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The Life We Claim: The Apostles’ Creed for Preaching, Teaching and Worship by James C. Howell, Abingdon Press, 2005, 173 pp.

This is the fourth of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

The Life We ClaimJames C. Howell wrote the excellent commentary about the creeds for the Narrative Lectionary series that inspired me to preach my sermon series on the topic, so his book was among the first I sought.

The Life We Claim lives up to its subtitle as a resource for preaching, teaching and worship. The book is structured in 35 short “lessons,” which includes both a line-by-line breakdown of the Creed and introductory materials. Each small group of lessons is followed by a sample sermon on that section, 14 total. The appendix even includes suggested hymns, songs and anthems to accompany a related sermon series.

The most helpful part of Howell’s book, for me, were the sample sermons. I struggled to find ways to preach on the components of the Apostles’ Creed that was more than theological instruction. Howell’s contribution was to move beyond teaching into preaching, a way of telling the good news and challenge in each section of the creed. He offered ways to see the lines of the creed as an invitation to spiritual connection in daily life, including many helpful illustrations and metaphors.

For example, his sermon on God as Father imagined God’s experience of fatherhood based on his own. He describes his experience of fatherhood, then imagines God’s.

I have been dizzied by unanticipated delights, and my heart has been broken in places I didn’t know were there. Question: is it like that for God? If God is our Father, our “Abba,” does God look down at us and at one moment it’s an unexpected delight, and then the next moment God’s heart is broken? (20-21)

Later, his discussion of Jesus’ suffering on the cross urges us into places of suffering in God’s name.

The Creed mercifully reminds us that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate. It’s not that suffering is over there and God is over here, and we must rush away from suffering to get back to where God is, because where God is there can be no suffering. If you want to find God, look into the face of suffering; visit the place of suffering. Wherever there is human anguish, loss and pain, God is there. (67)

One of the most controversial lines in the Apostles’ Creed is about Jesus’ “descent into hell.” Howell’s succinct argument was the most persuasive and accessible of any of the authors I read.

Because Jesus descended into hell, we know there is no such thing as a godless place. Whenever we as the Church go to hell, we find that Jesus is there ahead of us, and we discover that we at long last are actually close to the Jesus for whom we long. (78)

Howell writes with a pastoral heart. This book offers just what it promises–tools for teaching, preaching and worship focused on the Apostles’ Creed. I recommend it highly for that purpose.

In Search of Belief by Joan Chittister, Liguori/Triumph, 1999, 217 pp.

This is the third of five book reviews on the Christian creeds (and a book in heresy), which I read in preparation for a sermon series entitled, “I Believe: Christian Creeds in Context.” Those sermons can be found here.

In Search of BeliefJoan Chittister is in a category all her own. While everyone else approaches the creeds with an attempt to explain or expound, to offer background or argument or enhancement, Chittister approaches the creeds with her self, her questions, her wonderings, and her mysticism. What emerges is a spiritual conversation–sometimes argumentative, sometimes comfortable–musing on the Apostles’ Creed.

Chittister breaks the creed into more pieces than any other author, with 27 separate chapters, each one devoted to just a word or short phrase from the creed. This approach leads to more of a devotional resource than a reference book. Chittister’s meditations range far and wide from the creed itself, and she wanders about to expand the basic ideas more than clarifying them. In that expansive wandering, the reader stumbles into moments of beauty and insight that are beyond the words of the creeds, but true to its mysteries. For example, her short second chapter on “In God” contains these reflections:

God is the mystery nobody wants. What people covet in God is not mystery but certainty. (18)

In the long light of human history, then, it is not belief in God that sets us apart. It is the kind of God in which we choose to believe that in the end makes all the difference. (20)

God is both what we cannot think and what we cannot not think at the same time. (21)

Her fourth chapter, “Almighty,” follows this path:

We want interventions from God, in other words, to make the world what we want the world to be rather than to change ourselves so the world can become what it ought to be. We want someone else to do something, rather than face the need to become something other ourselves. We want a God who does physical miracles rather than spiritual ones. (35)

To see the Almighty God we must wrest ourselves open to the almightiness of God in us, around us, beneath us, before us, in every possibility that impels us to be more than we are. (37)

God is being as almighty in me as I have finally mustered the courage to allow and been given the opportunity to attempt. (38)

Her spiritual paths invite a depth and richness in our contemplation of the creed, word by word, that cannot be hurried but must be pondered. As the creed unfolds, Chittister’s Roman Catholicism and feminism show through boldly in the chapters on Mary and the church, which offer searing critiques of the Roman church’s refusal to ordain women, denial of feminine language of God and closed-minded teaches on sexuality. I also found her Catholicism evident in the chapter on judgment, which included a wonderful insight into “healthy guilt,” which she identifies as a guilt that is felt for the right things (like ways we harm others), is not exaggerated, and can be acted upon to change our behavior and situation. There are lots of jokes about Catholic guilt, but this is an insightful understanding of the purpose of this emotion.

One of my favorite chapters was her reflection on the communion of the saints. She writes,

Belief in the communion of saints is a call to immersion in the holy-making project of living out the life of Christ ourselves as so many have done before us. … We are bound to the unfinished work of bringing the world to the beatitudes. (178)

The Creed is not a call to believe in the Church. The Creed is a call to follow the Christ. Believing in a church that makes us feel holy ourselves by keeping in good repair a checklist of private devotions is easy. Believing in the Christ who demands our sanctity be measured by our relationships to the rest of the human race is the real measure of the holy life. (179)

As always, Joan Chittister goes deep and invites us to engage not just in the work of thinking, but of connecting and living in a relationship with Christ, in this embodied world and in the realm of the heart. This book was well worth a slower, more dedicated read than I gave it. There is much beauty and wisdom contained in it.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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