Discipl(in)e

I think the trouble with our common perception of spiritual discipline is that we see it more as Law than growth, our engagement in them more as a point of pride than humility.

C.S. Lewis wrote, “one mustn’t make the Christian life into a punctilious system of law, like the Jewish for two reasons, (1) it raises scruples when we don’t keep the routine (2) it raises presumption when we do. “ Precisely the point,  so often we rate our spirituality by our discipline frequency rather than our discipleship fervency.

I am currently training for both a half Iron Man and a Marathon. What is true in running transfers over as a principle in spiritual discipline: it is not necessarily how much one runs that makes them a better runner nor the speed at which they can run one mile, it is the quality of the training and the consistency over distance. I could brag about how I run ten times a week or a 5:30 mile however if I am training for a long distance race, the previous claims mean nothing in regards to my growth. I will show up on race day disappointed and tired. Likewise, routinely, mundanely engaging in scripture, prayer, worship, fasting, etc… will do little more than more mark off a box on your daily to do list. Challenging yourself to engage in scripture in new ways, committing to pray in different postures or recitation ancient prayer, etc push you from your comfort zone, and also push you out of monotony.

Notice the semantic relationship between discipline and discipleship or disciple. Disciple is the instruction and action of one who is a disciple, therefore, it is not a practice we incorporate in our lives but rather the practices we live our lives by.

The way I keep my calendar is by scheduling the most important things with the highest priority. If I have a previous engagement, I am willing to move it for a more important one. What is the priority you place on your spiritual life? I think the importance we place on our devotional discipline time does not nearly equal the result we seek and expect from it.

We forget the purpose of spiritual discipline, not to practice but to remember. We are worshiping beings. By our very nature we seek to offer worship. The problem is that we often offer that worship to other tasks, other things, money, performance, sex, leisure, laziness, even things like family, over offering it to God. Our calendar is so filled with tasks that call us to remember other things and yet it is sparse with times set aside to remember God. How are we to worship our creator when we don’t remember to.

Deuteronomy 6:4-9 says,

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength. These commandments that I give you today are to be on your hearts. Impress them on your children. Talk about them when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.  Tie them as symbols on your hands and bind them on your foreheads.  Write them on the doorframes of your houses and on your gates.

When I used to read this I read, legalism, ritualistic etc.  God is egocentric. However what If God is calling us to always remember who he is not to stifle us with religious routine, but to free us to remember him in all things we do. God is saying, “but me first, and last, and in the middle.” “Make me a priority.”

We can’t ever expect to continue to grow in spiritual fervency, to grow in our devotional life, if put in small effort wherever we can find time, we will get small returns whenever God has time. If we seek to be disciples we should act and live defined by our discipl(in)e

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Searching for Deeper Waters

Recently re-reading the book God is Not Great by and atheist, Christopher Hitchens, I encountered a quote that struck me stating that we will gratefully never again have to encounter such a great faith as an Aquinas or a Maimonides. Sadly, I wonder if he is right.

I understand that I am not to a good start with my first post that not only have I admitted to reading and re-reading an Atheistic proclamation against all religion but also that I agree with the point Hitchens makes here. Have we found ourselves lost in a generation that shuns reason and conversation, who proclaims deep faith yet remain in the shallow end of the pool? Depth is really only judged by perspective. If we are all in a children’s pool, then regardless of our depth compared to the one next to us, in the grander picture, we are all quite shallow.

I think of Rob Bell’s recent book Love Wins; not how Bell expounded upon a unique perspective of Hell and the afterlife, nor weather I agree or disagree with him, but how most Christians refused to engage it in discussion, without even reading it no less. Most failed to see that it wasn’t all that unique of a perspective but it was a view that resonated greatly with many in a younger generation. We were so worried that an engagement would lead to the deconstruction of our current Christian view of salvation and the afterlife that we decided there was no room for it in our discussion, in our pool. We made it the butt of clever jokes and twitter posts. We denied it had any historical value. We disregarded it all together all the while never acknowledging that, to have a discussion, we cannot talk at one another, we must talk to one another. More importantly still, if we claim such great faith, why do we cower at the instant an opposing or unique view is surfaced? Is it possible that the depth of our faith is not nearly as great as we perceive it to be? As I said, I am not siding with Bell or his opposition, just pointing out that I seldom encountered an engaging critique or discussion.

I suppose what I want to say is that I believe it is fundamental to our faith that we seek discussion. We need to strive to find our way to deeper waters. If we cannot shed the extreme individualism of our Twentieth (and Twenty-first) Century American Christian (and secular) upbringing, I fear that Hitchens will remain correct. Beginning this blog, this discussion, for me, is one of the only ways I know to seek to propel myself into deeper waters.

I don’t know that I have anything all that profound to say. Let me rephrase that, I am nearly certain I don’t have anything profound to say. I see that as a good thing though. My hope is that profundity can emerge from discussion, from the voice of the masses and not of solely myself.

One night after having just finished work at the high school ministry I am privileged to still serve, I had a conversation with my boss. He said, “I feel like I am always teaching the same thing over and over again.” I responded, “I think your right, and that is a good thing.” If after a Christian faith with a history of 2000 years and a heritage in Judaism that goes back much further still, if we find ourselves teaching new things there is certainly a problem. And yet I think we are more and more pressured to teach new things, to compel new audiences. What happened to the old thing? Since when is the truth of the Bible not compelling enough?

This conversation will not be new. What is will be however, hopefully, is a continuation of a conversation that began far before any of us sat in front of a laptop. Back through time, before Bell and Piper, before Bonheoffer, Barth, and any other German theologian whose name begins with the letter “B”, a conversation before The Enlightenment thinkers and the Reformers, before the Medieval and Patristic, before the Fathers and the Apostles. Back still before the prophets and Kings of Ancient Israel, before Joseph, Jacob, Isaac and Abraham, back to the very first word in our conversation, our story… “Let there be…” (Gen 1:3). It was He who started it and it is that continued conversation, that continued narrative, which we pursue here. We talk with all of those aforementioned groups, and more, we engage them all, but we also look back to the originator, to the one who started the conversation and who invited us into it, we look to God.

I think one of the greatest hindrances to our faith is we forget that we are living a story in which we are not the main character. We think the story began with our birth and will die with us, however it is far longer, far greater, and far bigger than just us. Although we have a great, unique, important role to play, the storyline is His. He drives the plot. I think perhaps one of the reasons we look at one Like Thomas Aquinas and commend his faith is that he understood his role in the story. True, he was a brilliant thinker, but more than that, he was deeply devoted to the story in which he was invited to live, one in which he was not the main character.

I can’t count how many times I have heard the phrase, “God just doesn’t work like that anymore!” I can’t count how many times I myself have finished reading Scripture and resonated that sentiment myself. However, I question, instead of declaring how God’s big works have long since passed, maybe we have the wrong question. Maybe we over estimate ourselves. Maybe we are quick to assume that ours is just as great a faith as those who have come before. Often we wish to reap the accolades yet seldom make the sacrifices such a great faith requires. Maybe it’s not the question of God’s work or willingness to work, but our willingness. Maybe the question should actually be, “Why don’t we let God work in us like that any more?”

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Polarized Church

Have you ever heard someone say, “God told me to…” or, “God lead me here…”? I feel like I so often hear that when it comes to some new idea, new movement, maybe someone is leaving their current place of work to pursue something else, maybe someone is staying in their current place of work when they should be leaving, all because, God said. Likewise, if you are like me you hear that phrase thrown into these sort of statement, “God is leading me to tell you to…” It becomes all the more fun when God starts telling other people what you should do and asks them to over see it for him.I think that is a small example of how as a Church (global) we have allowed our preference of individualism to recast our spiritual practice in an often misleading way. 

Don’t get me wrong, I truly believe God still speaks, I just don’t know that we actually listen. it seems that in scripture, even when God speaks to an individual, the message is meant for a broader audience (most yet not all the time). Likewise in the New Testament, the writings are written to a corporate audience, to be read aloud, interpreted openly, and pursued collectively. Now we set aside time for quiet solitary devotions, independent interpretation, and collective argumentation over who heard from God more in their private moment. I think individual spiritual practices are good, and necessary but only when they are equally balanced and critiqued by corporate ones. I think we have so privatized our faith that we choose self affirmation over self critique, throw a “God said” label on it, and call it a day. We often site passages like Matt 14, where scripture discusses Jesus withdrawing to a quite place. However, what of the Acts 2 where the disciples were daily together, praying, devoting themselves to the word, sharing fellowship, and breaking bread… not to mention sharing all they had. How come we are ok with only taking one of these options?

Before I go further, I am not saying God cannot and does not speak to the individual, but I think he is more concerned with the collective that we choose to see. It is interesting how often God speaks to communities as opposed to individuals in Scripture. It is also interesting how he calls us to speak back. In Matt 6, Jesus calls his followers to pray using community language, “our Father,” “Give us,” “Forgive us,” “Leadus,” “deliver us.” 

Doesn’t the church exist to invite us out of our private worship into collective worship? The beauty of liturgy and tradition is that it was set in place to invite the community of worshipers into a movement when they often could not understand the language and could not read the biblical texts as well. I come from a non litugical background which certainly has its benefits in some respects however I think too often we miss the beauty of liturgy. When liturgical churches stand and recite the Creed, pray the Lord’s prayer out loud, even pass the peace or partake in call and response, we do so affirming that we are part of something bigger and something greater than ourselves. We are not allowed to be privatized, God calls us to be collective. it is the Church, not the “I” that is the Bride. We have used our comfort in individualization to have, “every eye closed and every head bowed.” We sit in auditoriums where we don’t really have to make human contact if we do not want to. We can now just watch church from our computer or TV without ever leaving the comfort of our home.

I don’t mean to overly criticize because I 100% affirm that that these advances in some church practice have revolutionized the demographics that we can reach and have aided bringing more people into the community of God. They have been great tools! The Church I am privileged enough to work at, Willow Creek Community Church, has done unbelievable things in terms of contemporary service offerings to reach the unchurched and those uncomfortable with “old” religion. The downside is however, we (American Church) still rest in a position of individualization as opposed to incorporation. And what is interesting is this is predominantly an American and Western culture issue. I sat through a multi-hour service in Costa Rica when the power and lights had gone out and I didn’t hear anyone complain that the pastor had gone over time. Those people lived their liturgy and the time at church was when they got to express it corporately.

I had a conversation with a high school student this last week who said he grew up Catholic and although he appreciated his heritage, it was really a boring service. I said that we often find boring what we don’t understand. We find it archaic and having little place in our 21st century worshiping culture. Where the contemporary church can do more to lead congregants to the necessitation of corporate worship and practice, the liturgical Church must to more to not simply practice but inform and teach of the beauty that is in the actions and life of worship. When we recite prayers we offer common belief, when we pass the peace we reconcile and commit to peace not only with our neighbor next door, but our neighbor in the Middle East, or in Asia, or Latin America. When we reconcile with our brother before communion, we offer reconciliation to more than just our small church but to the whole Church.

I will admit, I watched the Royal wedding, but while my wife wanted to see Kate’s dress, I kept searching for the liturgical practice, the ancient cathedral, the recitation, the prayer. I think when you start to see the beauty in the corporate worship, it is hard to settle for only individualization. However when you only rely on ritual it seems like we are just doing ritual for ritual’s sake… and in that context it is boring. There must be a balance. I think we as a Church are effectively practicing on both extremes. How do we begin to meet in the middle?

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