteries beyond our reach, but that doesn’t diminish them one whit. The cosmos doesn’t need our validation. It is we who have been impoverished.
And yet we can never quite shake the sense that maybe – just maybe – there is more. We wonder if our ordinary lives are part of something unseen and holy, a grander story in which we might take our place.
The unseen is part of our experience of human vulnerability. We don’t just feel vulnerable because we face loss, sickness, or death. We feel cosmically vulnerable. We feel our smallness in a vast universe. We sense that maybe there are forces of evil and good in the world that can’t ever be proven or disproven under a microscope. We suspect on some deep-down level that there is more teeming in this vast ocean of reality than any of us imagine.
On a dark night, when thunder roars and branches sway maniacally against our windows, my children are comforted when I tell them, “I’m here, you are not alone,” because they trust me and love me. But the same idea can be the nightmarish twist of a horror film – “the call is coming from inside the house.” Sensing that the world is crowded with mystery is a gift or a terror, depending on whether unseen things can be trusted or not.
Prayer calls us into supernatural reality. And it also teaches us the nature of the God who governs both what is seen and unseen, the maker of aardvarks, angels, and who-knows-what-else.
While we sleep. We go to sleep each night in our ordinary beds in our ordinary homes in our ordinary lives. And we go to sleep in a universe filled to the brim with mystery and wonder. We always sleep in a crowded room in our crowded cosmos, so we ask for crazy things – that God send unimaginable supernatural beings to watch over us as we drool on our pillows.
We are all helpless when we sleep. No matter how important our job is, no matter how impressive we may be, in order to live we all have to turn off and be unconscious for about a third of our lives.
Every day, whether we like it or not, we must enter into vulnerability in order to sleep. We can be harmed. We can be robbed. We can wake up in a new world of loss that we could not have imagined the night before.
Sleep reminds us of our helplessness. Asleep, we have nothing to commend us; we accomplish nothing to put on our resume. Because of this, sleep is a counter-formative practice that reminds us that our assurance is not the sum of our productivity, prowess, or power.
Or even in our ability to stay alive. In the Christian tradition, sleep has always been seen as a way we practice death. Both Jesus and Paul talk about death as a kind of sleep. Our nightly descent into unconsciousness is a daily memento mori, a reminder of our creatureliness, our limitations, and our weakness. When we go to sleep, we get as close as we who are alive and healthy come to the helplessness of death. And we do it every night.
God designed the universe – and our bodies themselves – so that each day we must face the fact that we are not the stars on center stage. We are not the primary protagonist of the earth – or even of our own lives. Each night the revolution of planets, the activity of angels, and the work of God in the world goes on just fine without us.
There is more in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy. There’s a mad, mad world to tour, and we don’t bear its weight on our shoulders. We are limited people, and there is more mystery in our own brains and bedrooms than we could ever pin down. And so we lay down and sleep each night knowing we aren’t left alone.
Tish Harrison Warren is a priest in the Anglican Church in North America. She is the author of Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practics in Everyday Life. This essay is taken from Prayer in the Night. Copyright © 2021 by Tish Harrison Warren. Published by lnterVarsity Press. Downers Grove. IL. www.ivpress.com.
By B.J. Funk
In the fifth grade, my best friend was Susan. We were inseparable. On weekends we played at either her house or mine. Her mother made us matching outfits, and we each pulled our long same-color hair back into a pony tail. We loved being together. We loved trying to look alike.
That year, if our class earned some special fun time in the midst of our busy studies, the teacher let us play, “Doggie, Doggie, who’s got your bone?” We loved it!
One student sat in a chair at the front of the class, with his/her back facing the students. The teacher placed a chalkboard eraser under the chair, and the class became silent as the teacher selected one person to walk quietly up to the chair, retrieve the eraser, and get back to his seat. Then the class said together, “Doggie, Doggie, who’s got your bone,” and the fun began. The one on the chair turned to face the class and had three chances to name the robber.
One day, Susan was selected to sit in the chair, and I was appointed the robber. I walked up slowly and quietly. When I got close enough to reach down and get the eraser, Susan said, “It’s BJ!”
What? How did that happen? How did I give myself away? Susan answered, “She sighed. And I know her sigh.”
I started thinking. If Susan could read my sigh, couldn’t God? That thought fell comfortably into my spirit in the following years as I thought of those who find it hard to pray. When the words won’t come, could even a sigh convey a person’s heart? I think so. God doesn’t need our words to hear our hearts. He is bigger than the limitations of speech or the restrictions of our minds. He can easily get into the places of pain we have buried.
When I am too full of physical or emotional pain, the One who knows my sigh is in my heart, invading my pain with his unbelievable grace and love. I can’t always find the words, but I don’t have to. I come before God without words, and he’s okay with that. He knows everything I wanted to say to him, anyway. My words are captured in my thoughts. The One who knit me together in my mother’s womb knows me intimately. He recognizes my breath. He gets my thoughts, even in my sigh.
David describes an intimate walk with God: “O Lord, you have searched me and you know me. You know when I sit and when I rise. You perceive my thoughts from afar. You discern my going out and my lying down. You are familiar with all my ways. Before a word is on my tongue, you know it completely” (Psalm 139:1-4).
It is this intimate knowledge he has that makes me fall in love again and again with my Maker. When no one else understands me, he does. If no one else “gets” me, he can. If I can’t relax in the presence of my enemy, he holds my hand and softly reminds me that I can relax with Him. Should I feel betrayed by the friend I love the most, he stands beside me, reminding me that I will never have a friend who could possibly love me more than he does.
When the weight of the world pushes down on my shoulders, I remember that God takes delight in me and rejoices over me with singing. His love sweeps away the dark clouds and reminds me I matter to him (Zephaniah 3:17). I don’t even have to tell him. The sigh of my heart says it all.
As is true with many childhood happenings, the situation in fifth grade fell into a reservoir of pleasant memories, and I didn’t think about it again for years. Until now, actually. Not until we were both married with grown children and had gone our separate ways.
Not until Susan was dying.
I sat by her bed, holding the hand of this woman I loved. She was in and out of consciousness, and I sadly realized we could not talk.
But we could communicate – through my sigh.
The lesson for you and me? When unbearable pain comes, walk softly up to the throne God occupies. Quietly, reach under his chair for a treasure. Return to your seat. Hear him say your name. How did that happen?
Easy. He knows your sigh.
BJ. Funk is Good News’ long-time devotional columnist and author of It’s A Good Day for Grace, available on Amazon.
By Winfield Bevins
When most of us think of Ireland, we think about green rolling hills and countrysides covered in grass. What is not as widely known is that over one thousand years ago on this little island was the birth of one of the most influential movements in the history of the Christian church. In fact, some scholars argue that the Celtic Christians contributed to the preservation of western civilization. Celtic Christianity stands out as one of the most vibrant and colorful Christian traditions the world has ever known.
Before we can fully understand Celtic Christianity, we must look at the life and ministry of Saint Patrick. His life is surrounded by mystery, superstition, and myth. We have all heard of him, but few of us know much about him.
Patrick was the founding leader of the Celtic Christian church and was personally responsible for baptizing over 100,000 people, ordaining hundreds of priests, driving paganism from the shores of Ireland, and starting a movement in Ireland that preserved Christianity during the Middle Ages. As we shall see, the life and ministry of Saint Patrick reveals the great influence he had on Christianity and the world.
Patricius, better known as Patrick, was born in 389 A.D. in a Christian home in Britain during a time when England was undefended by the Roman Empire. Irish raiders captured people in Britain and brought them back to Ireland as slaves. At the age of sixteen, Irish barbarians demolished Patrick’s village and captured him. They brought him to the east coast of Ireland and sold him into slavery. During this time, Patrick would spend many hours in prayer talking with God.
Six years later, he received a message from the Lord saying, “Soon you will return to your homeland…. Come, and see your ship is waiting for you.” He escaped from his master, fled 200 miles, and boarded a ship of traders who set sail for France and eventually made his way back into Britain. It was at this time that he received his call to evangelize Ireland. He explained his call in the following way:
“I had a vision in my dreams of a man who seemed to come from Ireland. His name was Victoricius, and he carried countless letters, one of which he handed over to me. I read aloud where it began: ‘The voice of the Irish. . . . We appeal to you holy servant boy, to come home and walk among us.’ I was deeply moved in heart and I could read no further, so I awoke.”
This vision had a profound effect on Patrick and he immediately made plans to return to Ireland, the land of his previous captivity.
Tradition tells us that Patrick was appointed bishop and apostle to the Irish in 432. Patrick traveled the Irish country preaching the gospel. Paganism was the dominant religion when Patrick arrived. He faced most of his opposition from the druids who were highly educated and also practiced magic. They constantly tried to kill Patrick. He writes, “Daily I expect murder, fraud, or captivity, but I fear none of these things because of the promise of heaven.”
Patrick’s own writings tell a great deal about the man, his ministry, and his love for Ireland. He mentions several times that his education was disrupted when he was taken captive at the age of sixteen. He was also self-conscious about his lack of education. He said, “I am unable to explain my mind to learned people.” Although he did not receive the same education as other bishops, he did receive his call directly from the Lord. Perhaps it was his lack of education that made him so successful in pagan Ireland. His great success demonstrates that he was able to relate to common people in a real and relative way. He had a great love for people and the Lord, which was manifested in every area of his life and ministry.
Part of Patrick’s ministry strategy was focused on Ireland’s tribal kings. Patrick knew that if a king converted, his people would follow. When kings would convert they would often give their sons to Patrick to educate and train in the ways of the Lord. Thus, he persuaded many of them to enter into the ministry. As bishop of Ireland, Patrick planted nearly 700 churches, was instrumental in the conversion of thousands, and ordained hundreds of clergy, and established many monasteries. Because of his ministry, Christianity spread through Ireland and into other parts of the British Isles.
The churches and monasteries that he established became some of the most influential missionary centers in all of Europe. Missionaries went out from Ireland to spread the gospel throughout the world. It was the Irish monasteries that preserved the Christian faith during the dark ages.
The missionary legacy of Saint Patrick continued long after his death through the Celtic Christian monastic movement. In the sixth and seventh centuries, Celtic Christianity spread throughout the British Isles like wild fire under the gifted leadership of men such as Columba who established monastic communities in Iona and Aidan in Lindisfarne. These monasteries were not places for monastic recluses, rather they became spiritual centers and discipleship training hubs that sent out missionaries throughout Western Europe. On Columba’s influence, early church historian Bede wrote that he “converted the nation to the faith of Christ by his preaching and example.”
What made the Celtic way of discipleship especially successful was their commitment to making disciples, not just converts, by infusing evangelism and discipleship. This is an important lesson. Many churches today focus on evangelism at the expense of discipleship by seeking to win converts instead of making disciples. The goal of evangelism is disciple making. The Great Commission in Matthew chapter 28 is to make disciples who will follow Christ rather than simply win converts. When Jesus commanded us to “make disciples,” the disciples understood it to mean more than simply getting someone to believe in Jesus. They interpreted it to mean that they should make out of others what Jesus made out of them.
There are a few lessons that we can learn from the Celtic way of discipleship.
1. Doing Ministry as a Team. The Celtic Christians did ministry as a team instead of individually. This means they didn’t go out and try to win the world by themselves, rather they went out as a team because they understood the power of numbers. Each member of the Celtic missionary team played an important role in the whole of reaching the community. The Celts believed in “the importance of the team,” wrote John Finney in Recovering the Past: Celtic and Roman Mission. “A group of people can pray and think together. They inspire and encourage each other. The single entrepreneur is too easily prey to self-doubt and loss of vision.” The Celtic team approach to ministry and discipleship is an important alternative to the modern “lone ranger” mentality approach that is typical in so many Western churches and desperately needs to be recovered.
In his indispensable resource, The Celtic Way of Evangelism, Dr. George Hunter observes: “In contrast to contemporary Christianity’s well-known evangelism approaches of ‘Lone Ranger’ one to one evangelism, or confrontational evangelism, or the public preaching crusade, (and in stark contrast to contemporary Christianity’s more dominant approach of not reaching out at all!), Celtic Christians usually evangelized as a team by relating to the people of a settlement; identifying with the people; engaging in friendship, conversation, ministry, and witness with the goal of raising up a church in measurable time.”
2. A Holistic Faith. The Celtic Christians developed a holistic approach to discipleship that prepared people to live out their faith through a sense of depth, compassion, and power in mission. The Celtic believers were immersed in a holistic spirituality that had depth and meaning and enabled them to withstand difficulty and hardship in their everyday lives. In other words, their faith wasn’t just theoretical, but practical and relevant to everyday life. Celtic Christians were not just hanging out in a classroom but living their faith in the real world.
A major problem with much of North American discipleship is that it is one-dimensional. Many Christians see themselves as either evangelical, sacramental, charismatic, etc. However, like a diamond, the Christian faith has multiple dimensions. The Celtic Christians understood the complex nature of the faith and sought to bring together a faith encounter that encouraged spiritual growth on many levels.
Dr. Hunter taught that there was a structure of experiences that deepened their faith.
• Experience voluntary periods of solitary isolation in a remote natural setting such as a grove of trees near a stream where you can be alone with God.
• Spend time with your “soul friend,” a peer with whom you were vulnerable and accountable; to whom you made confession; from whom you received absolution and penance; who both supported and challenged you.
• Spend time with a small group.
• Participate in the common life, meals, work, learning, biblical recitation, prayers, and worship of the whole Christian community.
3. Missional Community. The Celtic Christians understood that mission takes place within the context of the Christian community. The Celtic Christians entered into the community they were trying to reach with the gospel. They would live, work, and eat among the people they were trying to reach. This is contrary to the way most modern Christians try to reach people. They went to where the people were; we usually expect people to come to us.
They knew that God created people to live in community with others. In the context of Christian community, spiritual seekers were able to explore the faith in real life settings. They were able to see the gospel message lived out before them. In this sense, Christian community is a living sacrament that demonstrates the eternal truths of the Word of God.
Upon arrival, a guest would be given a soul friend, a small group, and a place for solitude. A guest would also learn some Scripture; worship with the community; one or more members of the community would share the ministry of conversation and pray with and for the guest daily. After some days, weeks, or months the guest would find themselves believing what the Christians in the community believe. They would then invite the seeker to commit their life to Christ and his will for their life, leading the new disciple in continued outreach ministry to other seekers.
4. Hospitality. The Celtic Christians understood and practiced biblical hospitality. The role of hospitality was central in the Celtic Christian ministry to seekers, visitors, refugees, and other guests who came into their sphere of influence. Hospitality was an important part of the monastic community life and ministry. They would invite seekers, pilgrims, refugees, and others to be guests of the monastic community. They followed the Benedictine Rule that said, “All guests who present themselves are to be welcomed as Christ, for he himself will say: ‘I was a stranger and you welcomed me.’”
Many contemporary Christians and churches have lost touch with the biblical hospitality. It is imperative that we relearn the gift of hospitality, especially in light of its important place in the Scriptures. The word hospitality literally means “love of strangers” and is found several times in the New Testament (Rom. 12:13; 1 Tim. 3:2; Titus 1:8; 1 Pt. 4:9). We are all called to offer the love of Christ to our guests and welcome them in such a way that they would be transformed from strangers into friends.
Lessons for Today. The Celtic Christian movement offers several extraordinary insights into discipleship for the church of 21st century. We can learn a lot from the man, Saint Patrick. He is an example of how an individual can overcome tremendous obstacles with the Lord’s help. Patrick went back to the very land where he had been a slave to evangelize. It is like the story of Joseph who ended up saving his brothers who had sold him into slavery. What a powerful example of how God can use our past to minister to others. Many times the Lord will give you a burden to help bring salvation and healing to people from your past.
Even though he didn’t have a good education he didn’t let that stop him from letting God use him. We see that he was able to do great things for God despite his lack of worldly education. His calling came from God and that’s all that really mattered. When the Lord is in your life, he will make a way for you. Patrick was used mightily by God to deliver the people of Ireland from paganism, slavery, and sin. He helped bring revival to a nation and to a continent. He stands as one of the great leaders of the Christian faith.
Winfield Bevins is the director of church planting at Asbury Theological Seminary. He is the author of several books, including Liturgical Mission: The Work of the People for the Sake of the World; Ever Ancient Ever New: The Allure of Liturgy for a New Generation; and Marks of a Movement.
By Steve Beard
Since 1937, a muscle-bound Atlas has been a prominent and provocative art deco centerpiece on Fifth Avenue. The massive statue is surrounded by impressive skyscraper office suites for powerful men and women in New York City. As the focal point of the forecourt of Rockefeller Center, the mighty Titan of Greek mythology is graphically illustrating strength and endurance by singlehandedly holding the weight of the heavens on his shoulders.
According to a guidebook to the art around Rockefeller Center, artists Lee Lawrie and Rene Paul Chambellan “designed the muscular Titan standing on a slim, simple pedestal, with knees bent and one leg overhanging his perch. This precarious position accentuates the great effort Atlas is making as he raises his burden. … His face is deeply furrowed as he focuses on his task; he is the quintessence of power and potency.”
Within the Fifth Avenue context, the gargantuan sculpture – four stories tall and weighing in at seven tons – is seen as the triumph of the indomitable human spirit, the strength of solitary determination, or the necessity of self-reliance. Haven’t we been too often tutored that wealth, power, and prestige comes to the fittest, craftiest, and most resilient? No one would be faulted for believing the statue is a salute to the captains of industry for commanding the chariot of prosperity. That is one way to see it.
The other way to see Atlas carrying the weight of the heavens on his shoulders is as a dreaded and pitiable life-sentence. While endurance and strength can be virtuous, this piece of art is ultimately about cruelty. Within Greek mythology, Atlas is punished by Zeus for countering him in war. Atlas is not holding the weight of the cosmos out of altruism or love. He is under the burden because he failed to overthrow Zeus.
The Greeks knew how to weave a celestial drama. Almost eight centuries before Christ, Homer described Atlas in The Odyssey as the one who “knows the depths of all the seas, and he, no other, guards (or holds) the tall pillars that keep the sky and earth apart.” Atlas’s brother Prometheus is distressed for his kin because the “burden is not easy for his arms to grasp.” In Prometheus Bound, Atlas is described as the one “who moans as he supports the vault of heaven on his back.”
The New Testament proposes an alternative cosmic reality. St. Paul introduces Jesus Christ with unrivaled grandeur: “For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him” (Colossians 1:17).
Having walked up and down Fifth Avenue on a handful of occasions, it is worth noting that mythical Atlas is literally across the street from mystical St. Patrick’s Cathedral – one of my favorite places in Manhattan. When the grand doors of the gothic cathedral are open, parishioners leaving worship are staring straight at Atlas as they depart. The juxtaposition is hard to overlook.
During a Good Friday sermon at St. Patrick’s long ago, Archbishop Fulton Sheen (1895-1979), a legendary television broadcaster and theologian, described Atlas as “bending and groaning and grunting under the weight of the world. That is modern man,” Sheen observed. “The world is too heavy for him and man is breaking under it, trying like a silly child to carry it alone, without any help or grace or faith from God.”
Sheen countered the imagery with that of Jesus Christ taking upon himself the “burden of others and proving that sacrifice for sin, selflessness and love of God and neighbor alone, can remake the world.
“No one will get out of this world without carrying some burden,” Sheen continued. “Atlas will never get out from under that world; the Man who carried the Cross will get out from under it, for it leads to Resurrection and a crown in Life Eternal. This is the choice before us: either try to revolutionize the world and break under it or revolutionize ourselves and remake the world.”
Sheen was not the only observer to point out the striking symbolism. When Presbyterian pastor Bruce Larson (1925-2008) lived in New York City, he used to take people who were considering the Christian faith down to Rockefeller Center. Pointing to Atlas, Larson would emphasize the stress and strain of standing up under life’s burden. “Now that’s one way to live,” he would say to his companion, “trying to carry the world on your shoulders.”
Writing in his book Believe and Belong (1982), Larson would cross the street to St. Patrick’s and show his friend a small, seemingly inconsequential statue behind the high altar. It depicts Jesus, “perhaps eight or nine years old, and with no effort he is holding the world in one hand,” wrote Larson.
Complete humanity. Complete divinity. Incarnation.
“We have a choice,” Larson said. “We can carry the world on our shoulders or we can say, ‘I give up, Lord, here’s my life. I give you my world, the whole world.’”
The statue of the young Jesus was unveiled in St. Patrick’s in 1943 in honor of the ministry of Saint Jean de Brébeuf, an adventurous and compassionate 17th century French missionary to the Huron – Iroquoian Indigenous peoples of North America. Brébeuf studied the Huron/Wendat language and introduced a relatable figure of the Christ child wrapped in rabbit skin. He wrote a poem about the birth of Christ in their native language that is still sung in Canada today (“’Twas in the Moon of Wintertime,” found in The United Methodist Hymnal #244).
“Within a lodge of broken bark/ The tender Babe was found/ A ragged robe of rabbit skin/ Enwrapped his beauty ’round.”
All of us can relate to the anxiety-brewing moments when we feel like Atlas precariously trying to keep our balance with what seems like the weight of the world on our shoulders. The simple and inconspicuous statue in the cathedral can be a transformative reminder that we need not carry the burden alone. In seasons of great stress, it can be of considerable relief to remember that the Creator of all things – at one point appearing as an infant wrapped in a “ragged robe of rabbit skin” – holds the cosmos safely in his hand.
“God is on earth, he is among men,” declared St. Basil the Great (330-379). “Not in the fire nor amid the sound of trumpets; not in the smoking mountain, or in the darkness, or in the terrible and roaring tempest giving the Law, but manifested in the flesh, the gentle and good One dwells with those he condescends to make his equals.
“God is in the flesh,” the revered church father said, “not operating from a distance, as did the prophets, but through his human nature, one with ours, he seeks to bring back all mankind to himself.”
Steve Beard is the editor of Good News.
“I have come to believe, based on the words and actions of other bishops, that some sort of split in The United Methodist Church is inevitable,” observed Bishop Scott Jones of the Texas Conference in his closing address before a group of traditionalist Wesleyan scholars. “It breaks my heart. Whatever shape the Methodist movement takes in the coming years, it is important to focus on who we are and whose we are. Only with that clarity can we give our best service to Christ and his mission in the world.”
Focusing in on that spiritual and theological identity was the goal as more than 60 Wesleyan scholars from various theological disciplines met in Alexandria, Virginia, for the Next Methodism Summit in late January. The event was sponsored by The John Wesley Institute under the direction of Dr. Ryan Danker. Scholars to this event gathered to write a document entitled “The Faith Once Delivered: A Wesleyan Witness.”
Danker told Good News that the scholars in attendance were “vital to the formation of pastors in the Wesleyan movement” – an essential ingredient to those in the pews and the academy who are concerned about the state of theological education. “We gathered to set the theological trajectory of the Wesleyan movement for the next century or more, to encourage the laity, and to remind the leaders of any and all emerging forms of Methodism that faithful scholars exist and that we have major contributions to make to the movement,” Danker said.
Preachers during the four worship services of the Summit included: Dr. Maxie Dunnam, Dr. Mathieu Gnonhoussou, Dr. Joy J. Moore, and Dr. Michael Pasquarello. Worship leadership was provided by Bishop Jones, Rev. Jessica LaGrone, Dr. Jonathan Powers, Dr. Tesia Mallory, and Dr. Stephen Rankin.
“We in the West are going to have to recognize that the Next Methodism will not be primarily a Western or white phenomenon. And as scholars of the next Methodism, we are going to have to learn to speak and write and listen across cultures,” said Dr. David Watson, academic dean of United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio, during his opening address.
“We would do well intentionally to collaborate with people from the majority world. It cannot simply be the colonial model of us teaching them. They will also teach us,” Watson emphasized. “We are going to have to make our work accessible to people who make less than $100 a month. We are going to have to think about post-secondary and seminary education according to new paradigms. All of this will require not just conversation, but genuine relationships of Christian love and fellowship. It will require humility and vulnerability. Majority-world Christianity is here. These brothers and sisters in Christ have already begun to re-evangelize the West. And the question for us is, ‘How can we, as scholars, serve this burgeoning global church, preserving and passing on those beliefs and practices that are most central to our Methodist identity?’”
The academics were invited to participate from around the country and the globe. Covid-19 restrictions hindered most international guests. Those gathered were primarily from The United Methodist Church, but included participants who are Anglican, Episcopal, Nazarene, Salvationist, and Church of God, Cleveland.
“I was honored to be included among the scholars working together to write this theological document,” the Rev. Dr. Suzanne Nicholson, professor of New Testament at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky, told Good News. “It was a mark of the presence of the Holy Spirit that we were able to produce a draft in such a short period of time. I also found it incredibly encouraging to worship together with these men and women – scholars who love the Lord and are working to serve the Kingdom.”
Sessions for the Summit were primarily dedicated to working groups where portions of the larger document were composed in dialogue. The event also included the release of a new book, The Next Methodism: Theological, Social, and Missional Foundations for Global Methodism (Seedbed), edited by Drs. Ryan Danker and Kenneth Collins. The volume deals with the future of Methodism by more than 30 Methodist thinkers. Many of the authors attended the summit.
“I believe that the whole world desperately needs what the Wesleyan movement has to offer,” Bishop Jones told the scholars. “We are like people hoarding food while those around us are starving. It is time we made an inventory of our spiritual resources and figured out ways to invite a starving world to the table.”
Good News Media Service.
I have made a wonderful, new discovery in my prayer life. It is best defined by one of the many injunctions given in the Bible, “Blessed are those who listen to me, watching daily at my doors, waiting at my doorway. For those who find me find life and receive favor from the Lord” (Proverbs 8:34-35).
Though rarely spoken of today and yet so desperately needed in our stress-torn society, this life-giving reality is the ancient experience of waiting on God. It seems as though there is so little time put aside for such waiting in our slick, fast-moving world. The difficult, yet so rewarding, experience of coming into God’s presence, and by the grace and empowerment of the Holy Spirit becoming calm, quiet, and receptive to his presence and voice is the essence of all growth in grace. Is not the result of spiritual growth a growing awareness of God’s presence and hearing his voice?
The life of prayer has so many marvelous facets and different methods, according to our need at the time. “Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge” (Psalm 62:8). The pouring out of our soul to God is because of agitation, turmoil, and unrest. We have to get things off our chest, and tell him exactly how we feel. There certainly can be no calm, quiet receptiveness until we communicate our needs or those of others.
The power of intercession, pouring out our anguish over a situation or person is part of the asking and seeking of Mathew 7:7, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” Tragically, however, we often fail then to wait on God. We do not allow him time to speak to us, to comfort us, to correct us, or to be present to us. We often fail to hear his response to our cries. Waiting allows God the opening or opportunity to manifest his wondrous presence.
Our fast-moving schedules keep us so nervous and overloaded that we find it difficult to sit down and relax and let go, to sit quietly and focus on one thing. We are accustomed to doing ten things at once!
Yet I believe a new dimension of spiritual reality is released if we will wait on the Lord. The psalmist David said it so well, “One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple” (Psalm 27:4).
Waiting on God is not natural for us; it is not easy for us; it isn’t always “fun” for us, but it is a profoundly transforming experience of spiritual growth. It is not for people of casual Christian living. It is for struggling, yearning Christians who want to be more like Jesus, and for those who want to be more fit channels through whom God can flow out to others in love and power.
Our guide is Jesus. He knew to the core of his being the absolute necessity of waiting on God. In his classic book called Waiting on God, Andrew Murray says about Jesus, “He had such a consciousness of God’s presence that no matter who came to him the presence of Father was with and upon him.” Jesus’ own night-long waiting on the Father as recorded in Luke teaches us how important the waiting was, because it allowed the Father to be totally dominant and in total control of him, to the extent that God the Father was the most real presence in Jesus’ life.
The first account of Jesus waiting on the Father, in Luke 4, is followed by testing. Each time we wait on God, no matter how long or short the period, Satan will be present to pull us away. He does not want our physical needs met in a godly way, but in our own way. Satan does not want us feeding on God. Waiting on the Lord allows the Holy Spirit to feed the inner man, and strengthen him (Ephesians 3:16). As we wait, we partake of the Divine nature, and are sustained, changed, and healed.
A second hindrance that comes as we wait is to let something else or someone else be our center instead of our Lord. It could be career, children, education, money, or pleasure. Waiting on God allows the Holy Spirit to teach us how to worship and love only him with all our heart, soul, and mind, and others as ourselves.
Yet a third hindrance is to use God’s power in foolish ways, to take what we get from God and use it for our advantage. Waiting on God daily allows him to cleanse our self-will and self-seeking. He develops a reverence in us for his holiness and power. We tremble before him and honor him as we wait.
Jesus waited on God to bring him forth from the grave (the seed falling into the ground as John 12:23-32 teaches). Waiting produces great confidence in God. It is a form of dying to self, and out of death comes God’s life.
But perhaps the greatest example of Jesus’ waiting is what he is doing now. As Hebrews 7:25 says, “ … he always lives to intercede for them.” As Jesus intercedes, he awaits his return to the earth as Lord where he will receive his bride – the Church. In other words waiting is a part of divine providence and therefore it must be a part of our lives.
If Jesus is waiting on God the Father to bring forth the ultimate will of God, how much more do you and I need periods of quiet waiting and listening.
I can remember as a high school student often talking with my father, a United Methodist minister, about wanting to know how to grow in grace. I knew that I had my part and God had his, and that the basic ingredients of prayer, Bible reading, and obedience were essential to growth. However, I kept feeling there was an added dimension of spiritual understanding involving responsiveness to his presence that would greatly enhance my growth. I did not understand at that time that this involved protracted periods of waiting on God. This waiting included listening to God, a calming of the inner person, and an altering of the capacity to be aware of God.
Waiting on God should teach us a more reverent receptivity; a quieter, less self-willed listening; a calmer repose and collectedness which opens the door to knowing God better, because we can hear him speak and respond to him in conversation and in our will.
Our difficulty lies basically in the feverish, frantic way we have with very little time spent in God’s presence. Our dilemma centers around not knowing the value of spending time in the presence of God nor really understanding how it is done. Waiting is a totalitarian experience of body, mind, and spirit. This includes relaxing the body when it has been agitated and tense, focusing the mind on God when it has been scattered over many interests, and getting in touch with the inner spirit when we have lived externally rather than internally.
The Scriptures are full of invitations to come into his living presence. Matthew 11:28-30, Isaiah 40:29-31, and Proverbs 8:34-36 are just a few.
There are several principles to follow in order to enter into the presence of God. These are not difficult but require time and patience to experience the actuality of them. The lives of Christians throughout history, regardless of their station in life, have involved these great principles.
1. Find a quiet place in your home that will be without outside distractions, noise, phone, TV, and music. You will quickly discover that it is not nearly as difficult to eliminate the exterior noises as it is to eliminate the interior noises. These distractions hinder our ability to focus due to darkness and the unknown within us. This takes courage to persist, but it is not impossible.
2. It is important to ask the Holy Spirit to guide and teach us (John 14:26). We must refer to him!
3. Return daily to this same place, which the Old Testament refers to as the tent of meeting and the New Testament refers to as the place of abiding in Jesus. Regularity aids us in accustoming ourselves to coming into the quiet. We may begin to enjoy it!
4. Sit in a comfortable chair poised, alert, respectful, and anticipating an encounter with God.
5. Relax your body and mind. Avoid trying too hard, or trying to do it perfectly. Relax, let go, this is your time to cast your burden on him.
6. Waiting on God involves the whole person, spirit, soul, and body. Give him your mind that you might receive from his mind. Give him your body, its energies to be refreshed by his life. Give him your emotions, all your feelings, to be cleansed by his love. Give him your will that you might know and love the will of God. Give him your human spirit so that he might reign as Lord of your spirit.
7. There are two ways to realize God’s presence. First through the Word of God, such as taking a single thought as Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God,” and meditating on each word. The second way is through using our minds and imaginations. In your mind’s eye see yourself talking with Jesus, look at him face to face, and listen to his response to you (2 Corinthians 3: 18).
8. Know that you will experience mental distractions and be prepared to wait even though your mind is unruly. Speak gently but firmly to your mind and bring it back to Jesus.
9. Use the name of Jesus often, repeated softly; or use the “Jesus prayer” to keep yourself collected and focused. A form of the Jesus prayer is, “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, have mercy on me.”
10. Keep reaffirming during this time that you are there to know the Lord better and to wait on him.
11. Take 10 to 15 minutes at the end of your devotional time and listen for his voice and presence.
In Waiting on God, Andrew Murray says to stay positive and believe you can and will wait and that God will draw you into his presence.
There are several crucial aspects of the Holy Spirit’s ministry that become ours as we spend time in his presence. In evangelical circles we tend to mention, almost exclusively, only one side of the Holy Spirit’s marvelous work – the miraculous and instantaneous – as in our rebirth and the subsequent infilling of the Holy Spirit. Ultimately, these two supernatural landmark experiences radically change our perspective and inner attitudes. Though we may have sought God for days, months or years, the actual spiritual transaction frequently happens in a matter of minutes – even seconds!
I believe a grave danger lurks here, a misconception that is foreboding in its consequences. We are apt to think it is God’s only way of handling important, life-changing events. We begin to rely too much on our big experiences, neglecting to give him time each day to perform miracles equally powerful and exciting. Let me share with you just a few of the benefits the Holy Spirit continues to provide as we learn to wait on God.
• The miracle of becoming like God, being transformed into his image. For us today this means a growing dependency upon the Father, even as Jesus experienced when he says in John 5:19 “… the Son can do nothing by himself.” This means that we do not take the initiative to run ahead of him in any area of our life (Romans 8:29 and 1 John 3:2). . .
• The miracle of cultivating with God a friendship so real and so satisfying that, of all our friends, we know him best (John 15:14).
• The miracle of a growing helplessness and dependency on God so we live not out of the flesh, but by his power and strength. He flows out from us to others, yet we come more and more into who we are in him. As we wait on God he will reveal to us his direction for our lives. For each of us, the uniqueness of our individuality in him will begin to come forth (Galatians 2:20).
• The joy of learning to listen to God’s voice to recognize when he is speaking to us. Because his voice is so real we can truly converse with one another. God guides us and gives us his wisdom in all of our interactions (John 10:4-5, 14, 27).
• A growing humility as he reveals our true self to us. As we see how desperately we need God in all areas of our life, the experience of waiting on him helps us to face ourselves under the loving gaze of Jesus (Psalm 51:6).
• A daily conviction of our sin, bringing us to repentance and confession. This is important so there are no barriers of sinful pride before him. Sin is dealt with honestly each day (1 John 4:9 and John 16:7-13).
• A marvelous peace as we allow God to take more and more dominion over our thoughts and our emotional life. The fruits and gifts of the Spirit begin to express themselves through us (Isaiah 26:2).
• A greater ability to pray in line with the Father’s will because, as we wait on him, the Holy Spirit searches out the deep things of God, and prays the will of God in life’s challenges. To find his will takes time, and waiting on God affords that leisurely relationship with the Holy Spirit from which he is able to manifest God’s will (1 Corinthians 2:6-16).
• A glorious comprehension of just how real and eternally precious the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are to me. For many people, the Father God is detached and impersonal, but as we wait on him we begin to experientially know him as our heavenly Father (John 14:20, 21, 23). Our rebirth and indwelling by the Holy Spirit are more sweetly and fully realized and lived out in our daily life. God goes about changing and renewing our inner spirit as we submit to his day by day ministrations to us. While we draw nigh to him he draws nigh to us.
If you have never experienced the joy of waiting on God, I pray you will be strongly impressed by the Holy Spirit to begin that great journey of deepening your receptivity to him. You may find it to be the hardest part of your quiet time, because it requires stillness and quietness, a collecting of every thought around Jesus as preparation for hearing his voice, but it will be the most rewarding of your prayer habits.
“Yet the Lord longs to be gracious to you; he rises to show you compassion. For the Lord is a God of justice. Blessed are all who wait for him” (Isaiah 30:18).
Margaret Therkelsen (1934-2014) was a teacher, counselor, and author of The Love Exchange and other books. For many years she was a treasured devotionalist for Good News. This article originally appeared in the July/August 1992 issue of Good News