TAKING THE ELEVATOR DOWN INTO YOUR HEART
In seminary we were required to take a course called “Covenant Group.” Think five guys getting together every Thursday for lunch. All the other classes we took in seminary were academic. They were about fueling our minds. This particular one, however, was about fueling our souls.
It didn’t go very well. We laughed a lot, but usually at what we were being asked to do. “Consider the spiritual life as taking an elevator deep down into your heart,” one of our written guides said. And it meant it. We were supposed to place our feet on the ground, close our eyes, and imagine ourselves riding that elevator down into the deepest recesses our of our soul. Maybe the image itself is what threw us — “How do I take an elevator inside of me? And what button do I push?” — but I wonder if the real problem was that we simply misunderstood the point of it all. And by “all” I mean the point of theology itself, the very reason we went to seminary in the first place.
If you break it down, theology means “the Word of God.” Theo translates God; –logy translates Word. When John starts his Gospel with “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” the Greek word there is logos. To say, “Word of God” or “Theo-logy,” then, is to say Jesus. So, what does learning theology look like if theology is Jesus?
It looks a lot like taking an elevator down into your heart.
The ancient fathers and mothers of the church we’ve been exploring these past few weeks were emphatic about this. They didn’t use the image of the elevator, of course, but they did define theology as our personal experience of Christ, the Word of God himself. To learn or to do theology, they said, is to draw closer to this God, which makes perfect sense if we remember what we said last week about heaven. Heaven is fundamentally drawing closer and closer to God. Not surprisingly, then, one early Christian linked theology tightly to prayer. “If you are a theologian,” says Evagrius of Pontus, “you pray truly. If you pray truly, you are a theologian.”
Today, we think of theologians rather differently. They’re folks who debate other theologians about the nature of heaven and hell or the doctrine of the Trinity or the divinity of Jesus or something of the sort. In this sense, theology is understood to be a highly intellectual, academic discipline best left to preachers and professors who nerd out on things most of us don’t need to know or even care about. But, for Evagrius, theology defines the very heart of the spiritual life. It is knowing God in the way we know our friends and our family and even ourselves — closely, intimately, and way more than just intellectually. This means that theology is relational just like prayer is relational. Indeed, for Evagrius, prayer is the primary way theology happens. It is how we come to know and experience God truly.
On Sunday mornings, we have a dedicated time of prayer, but it is predominately a time for us to ask things of God, the way babies and young children beg their parents for toys or for food. What might that say about our relationship with God? Evagrius would advise us not to stop petitioning God in this way. After all, we are God’s children. But, the ancient church father would insist that we pray a different way, too. This different way is called contemplation. It is resting in the presence of God. It is entering into that Holy of Holies we talked about last week. It is taking an elevator deep down into our heart where we journey to meet the God, the Word, the Christ who dwells within us.
How do we do this? How do we engage in truly contemplative prayer? To start, we might begin with an ancient tradition practiced by many early Christians like Evagrius — praying the psalms. If you’ve never prayed the psalms before, I invite you to sit down in a quiet place with the Scriptures open to Psalm 19. As you slowly pray these words, let them move you from your head down to your heart. Let them take root in your soul as you begin to engage in some real theology today and seek to experience the very person of God.
Psalm 19 The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world. In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, which comes out like a bridegroom from his wedding canopy, and like a strong man runs its course with joy. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them; and nothing is hid from its heat. The law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul; the decrees of the Lord are sure, making wise the simple; the precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart; the commandment of the Lord is clear, enlightening the eyes; the fear of the Lord is pure, enduring forever; the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold; sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb. Moreover by them is your servant warned; in keeping them there is great reward. But who can detect their errors? Clear me from hidden faults. Keep back your servant also from the insolent; do not let them have dominion over me. Then I shall be blameless, and innocent of great transgression. Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable to you, O Lord, my rock and my redeemer.
For much more on what we talked about today, I encourage you to check out Episode 3, “Theology…You’d Be Surprised,” of the podcast, Mysterion, by Wes Arblaster and Ethan Smith.