July 22, 2008

So who exactly are Christians supposed to pray to?

Hello Dojo,
I will be leaving for Kenya this weekend and wanted to get one solid post in before I leave. I felt like this would be a great one, especially in light of the last post being a request for prayer for my friend Lynda.

Last week I received the following email at the office. I asked the sender if I could use it as a post in the Dojo and just abbreviate her name. She said that would be fine. Here's the original email she sent me:

To: James-Michael Smith
Subject: Prayer


I have hesitated long enough on my question to you. I know that with your knowledge you are a good one to ask, but I’ve been a little embarrassed and just hated to ask. I need to know Who am I praying to? Do you specifically pray to GOD or Jesus? Is this a dumb question? Should I know this? I’m sorry if it’s petty, but my prayer life is so weak and I’m trying to be stronger and some how seem to struggle when I get hung up on whom I’m praying to. I sometimes pray to Jesus say for the things he did while here and the path he made, etc. Then pray to GOD for the world he created, etc. I have so many other prayers and wonder to whom am I praying to both?


This was such a great question--and one that many Christians have asked (or wanted to ask)! It also shows the need for strong theological teaching in churches for pastoral purposes. Many people brush aside any level of deeper theological discussion in favor of a "just-give-me-Jesus" faith that is unreflective and intellectually shallow. But as T's questions above reveal, there are serious applicational issues at stake when it comes to theology! It is so important that we not run from these questions or try to dismiss them, settling instead for a "folk-christianity" consisting of bumper-sticker slogans and 10 minute devotionals from a book with pictures of flowing streams, cozy cabins, and rosy-cheeked caucasian children from in Norman-Rockwell-meets-Thomas-Kinkade settings. (Okay, maybe that was a little harsh...but hey, at least you now know my tastes when it comes to Christian paraphenalia! :)

That being said, here is my response to T's email. As always, any comments, critiques, or questions are welcome in the Dojo!

From: James-Michael Smith [mailto:gsdisciple@gsumc.org]
Sent: Wednesday, July 16, 2008 12:19 PM
To: T
Subject: RE: Prayer


Don't be silly! This isn't AT ALL an embarrassing question! It strikes at the very heart of the Christian faith! You're thinking about prayer theologically--and that's a GOOD thing. You're using your mind to try to understand one of the deepest revealed truths in all of Scripture. It's okay if you feel a bit confused at times! That's the beauty of walking together as a community of believers--we can help one another think through these things and by doing so, come to know God better and deepen our relationship with Him. Again, that's a GOOD thing! :)

Here's what we know:

* God is the only one people in the OT ever prayed to.

* God is the only one Jesus Himself ever prayed to.

* Jesus is our model of what a true relationship with God is.


*** God is the only one we pray to.

Sounds good, right?


* Jesus claimed to somehow BE God.

* Jesus' earliest followers sometimes prayed to Jesus.

* Jesus' earliest followers sometimes prayed to the Holy Spirit.


*** We sometimes pray to Jesus and/or the Holy Spirit

Now, how does this not contradict the first conclusion??


* Jesus and the Holy Spirit are somehow God!

Ta-dah! The Trinity!

It was by reasoning through various thoughts and issues like this that the Church Fathers gradually were able to put into words the concept of God's Triune nature, or what we call "The Trinity." Despite being immersed in a Greco-Roman philosophical world of logic and propositions, the early Church was able to hold to the mystery of God's nature as revealed in the Hebrew Bible and the person and work of Jesus and the Holy Spirit. They were able to verbalize the Biblical concept of God's triune nature with the following:

God is 1 substance (Greek: "ousia") in 3 persons (Greek: "hypostases"). Not 1 substance and 3 substances, or 1 person and 3 persons. [btw, the words "substance" and "person" don't really capture the idea very well in modern English because of how we normally use them. That's why I'm using the Greek terms below.]

Therefore, no matter which "hypostases" you are praying to (God the Father, God the Son, God the Spirit), you are always praying to the same "ousia", God.

This is why the NT writers could switch between praying to God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit with such ease--it's all God.

I personally usually pray to God the Father, and occasionally address my prayers to Jesus or the Holy Spirit whenever I want to approach God in one of those aspects.

This is such a great question for you to be struggling with because it shows a mature and reflective faith and it goes beyond what most people simply don't ever bother to think about! Be encouraged by this.

And if you would like to borrow it, I have the book "Prayer" by Richard Foster in our Discipleship library in my office. It is one of the best books ever written on the subject of prayer and I recommend it wholeheartedly.

Hope this helps. Let me know if you have any follow up questions or thoughts.

Walking together...

James-Michael Smith

Pastor of Discipleship

Good Shepherd UMC

Charlotte, NC


July 21, 2008

Prayer for a spiritual warrior woman...

Hi everyone,

This isn't a typical post for the Dojo. I would just like everyone to pray for my friend Lynda Peeler. She's a member of GSUMC and one of my favorite people along with her husband Gary. Lynda has cancer of the liver and is undergoing some pretty brutal chemo. Right now her white count is too low to do her next round of chemo though. Please pray that her count raises so that she can continue being treated, as the chemo apparently has been doing its job. Pray also for Gary. He's just a fantastic guy and this is extremely hard for him (though you'd never ever hear him complain for an instant because of how much he loves and adores Lynda!).

Thanks gang,

July 11, 2008

The Shack - followup review

So I finished reading William Young's "The Shack" and thought I'd give my overall review of it. There are plenty of blogs out there that have raked it over the coals, theologically...as well as plenty that have praised it as the greatest piece of Christian fiction ever written. I find myself somewhere in the middle of these extremes. I'll give my thoughts on it in three areas: Theologically, Literarily, and Pastorally.

Theological review

The overall theology of "The Shack" would generally be considered a form of Arminian theology. There is a high emphasis placed on humanity's choices and responsibilities as well as a reticence on God's behalf to intervene directly in human decisions for the sake of preserving their ability to live freely--something necessary for genuine love between humanity and God to exist.
The problem of evil and suffering being reconciled with the notion of a Just and Loving God is handled via a form of the "freewill defense", put forth by Christian philosophers and theologians such as Alvin Plantinga and William Lane Craig. However, there is no attempt to answer every question regarding exactly why God allows such evil to occur. This is the most commendable aspect of the book in my opinion because it follows Scripture's relative silence on God's motives and instead focuses on God's self-revelation as Good and Just (For a much most solid theological treatment of this issue I can't recommend strongly enough N.T. Wright's fantastic little book "Evil and the Justice of God"...which people can check out in both print and audio format from my office!).
One area where The Shack has been criticized for being theologically out of line is in its almost non-existent treatment of the nature of Sin. Sin is never really presented according to the Biblical standard and shown in all its horror or ugliness. Instead it is almost ignored or brushed aside via euphamism. This critique is one that I agree with. When I think about, for example, how the reality of sin and its insideousness is treated by C.S. Lewis' portrayal of the "Un-Man" in his classic "Perelandra", I can't help but recognize the failure by Young to address this topic which should be at the heart of any discussion of evil and suffering.
The other area that the book was criticized for is its teaching on salvation; particularly the passage where Jesus tells Mack that though all paths do not lead to Him, there is no path that He will not travel down to get to us (my lame paraphrase). This seems to many to be advocating a type of universalism whereby Jesus saves people regardless of whether or not they follow other faiths or belief systems. On this point, I can sympathize with the critics because Young's treatment of this was woefully short and ambiguous. However, I'm curious as to whether or not the same critics level such charges against C.S. Lewis' "The Last Battle" wherein a Calormene soldier who worshipped Tash all his life finds at his death that he was actually worshipping Aslan and is part of the renewed creation at the end.
With any presentation of theological issues, particularly in a popular-level format, there will always be areas of disagreement or dissatisfication among theologically-minded believers. However, the alarmism over the theology of "The Shack" is, in my opinion, simply unjustified (as is the near-canonization of it by many of its fans!). If I were Reformed or Calvinist in my theological leanings, I would certainly find much in it that I vehemently disagreed with. But as someone who does not hold this system of theology, I have considerably less objections to the theology of "The Shack".

Literary review

My strongest critique of the book lies in its literary quality. Simply put, I felt that "The Shack" was just not a well-written book. I thought the dialogue seemed very artificial and there was almost no attempt to veil the theological teachings of the book literarily. It was as if the dialogues were pre-conceived lectures put in the mouths of talking heads. I felt that the amount of time leading up to Mack's entry into the shack (where the story really gets going) was disproportionate to the amount of story contained within the rest of the book. Aside from Mack, the characters were very flat and undeveloped.
"The Shack" seems to be unable to decide whether or not to be a full-blown story (such as "The Pilgrim's Progress" or "Redeeming Love") or a theological treatise in dialogue format (such as "The Lotus and the Cross" or "The Screwtape Letters"). If it had leaned one way or the other, it would have been a much better book in my opinion.
On a much more subjective front, I found the depiction of idyllic conditions throughout the book to be simply too...well...Thomas Kinkade-ish. It seemed to reinforce the stereotype of Christian fiction as shmaltzy pablam that consists of pastel colors and cross-stitching. If you're having trouble visualizing what I'm talking about, just stroll through any Lifeway Christian store and you'll immediately see what I mean! As someone who has an innate aversion to cheesy Christianity, "The Shack" was much too close to that line than I would have liked it to be. (My apologies to anyone who is a precious-moments-christian-contemporary-radio-station-Kinkade-owning-bumper-sticker Christian. Wait! This is the Dojo! I don't need to apologize for that! lol!)

Pastoral review

As a pastor and teacher, would I recommend "The Shack" to those I serve and teach? Well, that depends. If someone was hungry for deeper theological understanding of God or a firmer grasp of Scripture, then I would not recommend "The Shack" as anything other than peripheral reading. They would be much better served by such books as the afore-mentioned "Evil and the Justice of God" or John Stackhouse's "Can God Be Trusted?" If they wanted a fictional/dialogical treatment of such issues, Peter Kreeft has written a number of fictional conversations of theological issues, as has Ravi Zacharias.
However, I would recommend "The Shack" to those who have questions about what a relationship with God might look like and how God might answer some of their questions if they were to get a chance to ask Him. I think this is the strongest aspect of the book. It depicts the full personhood of the Trinity in a way that does not fall into heresy--as is so often the case with any description of God's triune nature! I would also recommend the book to non-Christians, particularly those who believe the God of the Bible to be the folk-religion "Old man in the sky" depiction. "The Shack" would (and hopefully is!) serve to raise questions in the mind of the reader which would then spur him/her on in their desire to know more about the God we Christians claim to be in relationship with. After all, God's used talking donkeys, gigantic fish, false prophets, and enemies of the church to speak to people and lead them to Himself...I'm sure He's not sweating "The Shack"'s influence in our rapidly-approaching-post-Christian culture.

My 2 cents. Comments and/or criticisms always welcomed!


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