Conversatio Divina

Conversation Guide

Kim Engelmann

“Conversation Guide” is a feature of the Conversations journal in which at least one article from each section is selected for small group discussion. We provide you with a summary and discussion questions with the hope that each issue of Conversations may morph into a thematic resource for spiritual formation groups.

01.  A Trinitarian Understanding of Sin by Larry Crabb

Crabb engages us immediately with Nietzsche’s statement, “To grow wise, you must listen to the wild dogs barking in the cellar.” For Nietzsche, this meant the recognition of the desires that cry out from deep within us—the desires of purpose, immortality, and freedom, among others.

The truth is that the world doesn’t offer us what we hope for, so in order to be happy, we live on the surface of things and keep ourselves busy and distracted so that we don’t hear those dogs in the cellar. Nietzsche’s advice, given this formula for despair, is that we listen to the dogs, follow our desires where we can, and essentially make the best of it. This will give us a moderately satisfying, though impermanent, life.

Crabb assures us that Jesus agrees with the idea of listening to the barking dogs in the cellar. Discovering that we have desires that nothing in this world can satisfy is a good thing. But the Christian believes that our longings testify to the existence of a world where such longings can be fulfilled—longings such as love, meaning, awe, and beauty. This is the world of community, where relationship is primary and the Trinity dances together in equal, other-centered, joyful intimacy.

This other-centered nature of God, who is triune, reaches out to us as well and invites us to the party. And this is the good news! We’re going to live forever, not in isolation. Our lives have meaning as we receive God’s love and extend the nature of the Trinity to the world, connecting, relating, and engaging. Nor are we alone: the very presence of God lives in us! Thus, eternity begins now.

Still, we catch ourselves living on the surface. We aren’t always celebrating. This is because we are subject to “evil” at work in us, very often when we are most aware of God’s presence. Sin in me pulls me in the opposite direction from where my true desire wants to go. I tell myself I am an individual who can and will live my way—the best way for me—and that God can come along if he is helpful to my plans. This way of life (which is individualism, a western value) undermines the basis of relational joy, mutual humility, divine community, and self-surrender, which are all embedded in the nature of the Trinity.

Crabb tells us we have to understand that this “enmity” with God is part of who we are, and when we recognize its presence in us—when we listen to the dogs—we can be humbled, repent, and receive God’s grace more fully, so we can then join fully in the party, celebrate, and reach out.

 

  1. How does our current culture value the individual above community?

 

  1. What signs do you see that tell you the results of an individualistic mindset can be destructive?

 

  1. In what ways has Christianity become too individualistic?

 

  1. When have you experienced good Christian community, if ever? Share your experiences.

 

  1. Think about Jesus’ life and ministry. How did Jesus hold up the value of community and relationship? How did he invite people to the party?

 

  1. Are you aware of “barking dogs” in your own life? When are you most aware of them? How might an awareness of the “dogs” help us move toward more intimacy with God?

02.  And Now I See: A Theology of Transformation—An Interactive Book Review with Robert Barron by Gary W. Moon

In this interview, Moon interviews Robert Barron, a Catholic theologian, who begins by telling us that Christianity is not a program or a path, but the very person of Jesus Christ Himself. Barron’s hope is that by reading this book, the reader will “see Jesus” and discover joy—the flag of the Holy Spirit. A joyless saint, he tells us, is a contradiction in terms.

Barron’s understanding of original sin is that it originates from fear. Instead of looking to God to find the solution to our fear, we turn to ourselves. Adam and Eve “grasped” (the fruit) and “hid” (in the brush). We spend much of our lives grasping for things, even for “godliness,” for self-aggrandizement. In so doing, we hide ourselves from God, often by pretending that God doesn’t even exist and by convincing ourselves that we can be joyful without him. Thus, sin is based in our lack of relationship with God—our refusal to love. Sin is not primarily a matter of disobeying laws. Ultimately, Church rules/laws are meant to move us in the direction of love and deeper relationality with God, and are not ends in themselves.

God is not our rival; God is a friend. Our grasping and hiding come from fear that causes us to think divine life must be seized from a God who is reluctant to share it with us. The opposite is true. God wants to give us life; he wants to be gracious—amazingly so. The true self that God longs for us to become is one that forgets about itself. When we move from pusilla anima (the small self) to the magna anima (the large self), we are in a process of spiritual transformation that puts us in a sense of “flow” with God, unselfconsciously aware of God and who we were created to be in union with him.

There is a constant tension between these two selves—the self born of fear and the self found in relationship to God—and Barron points out that the healing required to become magna anima will be difficult. It is necessary to “let go,” or hit bottom, and this can be painful.

Barron also lifts up the importance of choice. Although God’s grace can intervene in any situation and dramatically change us, our choices do matter. In choosing, we choose to be this or that kind of person. Our choices form who we become. When we choose to nurture and find the image of God in us, the pearl of great price, we find that our lives are not about us. We disappear into the mission of the Lord, move closer to Jesus, and find the joy we long for.

 

  1. What are you most afraid of? How does this fear motivate you?

 

  1. Discuss together the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis 1. How did the serpent stir up the fear within Adam and Eve? Was it to distort in any way who God was?

 

  1. When you think about God’s wanting to give you friendship, grace, and abundant life, is this a new way of thinking for you? Does this realization help you realize that you don’t have to “grasp” or “hide”? How might this rhythm of existence (grasping and hiding) become transformed by choices you make in your own life?

03.  My Will Be Done, My Kingdom Come by Basil Pennington

Pennington asks a compelling question in this article, a question that all Christians ask more frequently than not, if they are sincere: Why don’t I stay in the “heavenly space” of the Divine love I know and have experienced?

Why do I stumble? Why do I resist? Why do I live for what I know I ultimately don’t want—“My will be done” instead of “Thy [God’s] will be done”?

Pennington has a couple of thoughts about what lures us away from the magnificent love of the Divine. They are “stupid” things, really, in comparison to the love we give up to attain them, yet they throw our perspective off and pull us away from living a total, joyful “yes” to God’s will. First, there is the false self, which is epitomized in a kind of fearful possessiveness. It tells me that I must hold on to the external accomplishments and opinions of others in order to know myself. Letting these things be “gods” that define me limits my surrender to my Creator, who defined me to begin with.

Second, the scars or wounds that define me because of my human weakness hold me back and undermine my freedom. I find it difficult to really forgive, and it keeps me from that complete “yes” to God’s will. Finally, pride that somehow I can be “my own person” without surrender robs me of peace and joy and paradoxically captivates rather than liberates because of my sin.

Pennington sees the 12 Steps in AA as a practical program that teaches us all to live a life of forgiveness. He also celebrates the work of Brother Lawrence, who was able to embrace the poverty of the human condition, surrender, and abide in God’s love in the simplest and most mundane situations. Ultimately, Pennington asserts, it is the Holy Spirit who empowers us to die to our old selves and live to embrace God’s will.

It is poignant, in light of Pennington’s recent death, to note that his last words in the article are about resurrection and harmony: “To abide in this harmony in the risen life is to abide in freedom, joy, and peace.” Freedom, joy, and peace are yours now, Basil, without any conflict or distortion. Enjoy the unhampered Glorious Relationship!

 

  1. What are the things that draw you away from your awareness that God’s love is sufficient—your ultimate longing?

 

  1. How does posturing ourselves toward forgiveness of others and forgiveness of ourselves (sometimes more difficult than forgiving others) cause us to heal and stay in that “heavenly space” more fully?

 

  1. What practical suggestions from the 12 Steps speak to you the most?

 

  1. What is “fearful about the “possessiveness” that comprises the false self? Are the things we cling to, things that define us, so transitory? How so?

 

  1. What is different about God’s definition of us? What is it about how we were created that makes this Divine definition so fulfilling and satisfying?

04.  Why Sin Matters by Mark McMinn

In his article, “Why Sin Matters,” McMinn juxtaposes earning God’s love through human effort against surrendering to God’s love, thereby becoming able to receive it through no merit of our own. Earning is a pattern drilled into us since childhood. Earning means doing something in order to gain a reward. Gaining a reward without earning it is a foreign idea in our culture and generally disrespected. Earning our way means we are responsible and respectable. Yet God’s love is of a different paradigm. It is a love I cannot earn. It is there for me and comes first, before I have earned or deserved anything.

The contrast between earning God’s love and surrendering to it is highlighted in the Parable of the Prodigal Son. The elder brother assumes God’s love is earned. “All these years I’ve worked for you, and yet you never gave me a party that I might celebrate with my friends,” declares the elder son, who feels he deserves better, given all that he has done.

The second approach is simple surrender. This is the approach of the younger son, covered in pig grime and clothed in rags, who surrenders and throws himself on the mercy of the Father’s love. He cannot earn the love he craves, and he knows it.

McMinn points out it is important to realize that we have no earning potential—no green card in God’s economy. We are sinful, separated from God not just by what we do each day, but by who we are. We are intrinsically unable to “measure up.” God’s grace is a grace given to us who cannot deserve it—not just simply to us who don’t deserve it because we’re somehow not trying hard enough.

When we fall helpless as the prodigal son, it is all we can do. It is then we are aware of the incredible depth of God’s love that meets us in this place of surrender. To focus on sin without grace is to slip into the “earning’ mentality. Still, to focus on grace without an awareness of sin may cause us to see ourselves as essentially “okay,” thereby devaluing grace—making it cheap. Here we forget the huge difference between us and God and our distorted nature in the light of God’s holy presence.

“Sin is our only hope,” McMinn quotes Barbara Brown Taylor as saying. This means that in knowing sin, we open ourselves to a full understanding and appreciation of God’s forgiveness and grace and longing for us in spite of ourselves.

 

  1. How does our culture promote “earning” and “deserving” over “forgiveness” and “grace”? How has the church promoted the same thing?

 

  1. What reaction do you have to McMinn’s thesis that we cannot earn God’s love? Is this in any way freeing for you? Does it make you nervous that somehow this might “let people off the hook” too easily?

 

  1. Do you think that an awareness of our own incapacity ever to deserve God’s love might do damage to healthy self-esteem? How might knowledge of our own sin actually fulfill us rather than demean us?

 

  1. What patterns of earning God’s love are you aware of in your own life? What ways can you think of to begin to free yourself from these?

05.  Confession as Essential Practice: An Evangelical Perspective by Gordon T. Smith and Mark J. Boda

Smith and Boda take on the place of confession in current evangelical churches, and find that for many churches, the practice of confession is lacking or misunderstood.

For some churches, this stems from the feeling that in order to be “seeker friendly,” they must avoid the subject of confession as a turn-off because it is a “downer.” For other churches, there is the theological opinion that confession needs to have happened only when one became a Christian and not afterward. To continue to confess one’s sins over and over, these churches proclaim, is to nail Christ to the cross over and over.

Yet a review of Scripture and of Christian history—which is the bulk of the article—indicates that confession is integral to the spiritual life and should be a part of the rhythm and fabric of our existence. To disregard confession as an integral practice is to forget that although we turn to God in conversion, this is only the first of a continual turning in an ongoing process of transformation. Thus, repentance is vital to our spiritual growth.

This repentance must be rooted in the context of the love and acceptance of God. Both the Scriptures and the evangelical heritage stress that what motivates our “turning” is the knowledge of God’s love, and this practice of relying on his love to forgive us is a healing process. It realigns us in thought, word, and deed around a personal awareness of God’s call on our lives. It allows us to depend more and more on God and loosens us from the pangs of self-reliance.

In confession, we also open ourselves to receive the joy and peace that are the gift of the Spirit to us. Charles Wesley often coupled in his hymns both joy and confession; the two are paired.

The article calls churches to rediscover the rich and healing practice of confession both in worship and in people’s devotional lives.

 

  1. When has confession of a sin or sins been a liberating experience for you?

 

  1. When have you observed a confessional practice that was not rooted in the love of God and did not result in joy?

 

  1. Do you think you can confess and yet still not receive forgiveness? What might be the outcome of this?

 

  1. What do you think about churches being “upbeat” in order to be “seeker friendly”? Is this a good goal to have? Do you think confession is something that is always a turn-off? Why or why not?

 

  1. What can we do in our own personal walk with God to make confession more a part of the rhythm and fiber of our lives?

06.  The Community of the Broken: Finding Intimacy Through Poverty by Judith Hougen

In this article, Hougen essentially tells us that there are two rooms, two frameworks for living our lives. One is the room of the pious, where the posturing is that of pretense and performance. This is a gathering of pretenders incapable of genuine relationship and authenticity. The second room, or framework for living, is the room of the broken—people who know they don’t have it all together and desperately cling to God’s grace. These are people who are well acquainted with their weaknesses and are not afraid to share their vulnerabilities with others.

Here in this room are the authenticity and freedom that come with telling the truth. There is honest and open fellowship with God and one another.

Hougen points out that in Matthew 18, when Jesus tells the parable of the king whose servant owed him ten thousand talents (an enormous amount of money), the problem is in the servant’s response to the king’s query about where the money was. He declares, “Be patient with me . . . and I will pay back everything” (Matthew 18:26. NIV Scripture quotations marked (NIV) are taken from the Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV®. Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.™ Used by permission of Zondervan. All rights reserved worldwide. www.zondervan.com The “NIV” and “New International Version” are trademarks registered in the United States Patent and Trademark Office by Biblica, Inc.™ ). To think he could pay back the king this huge amount is outrageous! It is a myth of competency. He is unaware of his own weakness and his need for the forgiveness and mercy that will free him from the need to “perform” and even the score. The king does forgive the servant the debt, but forgiveness is received only superficially, as the servant then goes out and punishes an underling who owes him money.

Hougen tells us that until we become acquainted with our poverty and own it, we cannot truly know God. Up to this point, we know only about God. Not until we own our poverty and depend in utter weakness on God’s mercy do we experience the love God has for us—just as we are.

 

  1. Have you been in situations where pretense and performance were the rules of operation?

 

  1. How did you experience the quality of relationships there?

 

  1. Have you ever been in a place where you were keenly aware of your utter dependence on God? Describe.

 

  1. Where have you been able to share vulnerably with another and create true community?

 

  1. Do you think sharing openly our wounds and the poverty of our spirits happens a lot in churches? If not, how might we allow this to happen more?

 

Footnotes

KIM ENGELMANN serves as Pastor in Congregational Care at Menlo Park Presbyterian Church in Menlo Park, Calif. She attended Barnard College, Princeton Seminary, and Boston University where she specialized in Pastoral Care. Kim has three children, ages eight, ten, and twelve. She is married to Timothy Engelmann, who is a clinical psychologist in private practice. The Engelmanns also have a dog, guinea pig, love bird, chinchilla, and a rabbit.