The day I fell out of love with contemporary praise music (again)

I remember distinctly the day I fell out of love with contemporary worship music.  It was during my first year of university.  While always a Christian, my faith grew in passion and energy through the Vineyard explosion of the 90’s. This deepening of my faith coupled with my learning to play the guitar.  Almost instantaneously I found myself playing in worship bands and youth retreats.  I eagerly sought the newest recordings from Vineyard and Hillsong; Brian Doerksen and Darlene Zschech were my companions in faith and worship. During this time, contemporary worship was very much the background music of my life.

Then it happened.  I had purchased the latest worship offering from Vineyard, Langley, titled “Winds of Worship Volume 8.” The album contained some worship songs I already knew and loved, songs like “Not Be Shaken” and “I Lift My Eyes Up (Psalm 121). Along with the album, I purchased the accompanying music book and was excited to learn the newest offerings in contemporary worship. Words can never really express how my heart sank as I listened to the first song on the album.  The song was called “Hop on the Bus”, and began like this:

Hop on the Bus
God’s on the move
There’s a seat for me
There’s a seat for you.


I have nothing against singer/songwriter Scott Underwood, but I had to question the theological depth of these lyrics.  I remember sitting in my room thinking “Is this what contemporary praise music has come to – a vain appeal to hype and emotionalism?” I classified the song as corny, not fun, and annoying, not memorable.  More importantly, however, I found that the song offered nothing in the way of an intelligent articulation of faith. I guess no one really cares about theological truth when you can get people to jump around during a worship set. That was the day I fell out of love with contemporary worship.

I had hoped that things had gotten better in the years between then and now.  Yet this same sense of spiritual heartbreak occurred just the other day as I drove my 14-year-old son to school.  My son exclusively listens to Toby Mac and loves to listen to Shine FM when in the car. While my worship-sensibilities rest more with hymnody and Taizé, I rejoice in my son’s enjoyment of worship music.  

As we drove, Chris Tomlin’s newest hit “God’s Great Dance Floor” came up in the rotation. My son listened as the song began, then looked at me quizzically.  “Where is God’s dance floor?” he asked.  As we listened to the song together, my son interjected with appropriate questions, questions pertaining to the song’s lack of theology.  “Is God’s great dance-floor earth, or heaven? If it is on earth, where is it?  If it is in heaven, is this song about death?”  Then there was the doozy of the question, the one that (I think) goes to the central problem with Tomlin’s hit “What if I don’t feel like dancing?” 

Rising within me were the same concern as those from the tail end of my Vineyard days.  Is this where contemporary worship has led us?  Ultimately, praise songs like “Hop on the Bus”, and “God’s Great Dance Floor” are not written to edify people or educate them in the faith.  They exist only to entertain.  What is sought is emotionalism and hype. Consider some of the lyrics of Tomlin’s song.

I’m coming back to the start
Where you found me
I’m coming back to your heart
Now I surrender
Take me
This is all I can bring

These lyrics sound nice, but ultimately have no meaning. What does it mean to “come back to the start” anyway?  The song itself never discloses this, and so the worshiper is left abandoned.  If we find the answer from the song itself, then “coming back to the heart of God” is seen only in the context of our surrender to upbeat music and call-and-response type lyrics.  Theologically, however, this makes absolutely no sense.  The place where God “found us” is in our own creation.  We are created in the image of God.  God is the first mover in this relationship of ours; we love because he first loved us. 

The miss-guided theological point of this song is clear: being in God’s heart will move us to dancing.  To come to God in faithful surrender is to be blessed forever by an upbeat and happy life.  Life with God is one big party.  As Tomlin proclaims (over and over and over) we feel alive, and come alive, on God’s dance floor.

All of this is a lie.  The song presents a false understanding of Christian faith.  While it may play well on the stage it is devastating to our Christian lives.  What happens when we find out that life is not a constant party?  What do we do when all the dancing stops and the upbeat tempo of life is met with tragedy, hardship, or struggle?  As to my son’s question, what happens when we do not feel like dancing, or cannot dance, because of the weight of all we carry?  Tomlin is not worried about this.

Back in the day, hymn writers sought to describe the finer points of theological truth with their hymns. Sure, the tunes may have been ripped from the contemporary music of the day, but the content of their lyrics were saturated with theology.  This is not to say that they always got it right.  Personally, speaking I cringe whenever we describe the newly born Christ-child through the phrase “no crying he makes.”  This makes no sense theologically and undercuts the very incarnation the hymn is trying to disclose.  But they hymn is trying to disclose a nuanced theology of the incarnation. Hymns of the past attempted to educate the church with the truth of the Gospel. They made people think and reflect on their faith. You may not like all the hymns the Wesley’s wrote, but you cannot deny the theological density infused in each one of them. 

This theological richness has meant that these hymns have borne the test of time, evidenced by the fact that Tomlin, and others, often repackage these hymns as praise songs.  The church today still sings out Amazing Grace, Be Thou My Vision, and How Great Thou Art.  Even the more pastoral or sentimental classics like “What A Friend We Have in Jesus” continue to find a place in many churches of varying denominations.

I doubt if anyone today is still singing Hop on the Bus.  And, for all its flash, I am willing to bet that next year no one will be signing about God’s great dance floor.  Tomlin’s hit will be replaced by what ever high-emotional, catchy tune is the “it song” for the moment.  Therein lies the inherent problem with so much of contemporary worship.  We have created a praise-culture that simply moves from emotionalism to emotionalism, from frenzied experience to frenzied experience.  For Tomlin, the dancefloor is the concert stage.  The point of the song is to have concert goers sing along to the chorus as they jump around in a state of frenzy. When that no longer occurs through these lyrics, they will be replaced by others.

This is not written to shame Tomlin.  I, actually, like a lot of the songs he pens. I think he is a good and faithful artist.  But I think, with this song, he succumbed to the temptation that plagues so many – the temptation to be liked.  I feel that with this song, he drifted away from the call of worship in favour of the desire to be marketable.   This is a temptation that we all feel at times, me include.

So, all of this is to say, to myself, but also to my fellow worship leaders, organ directors, pastors, and priests – let us do better.  Let us return to an understanding of worship as a point of education. Let us not treat our congregations as theological simpletons, feeding them with sound-bytes that offer little to no nourishment. Let us empower our congregation to grow spiritually and theologically.  Perhaps what the church needs today is less catchy tunes and more theological depth to what we sing.  So, whether we use organs or guitars, let us sing faithfully, passionately, and deeply.

True Liberation – A reading of the Parable of the talents

(This post be long!)

This post arises out of question, posed on social media, about how we might mistakenly interpret this parable based on the privilege and capitalism of our North American context.  I took that to heart and looked for alternative interpretations, based largely in liberation theology.  I started writing out some of my thoughts on this and kept writing… and writing…. and writing.  I have included subheadings so that you can take this post in chunks if you so desire.  Peace!

Two ways not to read the parable

I have recently been sitting with the Parable of the Talents.  This is a well-known passage, albeit a difficult text to navigate homiletically. Is the master a good person or a bad person?  Did the third servant act in honour or in shame?  What exactly is going on?  The normative reading of this text lends itself to an interpretation where the first two servants are hailed due to their resourceful reproduction of talents. Each receive a double-return on their investments.  They earn money for the master and are duly praised for it.  The third servant does otherwise.  His failure to produce talents leads him to condemnation.  Not only is he verbally rebuked, but he is stripped of his resources and cast outside “where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  It seems cut and dry.

But does this reading make sense? I don’t think it does.

Liberation theology lends itself to a different reading.  Liberations theology demands that we step away from the power-dynamics of a capitalist system to recover how the Gospel would have been received in the original context.  This is a good and needed challenge, and one I support.  We ought always to seek out how the gospel was, and is, received by those outside the dominant class of power and privilege.  After all, until the time of Constantine, this would have defined the Christian community.  Jesus spoke truth to power and combated, in word and deed, the exploitive practices of the empire.  Furthermore, the radicalness of Christ’s message was spoken to the those who were on the bottom of society, as opposed to those gilded in the golden halls of power.  The challenge must be heard.  The parable cannot be about increasing our power at the expense of others.

Interpretations rooted in liberation theology turn this parable on its head.  The third servant is not the bad guy, but the hero.  In burying the talent, the third servant refuses to be complicit in the master’s quest for economic rule by exploitive means.  The master, here, is rendered the evil capitalist. The third servant, therefore, acts as the prophetic witness against the exploitation of the poor.  The servant’s suffering at the end of the parable is a call for the Christian community to bear with the suffering of the weak and powerless.  Various interpreters will offer subtle nuances, but by-and-large, this is the interpretation.

But does this reading make sense? I don’t think it does either.

Looking at the context

We can never uproot a passage from its context.  Sure, scholars may propose that Matthew inserts this parable into the narrative at this point for a certain literary purpose, yet this is always merely conjecture.  In the end, we have to deal with the Gospel record as we have it. It is always a danger to excise a passage of scripture from what comes before and after it. 

When we take the context into consideration, what we see is that this parable is about the kingdom of God. Jesus is teaching about what it means to live within the dynamic rule of the messiah, as they wait for his return.  This becomes clear when we see how the parables of Matthew 25 are put together. Jesus begins the parable of the 10 Bridesmaids with the words “The Kingdom of Heaven is like…” While this phrase does not begin the parable of the talents, it is clearly continuation of the theme.  Consider verses 13 and 14, when read together; they read: “So, watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.  For it will be like a man going on journey who called his servants and entrusted his property to them.”  Jesus is clear that the parable of the bridesmaids is about preparation for, and reception, of the kingdom of heaven. This kingdom is inaugurated by the Bridegroom himself. The parable of the Bridesmaids makes the clear point that those who are inadequately prepared for the coming of the Bridegroom are clearly in the wrong.  The following parable, flowing seamlessly from verse 13, continues with this theme. 

Evidence for the kingdom focus of the parable is also seen at the end of the parable.  The master does not imprison the third servant.  This occurs in other parables and would have been the recourse of any earthly businessman (see the Parable of the Unforgiving Servant in Matthew 18).  Rather, the master casts the wicked servant “outside, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”  This is eschatological language, not economic nor punitive.  From start to finish, the parable seeks to articulate what it means to live amid the kingdom of God.

Looking at the master

We must also take into consideration how the master is depicted in this passage.  The third servant charges the master with being, essentially, a thief.  The rhetoric of the third servant accuses the master of being a hard man, reaping where he has not sown and gathering where he did not gather seed.  Make no mistake here, the third servant insults the integrity, the honesty, and the godliness of the master. 

But is this what we see of the master?  The only indication that the master is a harsh man comes from the lips of the third servant who, as we have seen, is in opposition with the master.  In response, the master uses these words against the third servant, implying that his actions were not consistent with his own viewpoint. 

Typically, verse 26 has been hard to translate.  Some translations render the verse as a question: “So, you knew that I harvest what I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed?” Rendering this verse as a question implies that the master questions the very foundation of the third servant’s perception of himself.  Other translations render this verse conditionally: “If you knew that I harvest what I have not sown and gather where I have not scattered seed, then you should have …” Even this reading, however, does not imply that the master agrees with the servant’s outlook.  In fact, it becomes increasingly difficult to believe that the master agrees with the servant’s depiction.

It hard to base our vision on the master simply on the rhetoric of the third servant.   This becomes particularly more problematic when we consider how the master is depicted at the beginning of the parable. The way Jesus presents the master is extravagantly hyperbolic. The master gives away an extremely large amount of money.  A silver talent was worth roughly 20 years of wage for a common laborer.  This means that the master doles out roughly 160 years worth of wages to his three, trusted, servants. (Giving out golden talents would only increase this extravagance.) Again, Jesus presents a vision of the master as extravagantly generous. One must wonder if Jesus would use such hyperbole if he wished to articulate the real-world dynamics of an oppressive and tyrannical economic system.

Is money the main thing?

Jesus appears to present a situation, rooted in economic imagery, in which money is not of ultimate importance.  In giving out the talents, the master takes the abilities and uniqueness of each of his servants into careful consideration; each receives their distribution of the talent “according to his ability.” The master seems to know each servant deeply.  Similarly, when he returns from his trip in foreign country, and settles the accounts of the servants, the unit of talents gained seems to be of little importance.  The master does not comment on the productivity, reliability, or resourcefulness of the first two servants, but on their faithfulness. “Well done good and faithful servant” he says to each person.  He commends them for their faithfulness and trustworthiness.  Furthermore, the reward for their faithfulness is to enter the joy of their Lord.   Again, the amount of talents given, and received upon his return, appear inconsequential.

So, what of the third servant?  Did he sin by failing to produce talents?  An interesting question to pose is what would have happened if the third servant had invested, but lost, the original talent?  What if he came to the master in the same way as the other two, yet did not have a sizeable increase to show for his efforts? Would he have still be cast into the darkness?

I would argue that he would not.  Why?  Because the force of the parable does not appear to be about how many talents a person produces. If the master’s true focus is faithfulness, not productiveness, then the failure of the third servant is his faithlessness before the master, not his lack of production. 

The issue at hand is not the lack of talent-production, but the lack of interaction with the talent itself.  The servant buries the talent in a field and thinks no more of it until he hears of the master’s return.  To borrow a phrase from Chesterton, the servant found the work too difficult, and therefore left it untried. He shunned the business of the master and refused to take up the call to act on the master’s behalf.  The master, therefore, is correct in his description of the third servant; he is “wicked” insofar as he is opposed to the will of the master, and “lazy” insofar as he refuses to act on behalf of the master.  The third servant’s sin is inactivity.

Returning to the context

In fact, this is consistent with the overarching flow of Matthew’s narrative.  In Matthew, the Parable of the Talents occurs after the Transfiguration. Jesus has marched into Jerusalem as the final leg of his journey to the cross.  At this point, Matthew presents a large block of dialogue, beginning in the 24th chapter.  Salient to this discussion are many of the images that Jesus uses within this block of teaching.  Here Jesus speaks of a fig tree that does not produce figs, lamps that do not light, servants who do not act, and disciples who do not serve.  In each case, the issue at hand is the failure of the tree, lamp, or servant, to fulfill the purpose for which it was created and called.

More to the point, Matthew’s cluster of parables actually begins in chapter 24, with the parable of the faithful and unfaithful servant.  Here, Jesus presents a tale of a master who puts servants in charge of his household, while he is away in another country.  The faithful servants are the ones who heed the master’s business – working diligently though they know not when the master shall return.  The faithless servants are the ones the one who shuns the master’s work.  Again, the punishment is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  The message is plain. It would seem odd for Jesus to pose two parables, composed of the same situation, yet involving different meanings.  I would also argue that it would be odd for Matthew to place two parables, composed of the same situation but involving different meanings, almost back-to-back to one another.  This would be confusing.

One final question

One final question must be posed if one seeks to view this parable from the standpoint of popular liberation theology.  The question is this: Where is the liberation?  Jesus frequently speaks good news to the poor and downtrodden.  The ill are cured, the forgotten are noticed, the untouchable are embraced.  Christ’s kingdom is a radical reorientation of human life.  In the Kingdom of God, self-serving economic systems, and tyrannical power-structures, so implicit in the way human society works, are frequently turned on their head.  This is precisely what lead to the critique that early disciples were “turning the world upside down.”   

If the third servant is praised and lauded for his radical and prophetic critique of the dehumanizing ethics of a capitalist system, then where is the encouragement to those poor and helpless of the world?  After all this occurs in other places, most notably the Parable of the Unjust judge.  Here, Jesus’ depiction of a judge who refuses to hear the case of a poor widow is abundantly clear.  The judge is seen as unjust, and the widow, though powerless, is clearly in the right.  This parable uses the literary structure of “lesser to greater” –ensuring that God is not to be understood to be the unjust judge.  The point of the parable is that the powerless are heard. Therefore, disciples should pray and “not give up”.  The woman is victorious in her case, and the unjust judge gives appropriate judgement.  There is also the call to the poor and powerless to continue their pleading for justice.  Even an unjust judge will eventually hear the cry of the poor and powerless due to their persistence.  Liberation is clear.

In the Parable of the Talents, however, there is no liberation offered.  The servant is punished by the master, removed into the outer darkness, and spends an (arguably) eternity in weeping and teeth gnashing.  If this is the case, the message is that this is the future for those who stand up to the coercive economics and evil ways.  No reward is received, no eternal vindication, just weeping. 

Would this be an encouragement to Matthew’s readers? Would this encourage the faithful allegiance to kingdom ethics to any of the poor and distraught of the 1st century world?  I hardly doubt it.  It speaks of nothing but destruction.  Furthermore, vague applications referring to the church’s call to “stand in solidarity with the poor and helpless” does not help this matter.  In the context of the parable, if one reads it this way, the rich get richer, the poor continue to be victimized, and no liberation can be found.

Jesus never shies away from the hard truths of discipleship. He speaks plainly about how allegiance to the Lord may bring about division, persecution, and even death.  In fact, Jesus begins this grand narrative by speaking about the end of the age, and the persecutions that will occur.  Jesus is open and forthright: “They will hand you over to be tortured and will put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of my name” (24:9).  Amid this sobering reality, however, Jesus offers good news. He states that the “one who endures to the end will be saved.”  The same dynamic occurs in the Parable of the faithful versus the unfaithful slave, the Parable of the 10 Bridesmaids, and the Parable of the sheep and the goats.  Despite words of judgement, and the implicit challenges to lax discipleship, liberation and salvation is always extended.  The call of the gospel is clear.

But not in the parable of the talents?  If taken to be some exhortation against non-jubilee economics, this parable stands out dramatically from the rest, If the master is evil and the third servant righteous, then this parable makes absolutely no sense given the arc of Matthew’s narrative.

Conclusion

Given all this, I simply cannot see how we can understand this parable in the way suggested by some liberation theologians.  I see no warrant to see the master as an evil despot, simply because he is presented as rich beyond imagination.  Nor do I think we can force the third servant into the framework of stalwart hero – a suffering servant as it were.  There is simply no indication within the parable itself that this is what is going on.  Reading into the text in this way does not make it true.

We must remember, however, that this parable is not about the maximization of economic wealth. This parable is concerned with faithfulness, not growth or production.  The true liberation of the Gospel comes not from what we produce, or the various talents we can attach to own efforts.  True liberation is a gift of God, bestowed upon us in grace.  What our master looks for is not the ever-increasing production of bricks, but the heart of faithfulness that is willing to take up the Lord’s generous invitation to join his kingdom.  It is this, that I believe, the parable rightfully articulates.

A prophetic push: A review of Conrad Mbewe’s book “God’s design for the Church.”

When one loves to read, write, or ponder, the nature of the church, it can be tempting to remain rooted in one’s own cultural or denominational context.  This would be a mistake.  The church is not simply the church as it exists in Canada.  Thus, ever since I found my affinity ecclesiological works, I have attempted to hear voices form outside my own context. Conrad Mbewe’s God’s Design for the Church was the latest text I took up in this way.  I received a complimentary copy through Crossway’s blog review program, and it is as part of this program that I offer this review. 

The story behind Mbewe’s book is one of the things that first captivated me.  Mbewe is unashamedly writing about, and for, the African context.  He describes how the church in Africa has exploded exponentially, with new church congregations popping up on a weekly basis.  While not criticizing this, nor denying that the western church can learn a lot from the African context, Mbewe breaths a word of caution.  Such church pop-ups are not always rooted in biblical reality. Thus, Mbewe tackles various situations and ideas, that for a western Christian may appear nonsensical, even humorous at times, yet are real threats to the church in Africa.  As he writes “I recognize the need for the application of Christian truth to vices that are peculiarly African” (16).

What I valued most in this work is the anecdotes about the African church that flow throughout the work.  I found this valuable precisely because it pushed me beyond my own context.  For example, Mbewe speaks of the tendency to make the preacher of the Gospel simply another form of “witch doctor” or “tribal chief.”  The danger in this, as Mbewe explains, is that the congregation blindly bestows authority and power upon the church leader.  Unfortunately, many of the leaders of the new churches in Africa, Mbewe explains, have no biblical or theological training.  For example, Mbewe speaks of one church leader who told his congregation to eat grass to draw close to God (45). In telling such stories and anecdotes, Mbewe masterfully speaks to the pertinent theological or biblical point.  Thus, while learning about the uniqueness of the African church, Mbewe also provides a great education on the biblical and theological roots for any ecclesiology.  

In this way, I found that Mbewe’s book spoke prophetically to the western church.  Consider some of the issues common in the African context: “Church leaders sometimes want to use the power of their numbers to sway political elections” (43); Worship songs are “about some vague “blessing” that God bestows upon us.  What matters are the danceable tunes…They do not lead to true worship, only self-indulgence”(67); the need to “bring back servant leadership”(109).  In each of these descriptions, and many more like it, I found a correlation with that which plagues the Christian church in the western context. In reading about the Church in Africa, and about the issues and concerns there, I was more able to hear the challenges and concerns for the church in my own context.

God’s Design for the Church is a unique read.  It opened my eyes to a church culture beyond my own.  I did not agree with everything that Mbewe wrote about, either biblically, theologically, or denominationally.  That’s ok.  Ultimately, I finished my read feeling like I was better equipped to serve the church in my own context, by reading about the Church in the African context.  And for that I am grateful.

Are Disciplines Necessary?

This post is based on a presentation made at the ACW Regional Retreat in September 2020.

Are Spiritual Disciplines really that important?

Why are Spiritual Disciplines important?    Is not believing in Jesus enough? Are disciplines just a form of works righteousness, some mistaken attempt to earn our salvation?  Do we really need to worry about things like church attendance, prayer, or reading the Bible?   

Have you ever asked yourself these questions?

Some may see an emphasis on spiritual disciplines as just a fad.  After all, the language of spiritual formation, and spiritual disciplines, emerged popularly in 1978 with the publication of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.  Since then, other works began to surface – and today, there is quite a lot in this field.  Thus, some may say that this whole emphasis on disciplines and formation is just a flash in the pan.   Yet this is not only to misunderstand what Foster speaks of in his book, it is to misunderstand what it means to be a member of Christ’s church. 

God’s people have always sought out ways to live out their faith. Spiritual practices do not stem from some individual simply thinking up some creative or interesting things to do (and then saying to everyone that they need to do it too).  Rather, spiritual practices – that which we call disciplines – are based on how Christian people have continuously expressed their faith in Jesus.  The disciplines are nothing new.  Sure each new book may have a different ordering of disciplines, a way in which the author thinks of them or characterises them, yet the disciplines themselves have journeyed with the people of faith, ever since there was a people of faith.

Understanding the historicity of spiritual disciplines, however, only takes us so far.  Disciplines are important in our spiritual lives for a myriad of other reasons.  Below is an exploration of three of those reasons.

  1. Discipline are how we live like Jesus.

What is the purpose of Christianity? To what does it aim to, or pursue?  Growing up, I, like so many people, believed that I knew the answer. Christian faith is about going to heaven. After all, that’s where we end up.  

It can be easy to think that Christian faith is mostly about what happens to you when you die -about getting to our eternal destination.  Have you ever heard people refer to the Bible as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth?” Such a slogan assumes that leaving the earth is that to which the faith ultimately aims.  If we believe in Jesus and accept the truth of what he did on the cross, then we will have obtained the minimal entrance requirement to get past St. Peter at the pearly gates.  “For God so loved the world that those who believe in Jesus will get into heave when the die.”  At least, that is how that verse can be easily understood.

But if faith is only concerned about what happens to us at death, then we are saying that our faith has nothing to do with how we live our lives.  Forgiveness is not about freeing ourselves, or others, from spiritual baggage, it is about managing our sins so that they do not mess up our chance for a heavenly mansion!  Faith is merely about passing God’s final exam.  But if we think that faith has nothing to do with how we live our lives here, then we will miss about 90% of what Jesus was on about.  After all, why did Jesus talk about forgiving our enemies, loving our neighbours, or tackling anger and prejudice in our hearts, if, in the end, none of that matters?

Disciplines help us answer the question “how do I live my life the way that Jesus lived his?’  If we understand that Jesus was perfect in faithfulness, then would not his life be one we would want to emulate? Reflecting on Christ’s life naturally leads us into certain habits and practices.  Jesus prayed.  Jesus served others.  Jesus engaged in times of silence and solitude.  Jesu was knowledgeable of the scriptures. If we want our lives to reflect the presence of Jesus, then these practices help us do just that.  

2. Spiritual disciplines help our faith grow.

You cannot grow in any area of life without diligent discipline. If one wants to be good at piano, one must put in the time necessary to cultivate a habit of piano playing. This is discipline, the willing acceptance of activity toward growth in a particular area.   Athlete’s discipline themselves to perform certain activities at certain times. A quarterback, for example, trains his muscles so that when he needs to make that game-winning pass, he can do so.  A figure skater trains relentlessly so their bodies know how to execute a triple axle. The point of the discipline is to make the activity an engrained part of lif, so that the individual can perform that action without conscious effort or thought.

The biblical writers often take up the image of athlete to describe the spiritual lives. In the same manner as we talk of the training of athletes, Paul exhorts us to “train yourself to be godly.” We need to create the necessary habits which will produce the life we want to grow into.  If we have a vision of what Christian life is about, and the intention to pursue that life, then we must cultivate the means of achieving that growth. 

This is a far cry away from works-righteousness.  Works righteousness amounts to an attempt to earn our salvation, to merit our way into the kingdom of God.  Spiritual disciplines vehemently reject any notion that we earn grace.  Still, this does not mean we are to be passive.  To rework one of Dallas Willard’s phrases, spiritual disciplines are opposed to earning, not effort.  Disciplines help us grow in our faith precisely because they call us to intentionally engage, and embody, our faith.  Disciplines focus us.

After all, we live in a world of competing voices, competing intensions, and constant distractions.  It can difficulty to turning our attention fully to spiritual matters.  In this way, living the Christian life, is not always easy.  Therefore, it takes dedication, devotion, and discipline.  In the same way that a person who has never played the piano will never waken to miraculously find themselves able to play Rachmaninoff, it is a safe bet that we never simply stumble into spiritual maturity.  A healthy spiritual life takes effort.  We grow into it.

3. Spiritual disciplines occur in cooperation with the Holy Spirit

We are not merely talking about disciplines of activity merely for the sake of activity.  Spiritual disciplines are not the same as an exercise regime.  We are speaking of spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are activities engaged in cooperatively with the Holy Spirit.  For most people, on any given day, our questions of faith are not the grand theological questions of doctoral dissertations.  Rather, our questions or concerns, or the wrestling in our faith, are about how we experience the dynamic of God’s presence in our lives. They are the boots on the ground kind of questions: “Why don’t I feel God with me all the time?”  “How do I develop a deeper prayer life?”  “Can I recognise God’s voice?”  Disciplines help us work through these questions, and in doing so, recognise the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

When we deny the role of the Holy Spirit in our Christian life, we too often attempt to tackle our questions with the unhelpful word of just “try harder.” Struggling with Bible reading? Well just grit your teeth, pour a double shot of espresso, and dive into 2nd Chronicles!  If your mind wanders in prayer – well concentrate harder.  When we do this, we often find that the efforts of our will only get us so far. Richard Foster says this

God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace.  The disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God, so that He can transform us. The Apostle Paul said “He who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”…That is the way with the Spiritual Disciplines; they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. (6)

Spiritual disciplines are not how we try harder, they are how we open ourselves to the activity of God.  In this way, spiritual disciplines are actions we do in our own power, to open ourselves to that which is beyond our own power.  We move with the Spirit in our disciplined activity, and in doing so, experience the empowerment of the Spirit.

O Blessed Boredom: Isolation and the dethronement of idols

This article first appeared at http://www.medium.com/ministrymatters

It’s been over two months of lock downs, isolation, physical distancing, and mask-wearing.  Depending on where you live, you may be facing this for the foreseeable future.  For myself, I have long moved past my initial bouts of irritation.  Being unable to run down to the local mall and pick up a present for my wife’s birthday made me pout and sit around like a frustrated lump.  This may seem reasonable enough, but my irritations didn’t stop there.  I felt the prick of annoyance when faced with being unable to journey to my local coffee shop, or wander through the electronic store in search for a new gizmo.  Frankly, I almost threw a hissy-fit when I realised I couldn’t get the specialty ingredients for the dinner I wanted to make.  And even though random stores and restaurants may be opening all around us, the times of unrestricted normalcy of which we were previously accustomed has long gone.  In its replacement…Nothing. 

So, like so many others, I must confess; I am bored.

Boredom is easy to recognise.  We diagnose it as a natural consequence of inactivity.  But what if we looked deeper?  Could our internal sense of boredom point to something significant in our spiritual lives?  Might boredom highlight a twisting of our inner selves; a spiritual dis-ease needing to be addressed?  Might we see boredom as indicative of God calling us back to the divine centre in which our souls must rest and be satisfied? 

As I sat with this thought, I happened to come across Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s book Letters and Papers from Prison. I figured if anyone might have something to say regarding being unexpectedly cut-off from his church community (and all other social activity for that matter), it would be Bonhoeffer.  Happily, as I have come to expect by this thoughtful pastor, he did not disappointBonhoeffer begins this book by offering a reflection on, what he terms, mass-leveling events.  These events, writes Bonhoeffer, mean:

“…the renunciation of all the place-hunting, a break with the cult of the ‘star’, an open eye both upwards and downwards…Culturally, it means a return from the newspaper and the radio to the book, from feverish activity to unhurried leisure, from dispersion to concentration, from sensationalism to reflection, from virtuosity to art, from snobbery to modesty, from extravagance to moderation.”  [i]

With prophetic voice, Bonhoeffer cuts through our tendency to focus on petty irritations and points us to a deeper truth potentially at work. Mass-levelling events call us away from our idolatries.  They unmask the sandy foundations upon which we are tempted build our lives.  After all, the call away from extravagance to moderation, or from sensationalism to reflection is eerily contemporary is it not?  

If we are honest with ourselves, I believe we will see that most of our frustrations centre around the inability to satisfy temporary delights. For example, why is it that we feel frustrated when unable to sit in our favourite coffee shop?  Does this disclose something about ourselves?  Perhaps a deep-seeded insecurity is at play, or a desire for image-management expressed in our propensity to attribute a certain status to particular brands and places.  In this way, the frustration we feel over not being able to obtain our favourite latte may not be so much a matter of flavor or taste, but about the inability to be recognized as the kind of person who enjoys certain beverages.  Is the frustration connected to a loss of a beverage, or loss of perceived status?

Similarly, can we not clearly see, in light of the pandemic, how much of life is mediated through the “cult of the star”? Celebrity status invades much of life, often without our conscious acknowledgement. Instead of a movement away from the radio could we not say that the time of pandemic calls us away from the computer, the cell-phone, the constant buzz of social media?  Being bored at the prospect of binge-watching yet another Netflix series only highlights how inept such things are at satisfying the deep yearnings of our souls.  Yet too often these are the things to which we turn.

Of course, I do not want to deny that there are some legitimate pains being experienced in this time.  The inability to hug a grandchild, or celebrate a birthday with loved ones, is undoubtedly a heartache with which I sympathise.  In response to these legitimate pains, all we can do is acknowledge the difficulty of the time in which we live.   And, in fact, this is the same response we are called to make when faced with the frustrated boredom in other spheres.  The way forward is not to replace our lost comforts with new, but equally idolatrous, tasks or entertainments.   Replacing one idol with another will do us no spiritual good.  Instead, boredom calls us to sit within it; to recognise our experience of boredom as a dissatisfaction of heart and soul.  Boredom equals restlessness, and when we are restless we must enter those moments prayerfully, searching for the presence of God.  As Archbishop Rowan Williams writes:

 “. . . to try to escape boredom…restlessness, unsatisfied desire by searching for fresh tasks and fresh ideas is to attempt to seal off these areas from grace.  Without the humiliating and wholly ‘unspiritual’ experience of cell-life – the limited routine of trivial tasks, the sheer tedium and loneliness – there would be no way of confronting much of human nature.  It is a discipline to destroy illusion.” [ii]

For Williams, combatting boredom by propping up new entertainments still roots us in a life of illusion.  It is to still live our lives under the goal of entertainment, distraction, or bliss.  The illusion, or the idol, of self-gratification still reigns supreme in our lives, now just under a new guise. Thus, new entertainments fail to address the source of spiritual dis-ease.  Ultimately, they will lead to the same frustrated boredom as experienced prior. 

Instead of propping up new entertainments, we must recognise our sensations of boredom for what they are, the stirrings of inner restlessness. Restlessness is not a product of what exists or does not exist; it is indicative of dissatisfaction deep within.   As Williams writes, the Christian person, wrestling with the illusion of boredom and tediousness, must “recognise that root of illusion in himself [sic].”  Boredom points out to us that we have lost our centre.  Thus, we must sit within our restless in order to overcome it.  We must seek God’s direction and insight into from where our dissatisfactions stem.  Do we place too much emphasis on being entertained?  Does this restlessness speak to an attempt to overly manage or control our own life?  Can we loosen our life of ease and comfort in order to gain the true life of divine closeness?

We are created for a life of relational intimacy with God.  We are not created to be endlessly entertained.  Thus, the boredom of our lives performs a prophetic function within us.  It calls us back to the centrality of our life with God.   It is in this sense that we can call boredom a “blessed” sensation, for it serves to prompt us to reach out to Christ, and find our satisfaction in him alone. 


[i] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich; 1953 Letters and Papers from Prison, (New York, NY. Touchstone Publishers)

[ii] Williams, Rowan; 2014 The Wound of Knowledge. (London, UK; Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd) Kobo Edition

Beloved but Messy: A Review of Megan Hill’s “A Place to Belong.”

I never believed I would be someone who would enjoy reading books on ecclesiology.  Reading about the nature of the church never once appealed to me as a viable good time option.  Yet here I am, reading books on the nature of the church, and loving it!  The latest addition to my reading was Megan Hill’s “A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church.”  I received a complimentary copy as part of Crossway Publishers Blog Review Program; it as a part of that program that I offer this review. 

Hill’s book is refreshingly approachable.  Although Hill has clearly done her reading, and has earned her theological chops, A Place to Belong is rooted in a real-world expression of the local church.  By that I mean, Hill writes about the church as we experience it, speaking of such things as “peppermints” and church-ladies”, “church dinners”, and “favourite pews.” These references are not simply quaint stories or humours anecdotes, however.  For Hill, these references are the church.  A congregation made up of individuals who have previously determined their favourite place to sit is not a lesser image of the church… It is the church.  In this way, the reader is able to recognise one’s own local congregation as he/she make their way through the chapters.

While Hill writes theologically, her theological vision of the church is not divorced from the messy realities of life. Thus, as Hill points out, the local church “doesn’t always seem gorgeous.” (12)  I find this quite a profound realization, and one that can so easily be overlooked.  The church is a messy reality.  It is that way because we are that way.  With fresh honesty, Hill offers a vision of the church which includes the truth that “I have sometimes been hurt by people in the church – ignored and misunderstood and intentionally deceived.  I know I have hurt a few people myself” (12).  Hill offers no rose-coloured treatment of the church.  This will undoubtedly speak to those who have struggled with the church.  With Hill they will find a sympathetic voice.  It is simply true that ‘belonging to the church doesn’t always seem like much of a glorious privilege” (13).  This acknowledgement is refreshing, and should be recognised as an essential part of our ecclesiology. 

The messiness, or brokenness, of the church, however, is not the end of the story, for ultimately, as Hill points out, this is the church that Christ loves.  Upon this reality hangs Hill’s entire treatment of the church, and it is precisely why we are called to love the local church.  The church is not a platonic ideal that exists only in abstractions.  Jesus loves the local church, in all its messy expressions.  Hill reminds the reader that the New Testament frequently addresses the local church, filled with its conflict, fighting, and imperfections, as “Beloved.”  Thus, as God loves the local church, so ought we. 

When we approach our conception of the local church from this footing, we are grounded in the biblical vision of the church – and our own call to be a part of it.  This speaks loudly within a culture where church attendance has been continually in the decline.  The popularity of ‘spiritual but not religious’, and the too-often toted mantra of “I can worship God anywhere’ has helped contribute to the slow ebbing away of the Church’s vibrancy.  Yet it is not simply because of its structure that we are called to be a part of the local church.  Nor are we to belong to the church simply because it is always pleasant for us.   We are called to the church because the gathering of the local community is a gathering God loves.  God delights in the local church, and works through it.  Thus, our involvement in the local church is an expression of, and a participation in, the delight of the Lord.  Hill’s emphasis on God’s love for the church being the basis for our love for the church is a needed reminder for us.

All this being said, there was one element of Hill’s book I did not appreciate.  Hill is clear that her vision of the church contains only male leadership.  In the fourth chapter Hill tackles the biblical concept of Shepherds, suggesting that the leaders of the local church – elders/pastors/priests – are raised up by God and offer a needed ministry.  Despite the potential to drift into clericalism, Hill has some good things to say about this.  Yet it seems that Hill almost goes out of her way to attribute such leadership positions to men alone.  She writes about the how the service of ordination is a response to the church having been “encouraged to identify men who are gifted for leadership” (65).  Similarly, in the final chapter, she highlights church administration being structured around inter-church elders meetings; meetings “where the gathered men discuss common concerns and make decisions that promote the good of the local church” (137).  Frankly, this seems ripped out of a manual from the 1940s. There is no recognition that such a framework is simply not how other local churches function.

I found this element of the book disheartening, and ultimately disappointing.  Up to this point, Hill diligently sought to present a vision of the local church that was approachable and relevant across any denominational context.  Furthermore, as has been mentioned, her vision of the local church is rooted in a deep recognition of the fragility of the human gathering.  Yet when approaching church leadership, there was none of this sensitivity.  Chapter 4, and her discussion of male elders, is presented in a way that would make one think this is a doctrinal necessity.  There seems to be no recognition that other denominations may involve non-male leadership, or employ alternate forms of church governance.  More to the point, there seems to be no recognition that several streams of her own denomination (Presbyterian) actively ordains women!   Unfortunately, Hill missed a profound opportunity to lend her voice to ecumenical unity. Hill could have put forward an ecclesiological vision that included a shared participation in the one story of Christian ministry, despite different understandings of who gets to be ordained.  Instead, however, she turned inward and puts forward a vision of church leadership that is set firmly within a very narrow, and I would argue antiquated, understanding of ordination and leadership.

Did I enjoy reading Hill’s A Place to Belong?  That’s hard to say.  I enjoyed the reflections that reading the book prompted within me.  Yet I can’t get passed her fourth chapter and I find that it, unfortunately, sullies the rest of the work.  In the end, I do believe Hill has an important offering for how we understand the local church, and our call to be a part of it.  I am sure her book will be one that I reference in my own teaching, preaching, and writing about the church.  Unfortunately, because of what I see as a glaring blunder regarding her picture of church leadership, I may be hesitant in recommending this book to others.

The Way of Discernment

This post first appeared in “Ministry Matters” under the title: “Discernment: it’s not just pointing at random verses” on Medium.com

Whenever we aspire to live the Christian life with any intentionality, an inevitable question arises. How do I know what God wants me to do? How do I know I am making the right decisions? How do I perceive or recognize the specific parameters of how God wants me to live my life? The answer to all these questions is the same: discernment. Discernment is the spiritual discipline through which we listen for, and respond to, directions God’s voice. Simply put, discernment is the process of recognizing God’s will for our lives.

It is important to recognize that discernment is not a routine set of steps. It is not a codified system of checks and balances by which we can streamline our decision-making. Nor are there any shortcuts. One can’t, for example, simply close their eyes and point to random verses, expecting to uncover the fine nuances of God’s plan for their life. That’s not discernment; that’s biblical roulette, and it can be devastating to someone’s faith. It is best to think of discernment as a way of prayerfully relying on God. It is a function of an active relationship with the Lord, one that establishes a certain kind of life. Thus, before we even think about how we discern God’s will for our lives, we should endeavour to cultivate the type of life in which recognizing God’s direction is conducive.

There are three foundations upon which this type of life rests. Firstly, you need to cultivate a sincere desire to live in God’s will. If you are not actually concerned with living the life that God desires you to live, there is no point in trying to discern God’s voice. It’s as simple as that. Or, if you think that God will simply rubber stamp any decision you make, discernment is simply a façade. In order to rightly discern God’s direction for you, you must first desire God’s will above and before all things. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” Jesus says. Similarly, in the Lord’s prayer, we are instructed to pray for God’s kingdom and will to be established before we pray to receive our daily wants or needs. We need to root ourselves in the primary longing for God’s ways to be revealed in and through our lives. This is what Ignatian spirituality calls “indifference” — wanting God’s will to be established, whatever that may entail, instead of my own interests, desires or plans.

Secondly, we need to cultivate an active engagement with Scripture. God has given us Scripture as the primary way that we become familiar with God’s voice. Now this doesn’t mean that every answer is written in the pages of the Bible — again we aren’t talking about biblical roulette here. However, by immersing ourselves in the Bible (the whole Bible — not just our favourite verses), we continually grow in our familiarity with the weight and the tone of God’s voice. The continuous engagement with Scripture also aids us in becoming attuned with the kind of things that the Lord may say to us.

Lastly, in order to rightly discern God’s will for our lives, we must establish an ongoing conversation with God, in prayer. We need to learn how to listen to God’s voice — and you only do that by establishing a conversational relationship with the Lord. In prayer, we bring God the matters of our day, the desires of our hearts, and we cultivate a habit of listening through the practices of silence or solitude. An active prayer life helps us identify those thoughts or impressions that are indicative of divine nudging. In prayer we learn to highlight such things and say “there’s a different quality to this”, or “there’s something about this feeling, thought, word, impression that is not just a function of my own pondering.” Jesus indicated that his followers, like sheep before a shepherd, are able to recognize and know His own voice. We become familiar with this voice through the sustained habit of prayer.

If you are in the midst of trying to discern something but have yet to establish this way of life, this is where you start. But let’s say you have cultivated this life of active reliance upon Jesus… what now? What does discernment actually entail?

Keeping in mind that there is no one surefire process of discernment, there are three components of God’s guidance that can be mentioned. In his classic book, The Secret of Guidance,F.B. Meyer refers to these components as the “three witnesses” of discernment. He writes: “The circumstances of our daily life are to us an infallible indication of God’s will when they concur with the inward promptings of the Spirit and with the Word of God.” Circumstances; the inward promptings of the Spirit; and Scripture are the three areas we look to when attempting to discern God’s direction for our lives.

First, circumstances are the particulars of whatever situation you are in right now. Is there anything about the contours of your life, the decision you are trying to make, that speaks to where God is working? Discernment is never done in a vacuum. God is at work in your life. God does speak. In discernment, we want to look at the specifics of our life situation. Meyer also mentions that it is good to pray that God close the avenues or opportunities that are not conducive to God’s way. Ultimately, discernment isn’t like receiving a divine memo. It is about looking for the signs of God’s leading in our the everyday tapestry of our lives.

Second, the Lord often guides us by prompting our inward selves through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will often begin to work with our inner dispositions, we will feel “drawn” in a particular direction. This is why an established lifestyle of reliance upon, and interaction with, the Spirit of God is so important. In discernment we ask our selves questions like: “What is Jesus doing within me?”, “What does my heart say?” and “Where do I feel Jesus drawing me closer to Him? Conversely, is there an option or way that seems to lead me away from God?” Ignatius terms these inward dispositions consolations and desolations, and they provide good insight into how God is leading us. Importantly, you might not be able to fully articulate these internal sensations. However, if inwardly you are feeling one way as opposed to another — and that feeling just wont go away — this can be an indication of divine guidance.

Lastly, we turn to Scripture for guidance. Does the Bible say anything — or give any principles applicable to our situation? Again, this isn’t about finding a certain answer — or pointing to random verses — this is about recognizing that God has provided for us a written voice. And while we may not be able to turn to a specific verse for “the answer”, God does us the scriptural word to speak to us. Thus, the more we are familiar with Scripture, the more we will find it has the uncanny ability to speak into our lives.

Meyer’s emphasis in highlighting these three witnesses is that, in proper discernment, these three components converge. Scripture reinforces our inward dispositions, which help us to recognize God’s movement in the present circumstances of our lives. One always points to the other.

Of course, discernment can be a trying process. There may be a lot of emotion surrounding that our discernment. Also our discernment may impact others. Because of this, discernment can seen as a highly stressful endeavour. To combat this, it is best to keep in mind three remembrances:

  1. Discernment takes time. We live in a world of instant gratification, and so often we want direction at the drop of hat. We turn to God and expect to get the answer within a heartbeat of a moment. Discernment, however, is a way of wrestling with something, and sometimes this takes a while. It may be God wants us to sit with a decision for a time, or possibly God wants other things to be revealed or shown before we get the final direction. Meyer points out that discernment is always about the next step — never the full picture. We are to enter our times of discernment slowly, being willing to receive what God offers, in whatever time-frame that occurs.
  2. Like so many other disciplines, we are to involve others. As you enter discernment, seek the counsel and partnership of a trusted friend or guide — a spiritual director or perhaps your parish priest. If you have come to a conclusion, ask for a sense of confirmation. Although Meyer doesn’t list the community as a particular component of discernment, the voice of the community has an important role in confirming the guidance we have received. Do not be afraid to ask others to help you with this discipline.
  3. Claim grace. Discernment is not only different for each person, it is different in each circumstance. Do not get discouraged if discernment does not appear “easy.” We can, at times, feel an undue sense of responsibility to perfect this practice. Thus, we mistakenly believe that our sense of wrestling with a decision indicates a failure to adequately listen to God. On top of this, one may mistakenly believe that choosing the “wrong” path means will be cast out of God’s good graces for ever. This is simply not true. We trust in grace. We trust that God will work with our frailties. Furthermore, in discernment, as in all of our Christian life, we can trust that God’s love and grace for us prevails over all things.

If we take the time and effort to establish the certain way of life in which discernment is conducive, then I believe we can have confidence in discerning God’s will for our lives. We can have this confidence because, ultimately, discernment is rooted in the fundamental truth that God speaks. Not only does God speak, God speaks to us. We can hear God’s voice. We can know God’s will. May each of us uncover the particular nuances of God’s direction and will for our lives. Amen.

A Rule of Life: A Happy-Plan for Christian Living

In December of 2019, the Seattle Times noted that sales of daily planners and organizers rose to a whopping revenue of $386 million.  And this was just for the planners themselves – the books of blank pages and organizational spaces.  Sales of planner accessories is a whole other matter.  The stickers, the insets, the bookmarks – the tools necessary for the avid planner today – rang in a total of $3.9 million.  Clearly, “Planning” is big business.

While it may be tempting to see this as nothing more than a modern fad, I choose to see this differently.  At a basic level, the quick rise of the daily planner undoubtedly points to a deeply-felt desire to be internally ordered.  After all, given the constant flux and ever-changing nature of the world in which we live, is there any shock that there is an expressed desire to find a  touch-stone upon which one can order one’s life?  Planning is not simply about jotting down the tasks of the day – it is about expressing a view-point, an attitude, a spiritual disposition with which one chooses to approach the day’s tasks and demands.  Furthermore, the focus  on goal-setting serves to beckon the individual planner toward that pearl of great worth of which they seek. 

While the rise of planner-based businesses may be a recent phenomena, the attitude (dare I say spirituality) that lurks behind the adoption of these daily planners is quite  old. For example, were you aware that the Book of Common Prayer actually suggests that all Christians develop a detailed plan for Christian living?  It’s called a Rule of Life.  Not only do we find this in the BCP, but beginning with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Christian people of all sorts and stripes have found value in crafting a deep and holy order to their lives.  The rule, whether it be an individual creation or one governed by a monastic community, presents a way of intentionality – a routine of personal rhythms and guidelines that give shape to one’s life of faith. 

Importantly, the rule of life is not merely a thought about one’s life.  “A Rule of Life” specifically refers to a written record or one’s faith-intensions.   Thus when the Cranmer instructs “Every Christian man or woman should from time to time frame for himself [sic] a Rule of Life” (BCP, 555), he instructs Christians to physically write down how he or she will intentionally live out their faith.  Here is another crossover with the art of the planner.  Studies have shown that the physical act of writing one’s goals positively impacts one’s ability to achieve said goals.  Proponents of planning would undoubtedly agree.  The placing of stickers and motivational sayings across one’s agenda is not merely for the purpose of beautification.  It provides a written record of the life  one is aspiring to live, thereby increasing the likelihood that such aspirations will be met. Writing a Rule of Life actually increases one’s ability to live out the intentional way of faith.

This means that a Rule of life, while being a document to challenge and stretch us, needs to be workable.  For example, it will do no good for a parent of small children to write a Rule that says that he or she will spend 9 hours a day in silent meditation.  Anyone with small children knows this would be impossible. One’s rule needs to fit into the messy tapestry of life as we experience it.  Just like a financial budget needs to begin with the actually dollars and cents available to the person, a rule of life must refer to the life we actually live in the hear and now.  Only then can we begin to see the places where God may want us to shift our perceptions or habits to more fully engage in his presence.  It is also best to think of a Rule of life as a fluid document.  Like moving around stickers on a planner, a Rule of Life is always changing, and naturally includes a certain amount of flexibility.   

The Rule of Life, therefore, sits in this precarious place of fitting seamlessly into life as we experience it, while also challenging us to make changes to our spiritual life.  The best Rule is one we do not feel we need to worry over, while at the same time, being one that calls us to concentration, reflection, and prayer.  Arguably there is a messiness here.  Just as the best planner-pages are the ones that call the individual to strive to live the best life, so too our Rule of Life should hold out to us the life of faith we aspire to live.  And live we must.  We cannot remain eternally with intensions and desire.  Eventually Jesus calls us to live our lives.  Thus, a  Rule of Life cannot simply be about wishes and dreams; it must include actions and practices through which we will govern our spiritual life with God.  Adele Calhoun notes “Live-giving rules are a brief and realistic scaffold of disciplines that support your heart’s desire to grow in loving God and others.” (38)  While not detailing every moment of life, the Rule gives a framework in which we live our Christian lives.

In this regard, the Book of Common Prayer offers good guidelines for the different aspects we may reflect on in our Rule.  The BCP records that the rule of life should consider: The regularity of attendance at public worship, the practice of private prayer, bible reading, self discipline, bringing the teachings of Jesus into every day life, personal service, and the offering of money to support the work of the church.  These create the scaffold upon which an authentic, intentional Christian life is built.

Perhaps this is a challenge that the Rule of Life can place on planners.  Planning, if it is to be a spiritual habit and not just a creative one, must push past the desire to merely fill up one’s pages with generalities.   For example, does one use a planner to highlight the spiritual practices one is called to engage in?  It is all well and good to plunk in a sticker that says ‘Be prayerful!”, but how does one actually plan for dedicated time of prayer, or public worship? Does one plan out just how one will live out the teachings of Jesus in regular life?  These are questions a Rule of Life sits with, and to which today’s daily planners could aid in drawing people into deeper reflection.  To use the planner in this way would be to create an ongoing record of one’s life with God.  Whether you call this your Happy Planner, or your Rule of life, having such record can only be beneficial for one’s walk with the Lord.

Sources:

 Seattle Times:  https://www.seattletimes.com/explore/shop-northwest/which-planner-will-make-your-2019-perfectly-organized/

Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg; 2015. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press.

Take up and Read: Exploring Spiritual Reading

A few months ago, I wrote a blog entitled “When Words Speak”, which detailed five books that helped inform my faith. It was a pleasure to go through my library and note the books to which I continually return. The spiritual lessons I gleaned from their pages have largely shaped the outward expression of my Christian faith. Since then, I have thought a lot about the habit of reading. Given that we are currently going through a season wherein we are able to spend a lot of time reading, can we view reading as a spiritual discipline? Am I only passing the time when I read a book, even if it is spiritually focused?

The act of reading a book is rarely included in a list of spiritual practices. While we may speak of spiritual walking (labyrinths) or spiritual conversations we rarely speak of spiritual reading. Immersing one’s self in faithful literature as a discipline of Christian formation seems reserved for scripture alone — but then we call it “Study” or “Biblical Meditation.” Of course, I am not denying the fundamental importance of soaking our lives in scripture. All practices need to be rooted in the Biblical faith, and lead us to a deeper dependence and love of God’s holy word.

Yet there is precedence to seeing reading as a spiritual practice. One can turn to Christian literature for the sole purpose of growing our inner Christlikeness, and in fact, many of the classic texts of spiritual formation took this form. That is to say, St. Francis deSales, for example, wrote spiritual lessons for his student — lessons he expected her to read and be formed by. In this way, spiritual reading is different than reading for information, or even enjoyment, although both may occur. Spiritual reading is inherently formational; We actively open ourselves to Christian teaching in order to be formed by it.

Like all spiritual disciplines, spiritual reading takes a certain amount of intentionality and humility. Volume, or expediency, is not the goal, nor is simply blasting through the latest book on our shelf. Rather, spiritual reading is rooted in a desire to grow closer to Christ. We approach our reading humbly, and with an attitude of teachability. We recognise that we never master the Christian life, and thus we are continually called to search out teachers and guides. If we assume that God has nothing new to teach us, or nowhere new to lead us, then we have cut ourselves off from the Spirit. Thus, in our reading, we open ourselves to the voice of the Spirit, mediated through the book in our hands.

We might say that Spiritual reading is a type of spiritual direction. Through our reading, we allow another set of eyes, ears, and experiences to help us interpret our faith life. Through the words of another, we learn how to attune ourselves to God’s activity in our lives. Given the busyness and frenzy of modern life at times, it can be easy to grow deaf to God’s voice. In spiritual reading, we cultivate the inner slowness necessary to hear a divine voice calling us to return. We may be prompted to ask ourselves questions not considered previously, or view matters of faith from a different angle; we may be challenged by a word or concept to which we must prayerfully wrestle. In the same way that a spiritual director does not tell us what to think, how to feel, or what to experience, spiritual reading merely opens the door to different ways of engaging with our faith. Good spiritual reading, like good spiritual direction, is a mixture of comfort, challenge and encouragement.

Furthermore, spiritual reading aids in forming our faith by providing the very language needed to describe our own inner movements. Using finite words to describe infinite spiritual realities, is difficult in the best of times, and we may find ourselves struggling with the limitation of our language. Listening to how others describe the spiritual life may help us in our own articulations. Personally, I know there have been times where I have read something and thought to myself: “That is exactly how I feel, I just didn’t know how to describe it!” This is particularly important as we recognise that our spiritual lives are part of a larger story. Our faith is never lived in isolation, but is, in fact, simply the next (local) chapter in God’s redemptive narrative. Because of this inherent connection with God’s movement prior to our individual journey, we can turn to the saints before us, to learn from their lives, teachings, successes, and failures. There is a wealth of spiritual knowledge out there, by men and women who have lived lives of profound connection and intimacy with God. It may just be that the answers we search for in our own struggles or hardships have been addressed by the spiritual fathers and mothers that have gone before us. Hearing their voice, written in pages of spiritual books, links us to the arc of God’s grand narrative, but also informs how we may be called to “further the story” as themes, disciplines, and experiences are now carried through in our lives.

Of course, there is a wide array of literature out there. How do we know what would be best for our spiritual reading? It is hard to develop some type of criteria by which we can judge all manners of Christian literature. I would, however, make two suggestions. Firstly, think old instead of new. As I mentioned, there is a wealth of knowledge, experience, and expertise that have gone before us. The saints of the past have wrestled with the very dynamics with which we often struggle. Take up the classic texts of spiritual formation. Texts like Introduction to the Holy Life, or Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, or Practicing the Presence of God, have proven to be beneficial to people’s spiritual growth for centuries. Secondly, consult a spiritual friend, mentor, or priest. If there is someone whose depth of faith you admire, ask what spiritual books they have learned from. Who are the authors they enjoy? What texts have proven formational for them?

The time in which we live is perfect for developing a habit of spiritual reading. This discipline is perfect for people who like reading, yet more importantly, it can be a great challenge for those who do not. In such a case, spiritual reading may so force us outside of comforts that we may find ourselves experiencing God’s present in dramatic fashion.

Away and Towards: Cultivating Solitude in a time of Isolation

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have been a continuous wealth of spiritual knowledge and insight, their teachings passed down in various volumes and compendiums.  One lesson has been particularly popularized.  As the story goes; a monastic brother went to Abba Moses and asked for a word of advice regarding the cultivation of a robust spiritual life.  Abba Moses responded famously: “Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” The encouragement to “sit in your cell” points the spiritual seeker to the necessity of solitude in the spiritual life.  One must step away from all that obstructs progress in the spiritual life. Make no mistake, this advice is not to be confused with an urge to passivity.  Solitude isn’t the same as aloneness.  Sitting in one’s cell, for the desert monastics, took an active form. The cell was a place of struggle, even battle.  As much as solitude involved a retreat from the frenzied distractions of the city, the desert fathers and mothers saw solitude as a way to grasp the presence of Jesus more intently.  Solitude was about creating the internal space needed to step toward the Lord, and embrace the Spirit’s movement in their lives.

 Solitude doesn’t merely have a strong place in desert ascetical tradition.  Like all legitimate disciplines of the Christian life we see this discipline modeled in the life of Jesus. The opening pages of Mark’s gospel contains a humorous scene wherein the disciples waken to find that Jesus has wondered off to a solitary place for prayer (Mark 1:35). Similarly, after the feeding of the five-thousand, Jesus dismisses both the crowds and the disciples in order to spend some time in solitude (Mark 6:46). It seems that Jesus frequently cultivated times in which he physically removed himself from the pressing demands of crowded life.

This discipline, however, is not merely one that Jesus cultivated for himself. He instructed his disciples to engage in solitude as well. In one instructive periscope, the disciples return from their missionary journey filled with zeal and excitement.  They long to tell Jesus all they had experienced.  This desire is thwarted by crowds of people who descend upon the scene. As Mark records it, the picture is so chaotic that the disciples do not even have time to eat.  Then, from somewhere within this frenzy, Jesus turns to his disciples and instructs: “Come away with me by yourself to a quiet place” (Mark 6:31).  Herein is the definition of Solitude.  Solitude is a stepping away from the frenzied chaos of life, with its noise and clamour, in order to step towards the abiding and life-giving embrace of Jesus.

This dual stepping of solitude, stepping away in order to step towards, mirrors the external and internal nature of the discipline.   Externally, solitude calls us to strip away that which blocks the flow of the Spirit in our lives.  Christian literature often pairs solitude with the disciplines of simplicity and silence for this reason.  Necessary to the cultivation of solitude is the need to physically remove one’s self from the noisy distractions of our lives.  As much as we are capable, we intentionally, and possibly forcefully, separate ourselves from all that might distract our time with the Lord.  We silence the radio. We turn off the TV.  We step away from the computer. We physically remove ourselves from others.

Of course, we never live our lives in a vacuum.  It is impossible to fully remove the noise of life from our lives, or the existence of other people for that matter.   Furthermore, in this time of isolation, it may be hard to step away from people in your own home.  Importantly, spiritual disciplines are meant to be lived out in the cluttered tapestry of our lives, whatever that might look like.  God’s grace is sufficient for our labours.  We should not make the mistake of believing that experiencing solitude, or any discipline for that matter, is contingent upon a perfect environment.  We engage the spiritual discipline in whatever manner it is best cultivated.

They to the external reality of solitude is to match, as best we can, our external environment to the inner solitude we are attempting to enter. Externally we cultivate an environment of quietness or stillness so that we might realize an internal stillness.  Solitude is more of an internal work than an external work.  We do a disservice to this discipline if it we believe it is just about stepping away.  We must step towards.  In solitude we humbly lay our lives before Christ.  Like two lovers who wish to steal away together, in a solitude we give the lover our souls our undivided attention.  Internally, we provide space for the Spirit to do a transforming work within us.  Solitude is about resting in our soul’s longing for Jesus and reaching out towards him.

So how might we experiment with solitude?  Ruth Haley Barton provides a simple and easy practice in her book Invitation to Silence and Solitude.   Barton reflects on Elijah’s experience at Horeb wherein God approaches Elijah, not in grand chaotic activity, but in stillness and quiet.  In this moment, Elijah is approached with a penetrating question: “What are you doing here Elijah.”  This question serves as an invitation for Elijah to disclose his inward self, and the chaos he carries within.  Similarly, Barton suggests, we may, in solitude, answer this same question.  As we sit in our time of external quietness and stillness, we may imagine the Lord asking us: “What are you doing here James?”, “What are you doing here Lisa?” As we sit with this question, never forcing a resolution, we may find that an answer begins to emerge from deep within.  Like Elijah, in solitude we may then disclose to this internal reality to the Lord, who longs to hear from us.

Whereas solitude is not the same as isolation, we may, if we be so bold, turn periods of isolation into a times of solitude. It need not take much time.  Like training for a marathon, we don’t launch into Olympic endeavors.  We simply start with where we are; five minutes here, five minutes there.  It may not be long, however, before we begin to see that these simple moments of solitude begin to remain with us throughout the day.  Richard Foster observes that there is a ‘solitude of the heart that can be maintained in any circumstance” (Foster: Celebration of Discipline).  Solitude can be a powerful practice because it stands against the whirlwind of activity that defines most of our lives.  With the current pandemic, much of life’s activity has come to a fast and violent halt.  For this reason solitude may be the very discipline wherein we may hear the Lord speak powerful to our souls.