True Rationality and The Recreation of the Divine Image

 

A quick update before we get into On the Incarnation by St. Athanasius. I finally turned in my final assignments and my theology comprehensive exam and graduated from seminary two weeks ago with a Master of Divinity. Going to seminary was one of the best things I have ever done and I’m better for going even if I will be poorer financially as I pay off my loans. It was worth it. I made some good friends and appreciate the time I spent there. My parents flew over from South Africa and were there at my graduation ceremony which made it incredibly special. I’m grateful to God for his good gifts to me.

Back to St. Athanasius, and we turn to the next few chapters from On the Incarnation. In chapter 11 St. Athanasius notes that God made humanity in the image of Jesus Christ and that they would be able to know God the Father through the divine image of the Word of God (Jesus). This results in humanity living a blessed and happy life. Unfortunately this is short lived and he points out that our ancestors despised God’s grace and turned away from him. They made false gods and fabricated idols and honored beings who do not exist, going to far to even sacrifice animals and other humans to these idols and false gods. He ends chapter 11 by saying that even though humanity no longer recognized God he still left methods by which they could know of him.

In chapter 12, St. Athanasius says that God was not surprised by what his creation had done and anticipated their carelessness. If they could not recognize God through themselves in the divine image they were created in they could still “see” God through the works of creation. Not only that but God also sends the law and the prophets so even if they did not see God in creation they still had instruction from other humans about the true God. Expanding on this he makes two points:

  1. The greatness of the heavens testifies not just to God’s existence but also to God’s providential goodness.
  2. God sends holy ones to testify of himself and that humanity needs to turn away from the false gods and idols they have made for themselves.

Sadly, even though God had anticipated the carelessness of humanity and had performed actions to show his goodness, humanity “beaten by the pleasures of the moment and the illusions and deceits of the demons were not able to raise their gaze to the truth but sated themselves with even more evils and sins, so that they no longer appeared rational…”

What I find interesting in chapter 12 and 13 is that St. Athanasius does not just tie in rationality with the general ability humans have to think and reason. For him the height of irrationality is not someone who cannot think, but someone, who because of sin, has not recognized God through his creation or through his messengers and has persisted in sating themselves with evil. This is a far cry from how rationality is commonly understood in our own context. For modern peoples, rationality is marked by the ability to think through ideas and to form arguments, hypotheses, and conclusions. But for St. Athanasius the height of irrationality is the one who has rejected the true God.

He goes on in chapter 13 to note that since humanity was made in the image of Jesus Christ it would not be right for humanity to be destroyed. God’s response to all of this is the enfleshment of the Word of God (Jesus). So God the Word takes on humanity so that the divine image present in humanity could be recreated.

This is heavy stuff but it is basic for how Christianity views the world and the Incarnation of God the Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. St. Athanasius provides, to this day, a better anthropology of humanity and the necessity of Christ’s Incarnation, and what the Incarnation means for the totality of our salvation, then anything thought up by modern theologians. The Incarnation matters more than just as a device by which God the Father sends Jesus into the world. It has a significant effect on the world and our relation to God.

(The icon used of the creation of Adam was found at http://wp.me/pYVj0-6H from a general image search)

The Faithful God of Careless People

 

If there is one theme that one can see highlighted in the Bible over and over again, it is the theme of God’s faithfulness to his people in spite of their faithlessness. In the Old Testament the language God uses to describe his relationship to his wayward people is that of a jilted lover. He gives them a vision of himself on the mountain, calls them into covenant and they break it. Often. However he does not abandon them and even in the midst of terrible judgment he still loves them and promises them he will redeem them. Those who complain about the God of the Old Testament being murderous and spiteful are only scratching the surface because his love and mercy is on display all throughout the old covenant. And this culminates with the coming of Christ.

In my last blog I spoke of how St. Athanasius explained how Christ condescended and became human, and why this matters in regards to our salvation. In chapter 9 of On the Incarnation he continues to expand on this idea. He notes that there was no way for the corruption of humanity to be undone except by the Word’s death. Herein lies the problem, the Word of God (Christ) is immortal and incapable of death because he is God. The Word then takes a human body capable of dying, dies for humanity, and through the grace of the resurrection abolishes all death from those who are like him (humanity). He notes that Christ’s death was a substitute in that his death “completes death” and the result of that is those who are in him are clothed with incorruptibility and the promise of the resurrection due to death being abolished. He writes, “Coming himself into our realm, and dwelling in a body like the others, every design of the enemy against human beings has ceased, and the corruption of death has perished.”

He notes in chapter 10 that this was appropriate due to God’s goodness. He draws a comparison to illustrate his point. He notes that a king after building a city will not remain on the sidelines after the city is attacked by bandits due to the carelessness of the citizens. The king will not abandon the city, he will do what he needs to do to save the city and the inhabitants. So too does God the Word not abandon his creation and creatures due their own carelessness, he enters into it and saves them. He cites 2 Corinthians 5:14-15, Hebrews 2:9-10, Hebrews 2:14-15, 1 Corinthians 15:21-22, 1 Timothy 6:15, and Titus 1:3 and draws the following conclusions:

  1. It was necessary for God to be incarnate to bring us out of corruption
  2. Christ’s sacrifice put an end to the law lying against us and renewed the source of life
  3. We no longer die like those still in corruption, instead we wait for the resurrection

The next few chapters address how God made himself known but we will deal with that in the next blog. In the meantime, think about God’s faithfulness to you despite all of your carelessness towards him and be grateful that in his mercy he did not leave you where you were, but took on flesh to make you like him.

 

Icon from: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/-fQePhgDFxlE/UT0pqU11FuI/AAAAAAAADVY/5RVFc897esU/s1600/nativity-icon.jpg

As Straw From the Fire (and a brief update)

 

It’s been far too long since my last update. I’ve been fairly busy since the holidays with work and school. I’m teaching twice a week now at my church, Tuesday morning and Thursday evenings, for our in house Bible school program. It functions as a sort of catechesis/discipleship group and I have a good group of students. The highlight of the past few months was my trip to Princeton to attend the Florovsky Symposium on the Patristic Doctrine of Scripture. There were some amazing lectures and I came away with much to think about in regards to how I read and interpret Scripture. I’ll be graduating from seminary in June with my M.Div and have begun to seriously contemplate my post graduate school plans. I’d appreciate any prayers you may feel inclined to offer. Ok! Back to St. Athanasius and On the Incarnation. (by way of reminder I’m reading and quoting from the V. Rev. Dr. John Behr’s translation published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press).

In chapter six, St. Athanasius concluded that it is right for God to not allow human beings to be carried away by corruption because this would not be worthy of his goodness if he did not do so. It is with this in mind that we move to chapter seven. He asks what was God to do in response to human sin? Should he demand repentance? St. Athanasius then notes that repentance can only halt sin, it does not recall human beings from the consequences of the fall. In order to answer this question he writes that since God the Word (Jesus) created the world, then the Word alone is able to recreate the universe, suffer, and intercede for humanity before the Father. He does this in order to make what has been corrupted into something incorruptible. This also saves the consistency of the goodness of God in relation to his creation.

In chapter eight St. Athanasius moves to The Word’s incarnation. Rather than try to summarize, I’ll post a piece of what he says because he says it beautifully, and more completely than, I can.

“For seeing the rational race perishing, and death reigning over them through corruption… and seeing the excessive wickedness of human beings… and seeing the liability of all human beings to death – having mercy upon our race… and condescending to our corruption, and not enduring the dominion of death… he takes for himself a body not foreign to our own.”

He comments on how the Word, though being the powerful creator of the universe, took on human flesh through the womb of Mary. He does this so that he can, in his love, offer himself in his incorruptible flesh on behalf of all humanity to the Father so that the law of corruption in all humanity can be undone. And the grace of the resurrection “banishes death from them (humanity) as straw from the fire.”

I like that last quote, namely that God the Word banishes death from us as “straw from the fire.” Fire burns through straw quite quickly and this makes a powerful image about how the work of Christ should burn through us removing all impurities as we turn our hearts towards God. We can only do this because God the Word condescended to humanity first out of his goodness and love for human beings. Because of this we can be healed and freed from our bondage to sin and death. Quite a profound thought and one worth meditating on this week.

(not sure if the fire picture is a stock photo. Found it at geringcitizen.com)

Paradigm Problems (aka Corruption vs Guilt)

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I remember back in my Bible College days we watched a training video on the power of paradigms. It was a Joel Barker training video and in it he tells stories of how shifts bring about change. I had a bit of a chuckle when, 13+ years later I would watch the exact same video in seminary during a leadership class. Paradigms shifts can be good and we need to embrace them once we recognize they are happening. Reading Saint Athanasius’ On the Incarnation has been shifting some of my major theological paradigms, to what end I’m not quite sure yet (I have some thoughts on that but I’m unwilling to share publicly at the moment).

In chapter four of On the Incarnation, Saint Athanasius remarks to his reader that at this point they may be wondering why he is discussing the origins of humanity. He says it is necessary because our transgression evoked the Word’s (Jesus’) love for us, and this love led him to take on human flesh. He writes, “When humans despised and overturned the comprehension of God, devising and contriving evil for themselves… then they received the previously threatened condemnation of death, and thereafter no longer remained as they had been created, but were corrupted… and seizing them, death reigned.”Just like in chapter 3 he restates the problem of the human condition as corruption and death, not inherited guilt. He then says that humans are mortal by nature but if humans had guarded themselves through their comprehension of God then they would not have sinned and humanity would have remained incorruptible. If humanity had remained incorruptible then we would have lived like God, being made in his image, reflecting Psalm 81:6-7 which states, “I said you are gods and all sons like the most high..”

Saint Athanasius’ explanation of the problem makes sense to me but it grates against my Protestant upbringing. We read sin nature in the Genesis story and don’t focus on corruption, but God said, “Don’t eat this or you will die.” Actually, literally die. Not an instant death, but the introduction of corruption which cause all things to break down and die. This corruption makes all humanity susceptible to sin, but I may be getting ahead of myself. I’ve been reading through this slowly and though the chapters are short, their ideas are dense and contra to much of what my tradition believes about the Fall. So far there is nothing here that would denote a belief in Adam’s sin setting in motion guilt being passed to every single person, there is only corruption and death. I’m not sure when he will get into sin, though he mentions it when he said that man didn’t comprehend God, but when he does I’ll make a note of it.

Update: A good friend of mine, who has much more experience than I with the church fathers, left me a comment on Facebook about this post and has agreed to let me post it here. He writes, ” It’s been a while since I read “On the Incarnation,” but I think it would be fair to say that Athanasius doesn’t really see a sharp distinction between sin and corruption, precisely because sin is “missing the mark” (the literal meaning of “hamartia”), not “committing a crime.” As such, all corruption is sin, whether it is a deliberate act of the will or not. I am a sinner whether I have deliberately sinned, because I am mortal, imperfect, corrupt. This is how David can say he was conceived “in sins” in Ps. 50/51 (though it’s in the singular in the MT) without any sense that sexual reproduction is inherently evil (as per the error of St. Augustine, who acknowledged the need for children but said married couples should “descend to it with regret”). If I am diseased, while the cause and exacerbations of the disease are important, the real key is the nature of the disease itself and the cure.”

“One of the keys to reading the Fathers is that they always have in mind what is called the “soteriological motive” — that is, everything they write about dogmatic questions is precisely with the salvation of mankind in mind, not so they can “get it right” about doctrine. Of course they want to get it right, but the reason it has to be right is because it’s about salvation. And that’s also why getting it wrong is dangerous in their eyes. For Athanasius, On the Incarnation is not merely a treatise on what happened when the Son of God became man, but precisely what that means for salvation.”

I found this to be very helpful and a useful “grid” as I interact with the rest of the book. The comment was left by Fr. Andrew Stephen Damick, Pastor of Saint Paul’s Antiochian Orthodox Church. He blogs at www.roadsfromemmaus.org and www.orthodoxyandheterodoxy.org and the content on both of those sites is worth a look.

What’s the Problem?

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G.K. Chesterton was once asked to contribute to a newspaper article entitled, “What is Wrong with the World?” He responded with, “Dear Sirs, I am.” Witty, but true. We all contribute to the state of the world, but how did it get to be such a mess in the first place? And what exactly is the problem? How did we get where we are and how do we fix it?

In Chapter two of Saint Athanasius’ On the Incarnation he delves into God and creation. He calls into question those who say that the world was created by spontaneous chance and notes that a cause preceded creation. Through this we can see that there is a God who created and ordered all things.

Athanasius then says that diversity proves creation and its providential care by God. This is interesting because, essentially, science’s proof for evolution is the same thing. Diversity, especially in the same type of animal, proves natural selection and mutation. He then deals with Plato’s idea that God made everything from pre-existent matter but then this begs the question how could Plato’s god be a creator? If God is using uncreated matter to create what underlies matter then he could only be a craftsman working with raw materials, thus making Plato’s god weak (and not God).

He concludes with a comment on the heretic’s notion of God. Some heretics say that the god that created all things is a different god then God the Father of Jesus. He quotes from the Gospel of Matthew in answering this and notes that there could not possibly be another creator. He then in chapter three immediately says that God brought everything into existence through the Word, the pre-incarnate Jesus.

He notes that God creates man in his own image, makes them to live in blessedness, and gives them free choice as well as “law and a set place.” In other words, God’s command to not eat of the tree and Eden. They then had a choice: to live in paradise without sorrow or pain or to break the law and be corrupted by death. He writes, “What else might it be except not merely to die, but to remain in the corruption of death?”

Two things interest me about the last part of chapter three. The first is that St. Athanasius does not say that man’s sin transmitted sin nature to us and that we are all guilty of the sin of Adam. The problem he lays out is that sin introduces corruption. The problem is not inherited sin nature, it is corruption and death. This is very different from a traditional Protestant reading of the Fall in Genesis. The second area of interest is his firm belief in the free choice of humanity. Later on Augustine will set the stage for the Reformers 1200 years later to deny the free will of humanity due to sinful nature, but we see belief in it here. Of course one could say, “Well St. Athanasius is wrong about that issue” but this book is the seminal work of Christian theology on Christ’s Incarnation so his view deserves serious consideration.

Religion, Relationship, and Incarnation

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Today while driving home from class I saw a bumper sticker that stated, “Christianity is not a religion, it is a relationship.” Later on in the evening I reflected on a chapter I had just read in St. Athanasius’ On the Incarnation.

He wrote, “Come now blessed one and true lover of Christ, let us with the faith of our religion relate also the things concerning the Incarnation of the Word.” I understand why people use the well worn relationship vs religion cliche but personally I do not use it. St. Athanasius doesn’t have a problem with not using it either. He links the true lover of Christ with one who will use the faith of their religion to learn more about the work of Christ. Quite a different point of view from the bumper sticker. I have seen many people online with “Christ follower” or “walking in the way of Jesus” as their religion status on Facebook because to them the idea of religion is equivalent to dead legalistic fundamentalism.

St. Athanasius though seems to link true love with religion, so maybe calling Christianity a religion isn’t such a terrible thing after all.

He then goes on to talk about how people mock and scorn Christ’s Incarnation. He says the more people mock and scorn, the more it witnesses to Christ’s divinity because humans cannot understand how the things we think are impossible, God sees as possible. He gets into some very important territory towards the end of the chapter when he states that Christ does not have a body by nature, because by nature he is bodiless.

Christ out of his love for humankind and the goodness of the Father takes on an a human body to save humanity. He concludes the chapter by noting that God through Christ made the universe and that God re-creates the universe through the same person who created it. My friend Father Andrew Stephen Damick said about this, “This is a pretty critical point Athanasius is making here, because it sets the stage for what salvation actually is – the “re-creation” of all things to return them back to the path of deepening communion, and in the case of man, deification/divinization/theosis.” We’ll get more into what that means as we continue to work our way through On the Incarnation.

Advent, Incarnation and Saint Athanasius

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The season of Advent is nearly here (it already is if you’re Orthodox). I want this Advent season to be a bit different so I have several things lined up. I will be leading my church through an online reading and discussion of the Gospel of St. Luke through December. I’m really looking forward to it and I pray it will be a blessing to everyone involved. The other task I wish to complete this Advent season is to finally read On the Incarnation by Saint Athanasius.

Saint Athanasius wrote On the Incarnation sometime between 335-337, and noted patristic scholar Rev. Dr. John Behr notes that it is the “defining exposition of Nicene theology.” Its importance cannot be overemphasized and it is one of the seminal works of Christian theology. C.S. Lewis wrote a preface to an older edition of the book and in it he wrote, “It has always therefore been one of my main endeavors as a teacher to persuade the young that firsthand knowledge is not only worth more acquiring than secondhand knowledge, but is usually much easier and more delightful to acquire.” As Lewis is a personal hero of mine, whose writings opened my eyes to a wider world of Christian theology beyond charismatic evangelicalism, I will take his words to heart and read it for myself. 

As I read it I will post here some of my thoughts and questions as I interact with the content of this book. It is not long, only 60 pages or so, but it is remarkably deep and I would like to finally jump in the water. Getting ones feet wet may be fun for about five minutes but if one wants to enjoy the sea one must dive in.

(A free online copy can be accessed at the following URL: http://www.ccel.org/ccel/athanasius/incarnation.pdf) 

 

Of Evangelicals and Icons (redux)

This past weekend was the commemoration of the Seventh Ecumenical Council. In the late 700’s AD there was a controversy in the Church about the use of icons. For those who don’t know, icons are images (usually two dimensional) of Christ, the saints, angels, important biblical events, parables, or events in the history of the Church. These images were, and are, part of Christian worship stretching back into antiquity. There was a group of people called the iconoclasts who said that icons were idolatrous and should be destroyed, so they went around from church to church destroying icons and persecuting those who affirmed the use of icons. Ultimately this came to a head and a council was called. At the council it was decided that the use of icons in worship was tied into Christ’s Incarnation so an attack on icons is an attack the Incarnation. After this council in 787 AD icons were restored for use in worship though there were still some flare-ups against them.

This issue arose again during the Protestant Reformation. The Reformers forbade the use of icons and art in worship because they believed that using them in worship would lead to idolatry and unfortunately this is a misunderstanding that exists to this day. I self identify as a quasi-evangelical and as evangelicals we are children of the Reformation even if we do not believe the doctrinal distinctives of the reformers. Many evangelical or fundamentalist churches would agree with forbidding the use of icons, preferring to decorate their walls with nothing but a cross, although in some cases churches have been experimenting with integrating art, including icons, in their services. I believe though that we as evangelicals have our own icons even while we deny them or see them as idolatrous (I don’t by the way).

Let me explain. How many of you have gone to a seeker friendly church service? What did you see? You will probably feel as if you’ve been plunged into an immersive atmosphere complete with rock concert like music, fancy Pro Presenter slideshows, pictures of the pastor, and logos and branding of the church. For churches that don’t do this sort of service there are still images. In the church I spent my teenage years the ministerial staff would take turns sitting in groups of three or four on the stage directly behind the pulpit. During the service the pastor would occasionally turn to them to emphasize a point or to engage them in the service. All of the staff ministers dressed in exactly the same style suit, had the same type of haircut, tried to drive the same fancy cars, and tried to display a level of material prosperity their theology demanded. In the seeker service the lights, music, slides, and media function as icons because they are meant to lead people into a worship experience with God. In the church I attended as a teenager the staff sitting on the stage facing the congregation function as icons. As the pastoral staff they functioned as pictures of people who will help the congregation in their walk with God. The way they dress, the way they sit, the way they speak, the way they carry themselves all relate something about what they, and that church, believed about God.

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If my assertion is true, and it may not be as this entry is sort of off the cuff and very unfocused, the image a church presents to its community is directly tied into the images included in their worship. It is my contention that many times the image a church presents is vacuous because the images in worship can be driven by cultural trends and market strategies rather then by the images inspired by Scripture. Like the icons we have rejected, what we replace them with tell us something about what we think about God and the church. Scripture says Jesus is the icon of God, and it also says we are created in the image of God. This means then that human beings themselves are also icons of God. Oftentimes the image that we reflect is composed more of things that don’t transform rather than the beauty of Christ and the reality of what it means to be saved, to be part of those whom God has called out of this world into his kingdom of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. The images of this world and the trappings of the free market are poor images indeed that may look and seem amazing for a time, but ultimately will fall short of displaying the fullness of the life Christ has offered to us and has asked us to reflect.

Elections, Myths, and True Hope

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I really dislike election years. It seems like once every few years all of my social media and email become clogged with chain letters, memes, and observations about various political parties. People who are normally reasonable can turn into robots spouting out what ever political jargon their candidate or party tells them to say or believe. Sides are taken, opponents are vilified, and civility gets thrown away. The sad thing is there is very little difference between the choices offered, and those candidates with actual substantive differences get shut out of the process.

The other thing I dislike about election years is how Christians in America react to the candidates. I am sick of hearing about how we need to “elect Christians to office” or “take back America for Jesus” or pray that God’s candidate will win. Usually one candidate gets vilified as a heathen and one gets presented as pious. This year is different though. Obama claims to be a Christian and Romney is a Mormon. Mormons claim to be a completed revelation of Jesus and Obama’s pastor was shaped by liberation theology. Obama went faithfully to his church for many years, so did Romney. Who then gets vilified? The one who went to a Christian church or the one who went to a Mormon church? Who gets elected as God’s choice when both candidates claim to be godly people?

We also need to divorce the Christian story from the American story. Just because the Puritans who founded the colonies in Massachusetts made a “covenant” with God does not mean that God approved or honored that “covenant.” According to Scripture, God’s ultimate revelation to us was in Jesus Christ, nowhere does it say that God would make a covenantal relationships with any other nation. God’s choice of Israel as his people in the Old Testament was due to his own choice and the obedience of Abraham, not because a group of people got together and decided to make an agreement with him. The city on the hill Jesus referred to in Matthew 5:14 is not America, the city on the hill is the followers of Jesus Christ as they proclaim his Gospel.

This political season let us remember to treat each other respectfully and with genuine Christian love. Do not vilify your neighbor, love your neighbor. Remember that God’s story and America’s story is not synonymous. If Romney wins, a flood of goodness and real change will not come and if Obama wins then a flood of goodness and real change will not come. Things will probably stay the same and we will still be stuck in the position we currently live in as Christians: navigating the kingdoms of this world as we live in the kingdom of our God and his Christ until his kingdom comes in its fullness. Our hope is not in a political movement that will transform America and restore a false pristine way of life we never had, our hope is in the Parousia.

A Move, Busyness, and God’s Majesty

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It has been a busy few weeks.

I recently moved from the house I was living at to a new place in Bethlehem. It is amazing how busy moving can be. Heck, the entire process of finding a new place to live occupied a lot of my free time and stressed me out a little bit. I’ve moved many times though so I have learned to live lean, and the less I have the easier it is to move. Its crazy though how all this busyness creeps in and stifles other things that need attention. Sometimes this can stifle times of prayer and personal devotion, and to a small degree it did for me.

On Saturday evening, as is my custom, I went to Vespers. I was about 5 minutes late so when I arrived the service was already in progress. As soon as I walked in the door I was greeted with the smell of incense, which has come to be remarkably comforting. I made my way to what a friend and I have dubbed “Protestant Row” (due to the fact that we’re Protestant and we sit/stand in the same row whenever we show up) and tried to focus on what was happening. There is a line that is sung during the Prokeimenon and it says, “The Lord is King and has clothed Himself in majesty.” For some reason this part of the service stood out to me. As I stood there trying to follow along, smelling the incense, and looking at the icons, hearing the words being chanted and sung I was struck with a sense of God’s majesty. I have sung many times about how glorious God is, how majestic God is, and how sovereign and good God is, but it is not often that I have a sense of it or an experience of it. Blinking away the tears I just stood there for a few minutes and after some time silently thanked God for his goodness towards me.

On Sunday I went to my home church and a similar thing happened during the singing. I was struck with God’s majesty and goodness and it stayed with me the whole service. After the service was over Pastor asked us staff ministers to pray for people and as they came up for prayer my silent prayer for them was that whatever God graced me with, that sense of his majesty and love, would come over them and bring them comfort and peace. There are a lot of hurting people in our churches and I pray that as we provide materially for their needs, God would give them a glimpse of his majesty and love. I was reminded that what I do at church or my service to God does not take the place of my everyday devotional time with God. It may sound like a given, but it is amazing how quickly it can get overlooked.

“The Lord is King, and has clothed Himself in majesty.”

(Attached is a clip of the Prokeimenon being sung at a different church)