Fall Issue 4
"Stop trying to manage your prayer life," and other things I learned from Rob Des Cotes | Meredith Cochran
Two years ago when I started at Regent, there was a small group of staff and students who met for contemplative prayer once a week in the prayer room. We sat in silence together for twenty minutes with the hustle and bustle of lunchtime in the Atrium just barely muffled by the closed door, and some days it felt like an act of defiance to momentarily starve my ego’s need for social visibility in order to attend to God’s presence beyond the particulars of my day. Eventually, students in this group had the privilege of joining staff and faculty for biweekly prayer led by Rob Des Cotes. Rob, who passed away this year in early April, served as a friend and spiritual director to many within the Regent community, in addition to leading prayer retreats, seminars, and contemplative prayer at the College. (More about Rob and his ministry can be found atwww.imagodeicommunity.ca.)
One of the first things I heard from Rob was the exhortation to “stop trying to manage your prayer life.” Think of prayer as an offering, he encouraged, like that of a financial offering in the church basket. We place our offering in the basket, and we yield our responsibility for what will be done with it. We release the offering to the work of the church, however the church sees fit, because our offering is one of trust. Is our offering of prayer not a similar offering of trust? Trust in the work of the Spirit, however the Spirit sees fit? We give minutes of prayer as an offering, and surrender responsibility for what that time looks or feels like. We trust that what is happening with it is the work and responsibility of God. If our offering is meager, and only a few moments pass before becoming distracted, are we not then like the woman in Mark’s gospel who has but two coins to put in as an offering? And is her gift not celebrated as most precious of all?
“Truly, I say to you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the offering box. For they all contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had” (Mark 12:43-44).
Give the coins of your prayer, Rob taught, however small they may be. Do not try to manage your prayer life, but offer it, and surrender it to the One whom you trust. When your heart strays from attention to God, simply imagine that collection basket going by, and again place your offering inside. He will receive and celebrate what you offer.
Rob says some of this in a slightly different way in his newest book of meditations, Strength to Strength. Reflecting on Psalm 13, he writes: “We do a disservice to others whenever we idealize prayer and only speak of it in glowing terms. What is needed is a more honest articulation of not only the sweetness of prayer but also its challenges—the ways we struggle with the flesh, and suffer long from the absence of what we desire most.
We often feel defeated when we cannot pray as we wish. It might be the busyness of our schedules that doesn’t allow time for prayer. Or perhaps it’s the busyness of our inner life that seems to block our access to God. Even when we do sit down to pray, we often find ourselves unable to do so.
We can easily think that prayer has failed us at such times, and that we must resign ourselves to feeling distant from God. But something even more mysterious is going on in our hearts when we cannot pray than when we can, especially as we experience disappointment over this. A purification is taking place within the very longings that cause us to suffer the acute sense of loss we feel. The fact that we actually miss God and that we pine for a state of soul other than the one we are in is evidence of the vitality of our desire for God.”
In the face of what is often my meager, distracted, ego-centric, and hurried prayer life, I have begun to practice another aspect of Rob’s teaching: “It is better to be poor than a liar.” This comes from Proverbs 19:22, and rather than being ashamed of the poverty of my spirit, or pretending to have some holy sweetness in prayer, my first step is to confess. My desires are confused, misplaced, disordered, but this I do not hide. Again, Rob’s refrain: don’t try to manage this, just confess it. My first objective is to be with God, even if that means to confess, as Rob suggested, “I want to desire you. Can you help me, Lord?” God hears our cry for deliverance, and we ask in the faith that help is available.
Rob taught that when we do have desire for God, that is the Holy Spirit. “Steward this precious, fleeting gift,” he exhorted, “You can’t muster it. But you can learn to protect it. Follow it. What types of activity help kindle this desire? Learn to honor this desire, and treat it as precious. You will find rest for your souls.”
From the Editor
I’ve been having this slow realization during my time at Regent that people are looking for Church.
I wonder, now that I type it, whether to some that point is obvious to the point of Christian cliché. But that’s not the case for me. It’s been a slow recognition, punctuated by little moments of realization over the past few years.
One of these moments came at an outdoor concert I went to a few weeks ago on Commercial Drive in Vancouver, put on by an organization called Sofar Sounds.
It was a pretty typical Vancouver social outing. There was a folksy-granola vibe, a wide sampling of Vancouver microbrews, outdoor globe lights, an abundance of birkenstocks.
But what stuck with me most strongly after the event was how many aspects of it felt like echoes of an evening Church service. Not that there was any explicit mention of religion—but so many of the fundamental desires were similar: everybody gathered around a shared love (music in this case); a leader up front forcing people to talk to each other; the sense of communality, and belonging to something special; the reverence; the shared longing for transport and healing; the desire to feel.
I realize that for certain theological camps, making this kind of comparison between Church and the outside world is inherently dangerous territory. Immediate alarm bells go off, with labels like “liberalism” and “universalism” attached to them. I acknowledge the legitimacy of some of these alarm bells.
But I also want to say that the immediate application of these labels to any attempt at building bridges between Church and world is equally dangerous. Anybody who has grown up immersed in Evangelical culture can attest to the kind of cultural oddness (and mediocrity) that can result when we lack theological categories within which to discuss the commonality between believer and unbeliever—when we lack the courage to look deeply at the best parts of non-Church culture and find the presence of Christ there, also, outside the boundaries we may have unwittingly built around Him.
The theologian that has been most helpful for me in rebuilding these categories is Henri de Lubac, one of the Catholic theologians most influential on Vatican II.
Henri de Lubac was intent on using the traditional doctrine of the Church to acknowledge the active hand of Christ working for the good of all people, and it was this emphasis in his writings that was one of the strongest forces leading to Vatican II’s dramatic shift in the Catholic church toward a wider acknowledgment of Christ’s working in places outside the Catholic Church.
“… we consider, nevertheless, with St. Irenaeus, that the Son, from the very beginning and in every part of the world, gives a more or less obscure revelation of the Father to every creature, and that he can be the ‘Salvation of those who are born outside the Way’. We believe with St. Cyprian, St. Hilary and St. Ambrose, that the divine Sun of Justice shines on all and for all. We teach, with St. John Chrysostom, that grace is diffused everywhere and that there is no soul that cannot feel its attraction” (Catholicism, 218).
This is NOT to dismiss hell or sin. De Lubac is, after all, Catholic, and is very explicit that we should consider these things without “closing our eyes to the miserable state of many who are ‘in the shadow of death.’” It’s not that “it’s all good,” or that “love wins,” etc. It’s that “From Him and through Him and to Him are all things,” and we need to be careful about boundary-ing and fencing the work of a God who “died for all,” and offers grace to all, and sustains the being even of those who do not acknowledge that all the places they are trying to fulfill their desires can only truly be fulfilled in Christ.
De Lubac maintains a firm boundary between Church and non-Church, between believer and non-believer: “Outside Christianity nothing attains its end, that only end, toward which, unknowingly, all human desires, all human endeavors, are in movement: the embrace of God in Christ” (Catholicism 224).
But notice how even as he is firmly constructing the boundary between Christianity and that outside Christianity, he is also showing how all the strivings and efforts of those outside the Church to create beauty, community, justice, or whatever it is, are ultimately attempts at capturing the only true end of our life on earth—the same end after which we in the Church are striving.
You don’t have to be a universalist to earnestly seek out Christ, wherever he is found—or to affirm that there is deep and significant linkage between a Christian going to Church and an agnostic experiencing belonging by going to a house-show.
Church, unlike an outdoor concert in Vancouver, is a place where music, fellowship, aesthetic experience, facilitated socialization, all take their hats off, and admit that they themselves are all different angles at which to approach the source of all good music and friendship and awe: they acknowledge that they themselves are not the point, but they are all, to borrow Dante’s analogy, drawn bows, pointing toward a single target. And people are longing for this fulfillment of their interests and causes and passions.
Entering Thick Darkness: Thoughts on "The Skeleton Tree" | Matt Nelson
The sense of desolation saturating the new Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds album, The Skeleton Tree, is difficult to describe adequately. It must be experienced, entered into. Here is music from a brokenhearted man living through one of the worst kinds of grief imaginable---the tragic death of his teenage son. Though never directly about his son, grieving pervades the music and lyrics. This is my attempt to consider that enormous pain, particularly in light of the imagery (some of it biblical) that Cave employs.
“Jesus Alone” opens the album. Down-tuned, ominous synthesizers create the gloomy atmosphere in which Cave weaves together images of people at their extremes. Sudden death (“you fell from the sky/crash landed in a field”) and sudden life (“lambs burst forth from the wombs of their mothers”) rub shoulders, setting the tone for the snapshots of human desperation that follow. Who could help in such misery? Perhaps Jesus?---implicitly the one to whom Cave appeals: “With my voice I am calling you.” Unfortunately, divine abandonment is the dominant impression: “You’re a distant memory in the mind of your creator, don’t you see?”
Next is “Rings of Saturn,” a dreamy and ethereal reminiscence upon a woman. The song is like a (mostly) happy memory interjected between the raw despair of “Jesus Alone” and the departure of that same woman in the next song, “Girl in Amber.”
“Girl in Amber” melds several kinds of loss together, united by its central figure, the “girl in amber trapped forever, spinning down the hall.” She spins away from Cave, much like “your little blue-eyed boy,” “the song” (since “1984,” when Cave’s career began), and “the world.” All that lively and laborious spinning eventually stops, however, when Cave is abandoned by his lover. In response, all he can do is “let the world spin,” accepting the spinning cyclical vanity of
everything like an Ecclesiastes Preacher.
Spinning weariness continues in “Magneto”: “Then I spin on my wheel like a laboratory rat.” It seems he’s coming to the end of himself, “vomiting in the sink,” consumed by his loss: “my monstrous little memory had swallowed me whole.” He’s now desperate enough to approach God again, as “it was the year I officially became the bride of Jesus.”
In “Anthrocene,” whatever sense “Magneto” carried for rest in God has vanished. Now the dominant sentiment is that “all the things we love...we lose.” Nature itself carries a “dark force,” “powers at play more forceful than we,” and all we can do is utter “a prayer to the air, the air that we breathe.” Apparently this Anthrocene, this age of humankind, is one of cosmic abandonment, Godless nature, all of us left to spin away our days alone.
“I Need You” is the climax to which all this despair and desperation has been building. Images of Cave’s lost lover return, his voice trembling and almost weeping as he sings, “nothing really matters when the one you love is gone...I need you.” These lyrics, filled with such naked emotion, are set against lush enveloping synthesizers and the repetition of background sighs---the cumulative effect breathtaking, a palpable beauty even as it evokes depths of utter loss.
“Distant Sky” is a pressure release, Cave’s duet with the angelic-voiced Else Torp. The two serenade each another, suggesting an after-death reunion. Interestingly, even as the moment represents a (ghostly) return of happiness, it’s also a brutal (and potentially hopeful, Christianly) reminder that Cave’s old “gods” and “dreams” have died, failing him.
With “Skeleton Tree,” the album concludes as it began: “I called out, right across the sea.” Unfortunately, the only response to his call is himself, just an echo. After all, this is “Sunday morning,” time not of divinely resurrected Life but of that deathly “skeleton tree.” All concludes with serene resignation, recognition of life’s terrible price, “and it’s all right now.”
All that heartache--and ineffable beauty--what to do with it? What to say? Perhaps silence is called for. Perhaps this is a grief to simply hear, to enter into with Jesus, our High Priest who alone truly understands such sufferings. Listening like that, I feel I’ve interacted with this gifted artist’s Artist, and inspired to call out to that Artist, our God. I thank Him for bearing the pain that we cannot, and for being not only a God of the “distant sky,” but one who comes near, our Light who chooses to “dwell in thick darkness” with us (2 Chronicles 6:1). May we do the same. And may we remember that when we’re cut down to the bone, fruitless skeleton trees, nothing left but empty jars, that’s precisely when God’s grace enters and fills miraculously. Praise God for such unintentional reminders of this reality as The Skeleton Tree.
POEM OF THE WEEK: JOSH LOCK
Song for Melody Winter
The winters have kept me schooled
in the ancient art of forgetting
what should be forsaken
when making a bed for spring.
What if some great winter reigns
beyond horizons, where
papered over disjoints,
harboured spites and toxins,
deceits and soured secrets,
might all be neatly bed
deep in endless snow,
their memory laid there with them,
to do all time below,
whence comes no lawyer’s call,
an endless waste,
nameless and unmarked,
untraceable by blundering stars,
a hermetic, diodic burial ground?
Such a winter’s warming song,
would whisper in-between
each settling flake of eternal snow,
the secret tone of swallowed wrong.
I recall a sixth-grade classmate now,
fair and sharp by equal rate,
O, that she might hear it, too—
the song of this winter’s freedom.
Josh Lock, October 2016
This piece plays on the name of a grade school classmate and reflects David’s 'as far as the east is from the west' motif from Psalm 103. It imagines the beautiful, permanent erasure of personal moral failings. This is sweet hope, and true, I believe—as far as hope can be true. But is this all there is to Christian hope? I hear Alexander Schmemann: “The sin of all sins—the truly ‘original sin’—is not a transgression of rules, but, first of all, the deviation of man’s love and his alienation from God. That man prefers something—the world, himself—to God, this is the only real sin, and in it all sins become natural, inevitable. This sin destroys the true life of man. It deviates life’s course from its only meaning and direction. And in Christ this sin is forgiven, not in the sense that God now has ‘forgotten’ it and pays no attention to it, but because in Christ man has returned to God, and has returned to God because he has loved Him and found in Him the only true object of love and life.” (For the Life of the World, 78)
TALKING WITH OUR MOUTHS FULL |
WITH TROY TERPSTRA AND ED SMITH
Perhaps we should take the time to introduce ourselves. Perhaps, mainly we should do this, because our lunch date fell through and we haven’t got a lunch date to tell you about. Troy Terpstra and Ed Smith here, faithfully recording truths, half-truths, and outright lies all for your reading pleasure. Troy Terpstra isin his final year of an arts track MA in Theological studies. He is a painter, he improvises weekly on Granville Island, and he loves the French thinker Rene Girard, and getting hit in the face with ladders. Ed Smith is in his final semester of an MA in interdisciplinary studies. He works in the summer in the commercial reforestation industry and has personally planted well over 500,000 trees and supervised the planting of another 10 million or so. He likes good Scotch, puns, GK Chesterton, and flying to Mexico to visit his sister and her family which easily negates all of the positive impact that may have arisen from planting so many trees.
Maybe you’re wondering about the confession to writing half-truths and lies. It was never our intention to publish anything but the truth but in our first two weeks of writing this column we had misleading content both times. Both times were the result of the disappearance of clarifying footnotes. In our first week we reported that Paul Spilsbury went to Cambridge on a cricket scholarship, but that isn’t true. Last week we reported that Yonghua Ge went to Cambridge on a table tennis scholarship but that isn’t true either. This week we were unable to get any professor to go out to lunch with us.
I think it would be a mistake to assume that the professors are no longer willing to go for lunch with us because we have a history of printing lies about them. I think it’s more likely due to the fact that Troy caricatured them all when he emceed the talent show at theRegent Retreat. But all hope is not lost for this column. This week we have lunch scheduled with the lovely Claire Perini so our next column will doubtless be filled with aussie wit and wisdom. We also have a reading week with which to regroup and encourage Regent faculty and staff to discover the fame that is being published in the Regent Et Cetera. In any case, we promise you that we will keep on eating and keep on writing about it. I hope that you will continue to keep on reading. Feel free to send us requests for restaurants to review and encourage your professors to join us in a meal. We should sign off this column now. Troy is attending Regent College on a full-ride chess scholarship and Ed thanks to a full-ride lawn darts scholarship so we should probably go practice our respective sports in order that we not lose funding. Thanks for staying with us during this week of fasting.
"My Relationship With the Church"
The Bunyan | Hillsong II Rediscovers Hymns
The Second Hillsong General Conference (or Hillsong II) concluded this past Monday, with participants and observers asserting the Second Conference has “thrown open the windows” to allow Hillsong to better engage with the world.
Among the long list of reforms issued by the Second Conference are changes to the positioning of the worship band, whereby they will perform the songs from the pews so as to identify more with the laity, a retrieval of classic hymns, a greater openness to Christian music genres besides worship, and an encouragement to change the service’s language from Australian to the local vernacular.
“We have to finally admit that most people don’t know what ‘fair dinkum’ means,” opined Joel Houston.
Calvinist rapper Shai Linne, an invited observer to Hillsing II, cautiously voiced approval of the changes, “Yo man, I like that they’re singing hymns with all that lyrical theology, just as long as they don’t sing ‘The Horrible Decree,’ you feel me bro?”
“We never realized how much emotional ‘heart language’ was in these hymns. Retrieving the hymns of Wesley, Watts and other hymnists allows us to go back to the sources,” Houston said, shrugging, “It’s a real…I don’t know…a real…ressourcement!”
However, even after the Second Conference’s astonishing success, already divisions are starting to show. Two rival recording studios have been organized, with High Spirit Studios pledging to continue the spirit of the Second Conference.
“We don’t want to stop with only starting to sing Wesley hymns,” commented Jonas Myrin, “We want to keep adapting and experimenting, keep retrieving, which might include incorporating industrial metal into worship.”
However, Heart Cry Studios is reluctant to continue ushering in new changes, “Hillsong II accomplished what it set out to do. We should be content with that,” Taya Smith said.