Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Praying to Saints

Some twelve or thirteen years ago, when I was first presented by the conundrum of a scholarly friend and his family forsaking what I will loosely call the free churches (a very subjective label in this case -- by which, forgive me, I mean churches I more or less understand) for the Roman Catholic church, one of the more bewildering issues to me was the veneration of saints. As someone who has always believed that worship was for God alone, I would tend to condemn such a practise as idolatry if I ever thought of it all. But here was someone I respected embracing it along with all the other -- for me -- Martian ideas and practices of Rome. And having asked about it, I was supplied the following more or less plausible rationale for the whole practise.
  • The word prayer in the context of the saints is closer to simple asking than the included worship we subscribe to God when we pray to him. A little archaic in usage, but possible. In the past you might have in the same way asked something of your friend in the form of, "I pray thee."
  • Saints are part of the "Cloud of Witnesses" that surrounds us. And they don't just surround us as from stands in an arena. They're actually very close -- close enough to hear us and interact with our lives.
  • We already single out certain friends -- still alive friends, I mean -- who seem to have special faith for praying for specific things. Why not ask the various saints to intercede on our behalf in our diverse times of need?
So the above was, for me, an interesting excursion into another worldview. Veneration of Saints is a classic sticking point for Protestants to argue against the Roman church, a too-easy fault to write the whole thing off because no effort had been made to understand the practise from the inside. What I saw in the above was that here was practise rooted in a medieval paradigm that made some sense in that context, and as someone who tries to allow other cultures their worldviews, I had to make room for it as possible. The explanation I was given was an attempt to bring it forward into the present day. And in discussions with fellow non-Catholics I would try to downplay that particular issue, because, as members of another culture, we couldn't really judge what was in their hearts when they 'prayed' to the saints.

A couple of days ago, in the context of a random discussion -- we have lots of them in our family -- I did a web search for Saint Peregrine. I figured there had to be such a saint, because of the popular fruit juice soda brand 'San Pelegrino' and I guessed rightly that the English version of his name must be Peregrine. And I found the following. When I read it aloud, someone made the comment that he had always found the practise of praying to the saints somewhat idolatrous. And you can easily glean the same from the verbiage in the prayer, which seems to me to be a pretty standard sort of address to a saint. And it certainly doesn't fit into the made-for-protestants explanation given me by my friend. The formalism, the titles, the 'buttering up' of the saint, all point in the direction quite the opposite to the "asking a friend to pray for you" model. But I'm going to try give this the benefit of the doubt and try to update the prayer a bit. Bear with me.
  •  "Hey Peregrine, you've had some success praying for miracles, haven't you? And you also sacrificed a lot to serve God and I appreciate that and frankly, I look up to you. You're a real role model. I'd consider it a favour if you would pray for me that I could have the courage to be like you. So much for the long term. In the short term, there are a few miracles I need. Can you please pray for [fill in the blank] and [fill in another blank]. Like I said, I'd sure appreciate your help if you've got the time."
What do you think? If you can get your head around talking to people who are gone on to where we all will await resurrection, I think it might work. I've made a conscious effort to not address Peregrine the way I address God, to avoid assigning titles -- Forgive me,I still take the Matthew 23 passage very seriously-- and to include at least some of the material of the prayer on the above web page.

The resurrection thing is an interesting point about saints, though. Jesus himself was not glorified until he was resurrected, and none of us, not even the saints, have been resurrected. It possibly kind of calls into question us depending on them as if they were glorified. But I'm not going to push on any farther in that direction. The whole thing is still just so foreign to me and there are far bigger issues to resolve before I would ever follow in my friends footsteps.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

A Bible Study: Sometimes, It's not Love, but Honour

The Luke 11 "Ask, Seek, Knock," passage has been on my mind recently. Especially the story about the man who wakes his neighbour. And I think that strange mistranslation has crept into most of our bibles in this story. The point of the story is not the knocking friend's persistence. The story is not about persistence at all or repetition or even as one bible puts it, impudence(!)

As a non-scholar in Greek, how can I say this? Well, compare the story with that of the father giving scorpions for fish. The two stories are a unit, that much is obvious. And equally obvious is that the intent of the second story is to horrify the listener with the idea of a father who will not supply his children with that which good, sustaining and life-giving, but rather that which indigestible, unclean and poisonous.

So I would propose that the first story was also horrifying (probably slightly less horrifying -- we are leading to a climax here) to Jesus' listeners. The idea that a friend and fellow villager would not help to take care of the newly arrived traveller was received, by this line of reasoning, was to them a horrifying thought. And as an aside, I'm not being very original here. I've heard this elsewhere, in some sermon or Bible School lecture. And five minute's googling turned up ample evidence that my memory is not faulty and that wiser heads than mine have said the same about this passage. Historically, care of travellers was a matter of honour. The whole village's reputation was at stake. The selfishness of the so-called friend's reply in the first story is a rhetorical device. He is saying what would never be said! --in the very same way that the earthly father in the second is doing what what would never be done. So whatever the word ought to be, it can't be 'persistence.' Hopefully, Greek scholars will bear me out on this.

So where am I going with this? It's clear to me that ultimately these two parables are pointing to one idea, which is that it concerns God's honour to answer our prayers. And to complete the thought, it concerns his honour to give the Holy Spirit to his children when they ask. I have to say that this is my favourite part of the passage, that it all points to the availability of the Holy Spirit to us and that it would be as horrifying for him not to give the Spirit as a father giving a scorpion when asked for an egg. But that's not what I'm getting at here. There's no mention in this passage of his love for us, great though that is. It's his honour, that is, his righteousness, that is highlighted here.

God is not a one-dimensional character. Yes, I'm being a bit hobby-horse-ish here but I defend myself by saying that it's only in reaction to others hobby horses. I see very much posted these days that filters everything through an all-encompassing idea of God's love. And I'm saying that even that single idea, grand though it is, is just like every other single idea when made the only lens through which God and all his acts and commands are viewed. Distortion ensues. Here's a passage about asking and receiving good things from our Father. Surely, some mention would be made about his love for us. But Jesus even downplays the friendship -- the love -- in the first story and makes it about the honour of the village (or so I argue above.) Well, I could go on and on about what I've covered in earlier posts about the necessity of God's wrath along with his love, assaulting motherhood, yeah, and apple pie with all the orneriness in me but instead I'll say this: I'm personally glad God has pledged not only his love, but his honour to being our good Father. It's something to take to the bank.