Shadows of the Ordinary

Beguines.  Most people are probably unfamiliar with the name.  However, the Beguines were communities of lay women in the Middle Ages, particularly the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, who sought to live their lives with increasing devotion to God.  There are many aspects of the Beguines that deserve mention, not least their spiritual writings which focus on intimacy with God and Christ.  They employed a lot of bridal imagery as they saw themselves as brides of Christ.  Other important emphases of the Beguines includes their zeal for evangelism (especially to other women), their service to the poor, simplicity in material possessions (although some were well-to-do), and “ecstatic prayer as well as public preaching”. 1

But the aspect of the Beguines that I wish to focus on is their ordinary, mundane livinig.  You see, it would be a mistake to equate them to a Catholic monastic order, for they were still lay women.  Part of the reason for their existence appears to have been the result of the Crusades.  As many men went to war, the devout women in these communities assisted one another along with less fortunate women, including the poor and prostitutes.  Writing about the Beguines, Glenn Meyers mentions that

Of particular interest to many contemporary readers is the fact that the Beguine communities attempted to bridge the gap between laypeople and the ‘religious,’…Beginning in the twelfth century…Beguines and other laypeople, mostly from the emerging middle class, were pursuing spiritual growth…Thus, forming their semimonastic communities, Beguines forged a middle way between the lifestyle of the religious and the majority of Christians who lived in the ‘world.’ 2

This emphasis on obedience to God in all things and in one’s daily living never fails to capture my imagination and provide a sense of vision.  As I wrote in a recent blog post titled, “Why I Didn’t Go to Seminary”, I didn’t feel that living a life of professional ministry was for me.  Although I recognize the importance of religious communities and those who engage in professional ministry, I never felt a particularly strong call.  Rather, the challenge of living out one’s faith in the daily grind of life and the world is what I sometimes think true faith is all about.  Clearly, the via media, or middle way, of the Beguines shows that one can live an ordinary life and still be zealous for God.  I think Jean-Pierre de Caussade puts it well.  He writes,

God chooses what human nature discards and human prudence neglects, out of which he works his wonders and reveals himself to all souls who believe that is where they will find him.  Thus wide horizons, sure ground and solid rock can only be found in that vast expanse of the divine will which is eternally present in the shadows of the most ordinary toil and suffering; and it is in these shadows that God hides the hand which upholds and supports us. 3

Speaking of shadows, the picture below is of a painting I purchased while in Bruges, Belgium.  Bruges used to be one of many cities in Europe that had a thriving population of Beguines, their communities being referred to as beguinages or .  In the painting below, you can see one of the buildings that was part of the beguinage.  Today, the beguinage in Bruges is owned by Catholic Benedictine nuns.  However, I have spent a long time gazing at the painting, and what strikes me is that the swan, hidden from the nun’s gaze behind the tree amidst shadows, almost appears to have a secret.  Or perhaps the swan is the secret.Beauty Amid Shadows

Like the swan, the Beguines are secrets of history, noticed only by those who have the eyes to see.  And like the swan, they were ordinary women who experienced that “divine will which is eternally present in the shadows of the most ordinary toil and suffering”.  They had mystical (i.e. direct experience) encounters of God as they sought Him in their daily lives.  This brings me back to the first post in this tripartite blog series which began in “God, Red Robin, and Me”.  There I wrote about a sense of God’s presence at a Red Robin restaurant among friends and retro surroundings.  If I could have a felt encounter with God there, believe me, anyone can encounter God anywhere.  But the Beguines knew this centuries before Jean-Pierre de Caussade, and long before me.

I know this because Mechthild of Magdeburg, one of the more prolific writers from the Beguines, proclaimed, “The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw-and knew I saw-all things in God and God in all things.” 4  And in the first book of the Old Testament is recorded the story of Jacob, who stole his brother Esau’s blessing and birthright.  After he flees from his brother, he stops for a night and dreams of angels and ascending and descending a ladder or a stairway.  The Lord speaks to him in the dream and when he wakes up he declares, “Surely the Lord is in this place, and I did not know it…What an awesome place this is!  This is none other than the house of God.  This is the gate of heaven” (Genesis 28: 16-17).  May the Holy Spirit enable us – like Jacob, like Mechthild of Magdeburg, and like Jean-Pierre de Caussade – to discern God’s presence and will in the shadows of the ordinary, and to”dwell in the shadow of the Almighty” (Psalm 91:1).

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Beguinage at Bruges

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1 Glenn E. Meyers, Seeking Spiritual Intimacy: Journeying Deeper with Medieval Women of Faith (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2011), 23.  Much of the information that I provide in this post comes from this book, particularly chapters 1 and 5.  Meyers does a good job of introducing one to the Beguines and the book includes photos taken at certain Beguine communities, including the one in Bruges.  Personally, while I do not question Meyers’ emphasis on the evangelical approach of the Beguines (although, given that evangelicalism as a movement had yet to begin one would be better thinking of them as proto-evangelicals), I think their approach to life and pious living was grounded more in their mystical experience of God and faith.  By “mystical”, I mean having a direct experience or encounter of God, whether through Scripture or prayer.  Meyers does describe this, particularly in chapters 6, 9, and 12.

2 Ibid., 92.

3 Jean-Pierre de Caussade, The Sacrament of the Present Moment (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1989), 20.

4 Epigraph to Chapter 4, “Surrounded By Sound”, in Keith R. Anderson, A Spirituality of Listening: Living What We Hear (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2016), 63.

Brother Owl

Whoo. Whoo.  

Whoo-who-whoooo.  

I can hear the calls and responses of two owls in the dark night beyond.  I look out the window in a vain attempt to see them.  Even after turning the lights off, the owls remain obscured by the darkness of night, hidden among the even darker silhouettes of trees.  I spend some moments listening to their plaintive cries, wondering why their low sounds seem so comforting…

In our culture today, the image of the owl is fashionable.  I walk into stores and see cutesy owl images on everything from handbags to scrubs to wall hangings.  What is so ironic about this is that an image our society celebrates, and sees as symbolic of wisdom, was also representative of, in many ancient cultures, a concept our society fears: death.1  In societies from Native Americans to Egyptians, the owl was a symbol of death.  And for the ancient Israelites, who had a habit of taking concepts from their ancient Near Eastern neighbors and putting theological twists on them, the owl is representative of mourning and destruction and desolation.  Not quite death, but close enough.

In Isaiah 4:23, we read, “I will turn her into a place for owls and into swampland; I will sweep her with the broom of destruction,” declares the LORD Almighty.”  And the author of Psalm 102:3 compares himself to, “a desert owl of the wilderness…an owl of the waste places”.  This bleak usage of the owl in Scripture caused me to ponder even more strongly my sense of having a kindred spirit in the owl.

I found a possible connection in the music of the singer/songwriter Josh Garrels.  In his song, “White Owl”, he sings the following lyrics:

When the night comes,
and you don’t know which way to go
Through the shadowlands,
and forgotten paths,
you will find a road

Like an owl you must fly by moonlight with an open eye,
And use your instinct as a guide, to navigate the ways that lays before you,
You were born to take the greatest flight

Like a serpent and a dove, you will have wisdom born of love
To carry visions from above into the places no man dares to follow
Every hollow in the dark of night
Waiting for the light
Take the flame tonight 2

When I read or listen to the above lyrics, I am reminded of one of the more interesting symbolism of owls.  According to one website, “In some middle and far eastern cultures, the owl is a sacred guardian of the afterlife, ruler of the night, a seer and keeper of souls transitioning from one plane of existence to another.”3  When I think of that in connection with the lyrics above, I am reminded of Jesus Christ.  Today is Holy Saturday, the day in between the days when we celebrate the death of Christ on Good Friday and His resurrection on Easter Sunday.  It is a time when we meditate on the bleak in-between time of his crucifixion and his victory over death as he rose to life.

Scripture has the following to say about that time: “But all who knew Him, including the women who had followed Him from Galilee, stood at a distance, watching these things…It was preparation day, and the Sabbath was about to begin.  The women who had come with Him from Galilee followed along and observed the tomb and how His body was placed.  They they returned and prepared spices and perfumes.  And they rested on the Sabbath according to the commandment” (Luke 23:49, 54-56).  When I read this passage, I wondered why it was included in Scripture.  It seems so mundane.  But I am struck by the description of the women.  In the face of death, in this time of mourning and hopelessness, all they can really do is observe and then rest.

When it comes to death, you and I are like the women who followed the passage and burial of Christ’s body to the tomb: mere observers.  Mere followers of the Way.  We need one who will make the path straight and safe, who will guide us along the Way from life to Life.  While Josh Garrels might be singing about followers of Christ as being like owls who navigate the darkness of this world, it is Jesus Christ himself, the Great White Owl, who went before us and makes the way possible.  He, the Great White Owl, bridged the divide between us and God the Father in his death and resurrection, and is the ultimate guardian and keeper of souls as we transition from this world into the new heaven and earth.

…I reflect on the above things as I prepare to go to bed.  Lying down, I can still hear the cries of the owls in the night.  I can almost imagine that, as the keepers of the night that they are, they are watching over me.  And as I surrender myself into the care of Another, and as sleep begins to pull at my consciousness, I thank God for the death and resurrection of Brother Owl.

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1 While it is the case that many ancient cultures viewed the owl as a symbol of mystery, wisdom, secrets, mysticism – in short, gnosis – there are just as many, if not more, that perceive it as representing death.  African, Egyptian, Celtic, many Native American, and Hindu cultures all saw the owl as relating to death in some way.  See, for example, “Symbolism and Mythology.” Wikipedia.org. Web. 25 March 2016. <https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Owl&gt; and “Animal Symbolism: Meaning of the Owl.” Whats-Your-Sign.com. Web. n.d. <http://www.whats-your-sign.com/animal-symbolism-owl.html&gt;.  I hope to write a follow-up post at some future date on the other meaning of owls: wisdom.

2 “Love &War & The Sea In Between.” Josh Garrels. Web. n.d. <https://joshgarrels.bandcamp.com/track/white-owl&gt;

3 “Owl Symbolism.” Macramé Owl. Web. 5 Mar. 2016. <http://macrameowl.com/owl_symbolism.html&gt;

Why I Didn’t Go to Seminary

If my last blog post could be summed up in the phrase, “He is there and He is not silent”, then I would summarize this one with the phrase “All truth is God’s Truth.” After I was exposed to the notion that all of reality is imbued with the presence and glory of God, it began to sink in that if there is any truth to be found, no matter where it is from, then that Truth is from God.  While the false dichotomies from the last blog post include the Sacred/secular, another false, but common dichotomy, is that of Faith versus reason.  Often, Scripture is maintained and believed in although it seems to conflict with what reason and science tells us is really the case.

It is important to recognize that Scripture affirms truths from the natural world.  As Psalm 19:1-3 testifies, “The heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky proclaims the work of His hands.  Day after day they pour out speech; night after night they communicate knowledge.  There is no speech; there are no words; their voice is not heard.”  Similarly, Romans 1:20 reveals that the truths of the natural world communicate something about God’s nature when it states that “From the creation of the world His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what He has made.”  From these passages it can be concluded that the truths in the material world of nature, science, human relations, and behaviors does not ultimately conflict with Scriptural truths, but rather confirms (and is confirmed by) Scripture.

But if God has spoken through the natural world in what is often called general or natural revelation, then that means that truth discovered in this realm is just as important as theological knowledge or the truths found in Scripture.  While truths discovered through nature and reason may not be able to tell us about God and how we should relate to Him, hence the reason that God provided knowledge of Himself through Scripture and preeminently in His own incarnation through Jesus Christ, the fact that God created the world in an orderly and knowable fashion implies that He meant for us to discover the delights of the universe and delight in such truth.

So we can be assured that not only has God revealed knowledge of Himself through Scripture, but as the Creator of everything in existence we can also affirm that all truth about the natural world comes from Him as well.  All truth is God’s Truth, whether it be found in the natural or social sciences, in business and economics, or the arts and humanities.  Therefore, apparent contradictions between Scripture and reason need not be occasions for a crisis of faith as we can rest in the knowledge that there is a consistency between Scripture and the natural world, even if such reconciliation takes some time and intellectual work.

Scripture itself provides an account for the origin of such apparent inconsistencies when it describes the fall of humans from their proper relationship with God.  We have sought to go our own way and the result has been that our cognitive faculties have been impacted as well.  We are not always able to discern truth from falsehood without the grace of God and the general activity of the Holy Spirit to keep humankind from completely abandoning reason altogether.  Therefore, our understanding of different areas of life and academic disciplines can be subject to false theories and interpretations.

However, as I began to grow in the idea that all truth is God’s Truth and that knowledge from the natural world is just as important as the knowledge that God gave to us through His Word, I started to become convinced that a life engaged in pursuing truth in business and other disciplines can be just as fulfilling as studying truth from God’s Word.  In fact, as we interact with ideas in different disciplines through the lens of a biblical framework, not only does Scripture provide a redeemed perspective of that discipline, it also transforms our understanding of Scripture and human flourishing.

Let me give you one example from my own academic area of study of business and economics.  We all know that the purpose of business is to make profit, right?  That is a common theory in business: the main reason for the existence of business is to create jobs and return a profit.  As Jeff Van Duzer, author of Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to be Fixed) summarizes, “In most business schools today and in most corporations…the sole legitimate purpose of business is said to be maximizing profits for the sake of the shareholders”.2  This perspective of the purpose of business is very utilitarian.  I suggest it stems from a Darwinian perspective of survival of the fittest in which businesses with the most money continue to survive, and to some extent, this is the way businesses work.  Receiving a return on investment is critical for the survival of businesses.  But as is noted in an article Van Duzer cites from: “To turn shareholders’ needs into a purpose is to be guilty of logical confusion, to mistake a necessary condition for a sufficient one.”3

In the book an alternative view is presented in that “as stewards of God’s creation, business leaders should manage their businesses (1) to provide the community with goods and services that will enable it to flourish, and (2) to provide opportunities for meaningful work that will allow employees to express their God-given creativity”.4  This is a subtle difference.  Profit is still necessary, but it is not the end goal, the telos, of business.  Rather, helping communities to flourish by meeting tangible needs and providing meaningful work is the primary goal.  Not only is this approach more Scriptural in that it views the person, creation, and institutions more holistically, it also impacts our theology.  God is not separate from our work and, in fact, our work is to be a means of being co-laborers with God as we work to create a more flourishing society and culture.  This doesn’t always happen, but that is why we need a view of business that lifts it up above the mud and mire of greedy and corrupt business-men and women.

So what does this have to do with my not going to seminary?  Well, it began to occur to me that I don’t have to go to seminary to learn truth.  Of course, we need those who will expound on the truths found in Scripture.  But we also need those who have the vision of applying those truths to the rest of life as well.  If we fail to do so, we will continue to live with a dichotomous view of truth that bifurcates reason and belief, and of reality which splits into sacred and secular.

When I came upon the opportunity to go to seminary, I had already graduated with an undergraduate degree in business.  Although seminary appealed to me and my love of learning theological truths, I could not envision a life beyond that.  Neither the role of pastor or pastoral counselor or urban ministry leader or what-have-you was something I felt called to do.  Rather, the challenge of living out my faith in the everyday working world alongside those who do and do not hold my view of the world held more promise and excitement for me than feeling segregated among those who more or less think the same way I do, aside from debating the finer points of theology.  I do not wish to minimize the role of those called to full-time ministry.  We need such people to follow their own callings.  But I was able to discern, however subtly, that such was not my path, making it no less a calling from God.

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1 I couldn’t remember where the statement, “All truth is God’s Truth”, came from.  I thought it was from the late Reformed theologian and apologist Francis Schaeffer as it seemed similar to the following quote from him which was used by Nancy Pearcey as the epigraph to her book: “Christianity is not a series of truths in the plural, but rather truth spelled with a capital ‘T.’  Truth is about total reality, not just about religious things” Nancy Pearcey, Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from Its Cultural Captivity (Wheaton, Crossway Books, 2004), p. 15.  After doing a quick online search, I discovered it is either a direct quotation or a summary of Augustine of Hippo, one of the greatest thinkers in Christian thought.  I also discovered a number of web pages that are critical of the statement, which came as a surprise to me, but from what I read their criticisms seemed to be aimed more at the way in which the quote is appropriated by some Christians to justify adherence to theories or beliefs they disagree with rather than take issue with the idea that God is the source and origin of all truth.

2 Jeff Van Duzer, Why Business Matters to God (And What Still Needs to be Fixed) (Downers Grove, IVP Academic, 2010), p. 45.

3 Charles Handy, “What’s a Business For?” Harvard Business Review 80, no. 12 (2002): 51, cited in ibid., p. 46.

4 Ibid., p. 42.