Shekinah Glory

Pray Without Ceasing
December 14, 2008, 1:59 pm
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When I was in high school and college one of the single most disturbing passages in scripture was the text that we read this morning from the book of Thessalonians. I always imagined the Thessalonians to be a frightened group of Gentiles who wanted to know why Christ had not returned to whisk them away to a new kingdom in their lifetime. At least Jesus could have overthrown the Roman government for them. It always made me think of those kooks that believe that they have the exact time for Armageddon or the end of the world. When the 88 reasons that Christ was to come in 1988 never materialized these followers become disillusioned and scatter away from their teachers of doom and destruction. With an expectation that the church in Thessalonica would be spared death, suffering and the possibility of religious persecution they wrongly believed that they would be taken away to meet Jesus and be the residents of his eternal kingdom. These letters are an amendment to the eschatology that taught that Jesus was coming right back.

Paul is saying “well I may have been a bit over enthusiastic about Jesus’ return in the next generation. That return might come in God’s time and we all know how unpredictable that can be.” It is the old saying: God’s time is not our time. A minute in God’s time is a lifetime in ours. That is the context to read this closing to Paul’s letter. Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, do not quench the Spirit, do not despise the words of the Prophets, abstain from evil and be blameless Jesus Christ does actually appear.

So, why did they stay? When faced with the reality that the entire hope that they had put their faith into is wrong Paul exhorts them the to keep on trucking…and they do! We could have seen the collapse of Christendom in history, both good and bad. Everyone could have packed it all up and schlepped to the most practical deity in the area, Caesar. It is for just this reason that many modernist and post-modern atheists have pointed to the fallacy in Christianity, Jesus said he would come right back and he never did. Yet, neither the church at Thessalonica, nor any of the other churches dotting the Roman Empire pack up their baptismal fonts and move on.

This is a question that I have struggled with in my own personal life when I have experienced the abuse and disappointment that has been associated with the faith of my youth. Many of my friends rejected that same faith bruised and broken from their own experiences. Some came to accept new religions that seemed to me as foreign as moving to another country, while others quit the church all together. Some became hedonists while others embraced an agnostic faith. Some eventually returned to fundamentalism and even became stronger advocates of that sad movement. Then there were some of us that kept our faith, but left only fundamentalism. Why do we stay?

I think that I received a partial answer the other day when I was listening to Terry Gross interview the ex-evangelical leader Frank Schaeffer. When he disappeared from the Evangelical world he didn’t leave the church all together. Frank joined the Greek Orthodox faith. In ruminating on why he didn’t leave faith all together he stated that if he ever decided to become an atheist he would probably start by asking God for help. The practice of need, connection and reliance upon the almighty had become so ingrained in his personality that he felt it would do damage to his psyche to rip it from its moorings. There is something healthy in the constant and consistent practice of faith.

This gets us into territory that makes most Americans squeamish: choice and freewill. We want to believe that we have a choice in everything in. These are two concepts in relationship with the creator that I do not believe in. We want to see our relationship with God as something that we can choose like the brand of cereal that we eat in the morning. This is not true. God already chooses us. All that is required of us is a response. Many of us can not get beyond our own egos to realize that we need to surrender to God’s will in our lives. We live our lives essentially Godless for no reason whatsoever and are miserable because of it. It would only take the constant and consistent practice of faith as a practical restorative to an unbalanced life.

When we give away the control of our lives we can understand why a church who had lost one of their central hopes could accept the instructions of their spiritual leader to step up their practices of faith, to pray without ceasing and rejoice. It also may give us insights into that great song by Mary in Luke. It is a song of a woman pregnant with salvation in her belly. It is a song of rejoicing at being chosen. It is a song of rejoicing in the possibilities and promises of living with God. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.”

Although I still do not know how to pray without ceasing, nor do I rejoice always, give thanks in every circumstance, uphold the words of prophets, hold fast to what is good, abstain from every form of evil I have known the God of peace and I live in the constant expectation of meeting Christ. That is why I stay and it is why I hope that you respond to a gracious God this season of Advent.


3 Comments so far
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Wow, 88 reasons in 1988…I had almost forgotten about that one. The problem of predicting Christ’s return has been around through all ages. During the turn of the first millenium, there was quite a bit of uproar about it, too, but that was long before fundamentalism came around. Imagine how the Jews must feel. They’re still waiting for the first time…sort of. The difference there, though, is that Daniel gave the exact year in which Christ would come the first time, but even Christ did not know when he would return. Only the Father in Heaven knows.

I’m developing this idea that maybe the single greatest bit of wisdom that a person can have is the ability to identify what it is that we really do not know, and what it is that we cannot know.

Comment by nonaeroterraqueous

Great piece. Having grown up with Francis Schaeffer’s name being revered in my home, I have followed Frank’s work as well. I read him a great deal on HuffPost and understand much of where he is coming from. I really love the aspect you lifted out here from the interview.

Have you read Crossan? He gave a series of lectures at my congregation in November on Paul. He raised a really interesting point about the Early Christians and their understanding of the “end of the world” and the “Kingdom of God.” In essence: They never would have been able to consider the world–physical–being destroyed by God. Only in the twentieth century, with our post-nuclear capacities, can we consider the actual world coming to an end. Instead, the Kingdom of God would be the age of equality. Jesus’ central message then is that this age is here now, and we as Jesus’ followers must act to make this age our reality now. This is the claim God has made on our lives today.

Comment by Jacqueline

Very well written. We can never separate from our source this is true. We can never be separate from that which we are. We do have free will and we do make choices and some of those choices may cause distance or dormancy of spirit however we never truly are able to separate ourselves from that which we are. Rejoice in being!

Comment by tobeme

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