Category Archives: Spiritual Formation
I want to conclude this little mini-series on mysticism with some thoughts on how mere mortals can join the ranks of the mystics. As with virtually everything else that I write, I cannot claim any true originality here, only in the sense of putting these ideas together in the manner that I have.
To begin with, it should go without saying, but you must first of all desire to submit to the reign of God. This is so obvious, but then again, I am the master at discovering what everyone else already knows. If you do not want God to reign in your life, or in anyone else’s life, He simply will not force himself upon you. To want God to reign in your life you must be willing to surrender every other king in your life – money, prestige, power, status, country, possessions, even people. To say, “Thy kingdom come” means just that – not a democracy or a meritocracy, but a monarchy. Those who say they want God to reign in their life while continuing to submit to the principalities and powers of this world are deceiving themselves – and God cannot be deceived.
We are to seek God with all of our heart, soul, mind and strength. It is an all-or-nothing adventure. To join with Peter walking on the waves of the storm-washed sea we have to be willing to let go of the boat. This is the problem I see with most “Christianity” in America today. We are half-hearted at best. We want God plus America (or America plus God). We want God plus the Constitution. We want God plus the greatest armed forces the world has ever known. We want God plus every technological discovery that we have or ever will create. We do not want God, we want God plus something else. We want God.1. That is NOT seeking the kingdom of God. That is NOT seeking God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. That is not seeking God’s kingdom first, and allowing him to add “all these things.”
Next, a person seeking the reign of God in their lives will conform their life to the pattern of Jesus. They will study the life and teachings of Christ as their only sure guide to learning the will of the Father. The beatitudes become no longer a list of virtues to emulate, but the reality of everyday life. The parables no longer serve as topics for academic study, but an entrance into the kingdom. Along with the life of Jesus they will absorb as much of the rest of Scripture as they possibly can. They will learn from the great inspired mystics – from Moses and Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Paul and Peter and John. Every page of the Bible will be to them a treasure of untold value – revealing the heart and will of God in heaven, whose reign they purely and entirely seek. Jesus, however, will be the center around which every other detail of Scripture revolves. Christ is the center, the norm, of a mystic life. It was Christ who inaugurated the ultimate reign of God, and it will be Christ who returns to fully embody that reign.
Third, a person seeking the reign of God will decide, based on what the Scriptures and Jesus teach them about the reign of God, whether they want to accept that reign or refuse it. Just because the reign was fervently desired in the first place does not mean that every person will decide to accept that reign. The rich young ruler went away sorrowful, even while he was on the very threshold of accepting the kingdom of God. The apostle Paul wrote of a certain Hymenaeus and Alexander who had made a shipwreck out of their faith, and who had apparently decided to rescind their allegiance to the reign of God. Experience tells me that many fit Jesus’ parable of the seed that falls on the weedy soil – the heart accepts the message with gladness but there is just too much “stuff” that chokes out God’s kingdom. So, following desire and discovery there comes the point of decision. Is God going to reign, or not? There is no other question, there is no other answer.
Finally, the one who places God as the king in their life will actually live as if God is the king of their life. How do you think Abraham had the courage to leave his father’s faith and country? How do you think Joseph was able to risk his life to remain pure? How do you think Moses had the nerve to stand up to Pharaoh? How do you think Daniel and his three friends had the courage to defy the king? How do you think Paul could stand up to Herod? How could John write from Patmos to tell the seven churches to stand up against Caesar? The answer to each and every situation was that these faithful, these disciples, these mystics, all had the kingdom of God securely implanted in their heart. They knew who was the king, and the earthly power that threatened them was simply not worthy of their fear, and certainly not of their devotion.
We are a nation of sanctimonious cowards. We fear the government. We fear losing our Constitution. We fear what will happen to us if, by some horrible circumstance, we are caught without our fully loaded handgun on our person. We fear what will happen if we stop building multi-million dollar airplanes to drop multi-million dollar bombs. We fear losing our freedom, yet we are too ignorant to realize that is striving for every human comfort and safety we have sacrificed our greatest freedom – the freedom to live in and expand the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God knows nothing of Constitutions and guns and airplanes and bombs. The symbols of the kingdom of God are a towel and a cross. The towel is to serve this world, and the cross is to die to it and for it.
As I started this series, I said that the world does not like mystics. The world punishes, persecutes, and even kills mystics. Jesus predicted his followers would be hated. Paul predicted his churches would face tribulation. John saw only martyrdom for those who remained faithful to the word of the cross. To share in the resurrection of Jesus we must first share in his death. When we invite the kingdom into our life, the hatred of the world will soon follow. But if we are to follow Jesus, how can it be any other way?
The cross is not the terrible end of a pious, happy life. Instead, it stands at the beginning of community with Jesus Christ. Whenever Christ calls us, his call leads us to death. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer
One day the Pharisees asked Jesus, “When will the kingdom of God come?” Jesus replied, “The kingdom of God can’t be detected by visible signs. You won’t be able to say, ‘Here it is!’ or ‘It’s over there!’ For the kingdom of God is already among you. (Luke 17:20-21, NLT)
The kingdom is among us. I pray we want it. I pray we are searching for it. I pray we care enough to learn what it means. I pray we decide to accept it, and live like we accept it.
I pray we all, in whatever measure we can, will accept the call to be mystics – and begin to live as if the kingdom has arrived.
In my last post I said that some of my favorite people were mystics. The names I mentioned were all biblical characters, with the exception of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Barton Stone, and David Lipscomb. I could have mentioned a number of others, including Thomas Merton, Henri Nouwen, and maybe even C.S. Lewis, among others. As I have reflected on my post I felt that I needed to explain a littler further what I mean by mysticism, and how these individuals fit into my understanding of what it means to be a mystic.
First, mystics have a profound vision of the kingdom of God. You can see this very clearly in the inspired mystics – Moses, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Jesus, Paul, Peter, John. These individuals received either a very clear vision of God, or received inspiration and illumination far beyond the “normal” avenues of study and meditation. I place these visionaries on an entirely different plane than non-inspired mystics. The “non-inspired” mystics have also had a vision of the kingdom of God – one that drives their writing or preaching on a level that exceeds most “common” or non-mystical writing. There is a sense in reading these individuals that they see, or hear, or have been given, insight into the kingdom of God that is reserved for the few who (1) truly desire to have that kind of insight and (2) open themselves to receiving that kind of insight. None of the “non-inspired” mystics just woke up one morning with the clarity of vision that they have shared with the rest of us. God rewards those who seek him – he will be found if he is sought after. Mere seeking will not avail, however, if there is no heart prepared to welcome him. Mystics spend as much time preparing their heart to receive the kingdom as they do in seeking the kingdom. I think that is why so many earnest seekers never find the kingdom. They are simply unwilling to accept it when it is shown to them.
Second, once the kingdom is revealed, these individuals seize it. They believe God, not just believe in God. There is a radical transformation that takes place in the heart of a mystic, even if the mystic came from a position of belief to begin with. Some, such as a C.S. Lewis, came from a position of agnosticism, if not even outright atheism, and so their transformation is all the more astounding. There is a sense, however, in which believers can be converted – once the vision of the kingdom is received and accepted. The apostle Paul was perhaps the quintessential example of this – he was converted from faith to faith. I think the same could also be said of Isaiah, and Peter seemed to be on a never-ending cycle of renewed and expanded faith.
Finally, the mystics of whom I write did not stop with a simple apprehension and acceptance of the kingdom. They went out and lived as if the kingdom was really here, live and in living color, as the old saying used to go. They did not wait for “pie in the sky by and by.” They lived, taught, and wrote to transform their world into the kingdom that God intended. For their vision and their efforts many were killed – most of them in fact were either imprisoned or persecuted in some form or fashion. They remained faithful to their vision, however, and through their lives the world caught a greater glimpse of what the kingdom of God will ultimately look like.
This is why I place Bonhoeffer, Stone, and Lipscomb within the category of “mystic,” although for some the characterization may be laughable. These men, so disparate in many respects, all had a vision of the kingdom informed by the writings and teachings of the inspired mystics that we find in Scripture. They searched longingly for the kingdom, and when they had prepared their hearts to receive it – God let them see what the kingdom could be. Then, they went out and lived as if they kingdom was indeed, “among them” just as Jesus emphatically said it was. They challenged the status quo. They lived as kingdom subjects, and suffered as only kingdom subjects will suffer.
As I said, some of my favorite people – authors and saints – are mystics. I am coming to see the difference in their life and mine. I glory in their vision, and their faithful expression of that vision.
And, before anyone says it – yes, I know that these men were all flawed human beings, with the obvious exception of our Lord. None of them was perfect. This is why we proclaim our allegiance to Jesus, and not to any mortal human. The lives of the others can be illustrative, however, of what it means to be a disciple, a mystic. For their example I am truly grateful, and if some day someone looks back on my life and says, “there lived a mystic” then I will owe that epitaph to the example of these faithful, though flawed, mortal beings.
Mystics are not popular people. Mystics get arrested, shot, hanged, burned at the stake, crucified. Oh, there are mystics who say popular things from time to time, and occasionally you will find a group of people who popularize the teachings of a mystic, but with very few exceptions mystics are just not very popular. Mystics see things that the overwhelming majority of people cannot see, and for that reason they are considered dangerous. Dangerous people must be removed, so that the rest of us can be comfortable.
Jesus was a mystic. The apostles Paul and John were mystics. Peter was a clumsy mystic, but he was a mystic. Isaiah and Jeremiah and Daniel and Ezekiel preceded them in a long line of Divinely appointed mysticism. These were not mystics because they retreated to the desert and slept in caves and ate exotic bugs. No, Jesus and Paul and Isaiah were mystics because they were able to see with the eyes of God.
Mystics do not see what is not there. Mystics do not call people to a life that cannot be lived. Jesus was a mystic not because he was obscure and bizarre and said incomprehensible things. Paul was not a mystic because he was blind for three days and then went into the Arabian desert. Isaiah and Jesus and Peter and Paul all saw the kingdom of God with a clarity that eludes those who think that mystics are weird people that sane people should stay away from.
Jesus said, “Blessed are you when you are persecuted” and “The last shall be first” and “The kingdom of God is among you.” Paul said, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live” and “When I am weak, then I am strong.” John saw the heavens open and the new city of God descend upon the new earth. These are mystical sayings and events, but they are not delusional. Mystics say that the lion shall lie down with the lamb and the child shall play over the den of the viper not because these things are false, but because they are of a truth that only mystics can see. True reality is much more real that what most humans accept for reality. That which confronts us daily is not reality, it is a mirage of the devil’s making. We surrendered reality in the garden. The mystics see reality. Realists see only a distant shadow of that reality.
Mystics call for mankind to lay down the weapons of war. Realists say that is impossible, because realists cannot see peace, nor do they really want to see peace. They want to see war, because war is raw and passionate and “real.” Mystics do not see any division between races and nations. Realists want to keep nations and the human races separate, because separating the races creates animosity, and animosity will ultimately create war. Mystics call for equality, and that is something that realists simply cannot accept. Equality would lead to peace, and that is simply too high a price for realists to pay.
Mystics are some of my favorite people. Even when people cannot be fully described as mystic, there are times when the heavens open for them and they catch a glimpse of the real, and for that crystalline moment they are transformed into mystics. I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a mystic, although as with most mystics, I think he has been greatly misunderstood. I think Barton W. Stone had moments that bordered on mystical. I think David Lipscomb was the same way. They looked beyond the concrete and they saw the real – the kingdom as it will be, not what mankind has turned it into.
Fact is, I would rather be called a mystic than a realist. I don’t want to see the world the way it is. I want to see the world become what it should be. I want the Kingdom be among us. I want to see the lion and lamb gambol together. I want to swim with Great White sharks and not fear the teeth.
“The greatest insanity of all is to see the world as it is, and not as it should be.” – from Man of La Mancha, based on the book Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
It is time for my annual (or almost annual) post suggesting a daily Bible reading schedule. This coming year (2015) I am going to return to an older schedule I have used, and after explaining that schedule I will explain why I believe it to be a valuable exercise.
First, a bit of an explanation – it sounds confusing, but it really is not. I just explain in confusing terms.
The basic schedule calls for a reader to read 5 chapters of the Old Testament every day, Monday through Saturday. Also, one Psalm is read daily, Monday through Saturday. On Mondays and Saturdays the reader reads one chapter of the New Testament, and on Tuesdays through Fridays the reader reads 2 chapters of the New Testament. Thus, on Mondays and Saturdays the schedule calls for 7 chapters a day, and on Tuesday through Friday it calls for 8 chapters a day. This schedule allows a person to read through the entire Bible twice in a year. I choose one translation for January – June, and another for July – December. This allows me to “hear” the text in two different translations within one year.
Now, a couple of changes need to be made throughout the year. For one, February only has 28 days, so there has to be some changes in the Old Testament readings. I combine some of the smaller prophetic writings, or I will add a chapter here or there depending on context. Also, Ps. 119 is 176 verses long, so I break the Psalm into 24 verse sections for a daily reading.
To work the whole schedule out, I take a calendar and, starting with Jan. 1, will write down the OT, Psalm, and NT reading for each day on that calendar. Planning ahead is part of the discipline of reading. Of course, there are dozens, maybe hundreds of pre-printed schedules out there – but what fun is that? Part of the joy of this plan is you actually have to spend time working it out. The return you get for your time is quite gratifying.
You may ask, “What about Sunday?” Well, that is when I turn to the Moravian reading schedule, which follows the common lectionary reading for Sunday. So, every Sunday there is an Old Testament reading, a reading from a Psalm, a reading from a gospel, and a reading from another New Testament book. The lectionary follows the common Christian calendar.
This past year I followed the Moravian reading schedule completely, but I learned a couple of things. The Moravian schedule is much more expanded – you read through the Bible once every two years, meaning the readings are much smaller. But I learned that the manner in which the Moravian schedule breaks the Old Testament readings is not necessarily along contextual lines. Many stories are interrupted, and others are broken in seemingly incongruous ways. Also, many of the Psalms are divided, when they should have been read in their entirety. Now, a reader can always read the entire Psalm every day, and I often did, but it just did not make sense to me to break so many of the Psalms into smaller sections. The New Testament readings make much more sense, at least this past year, as the readings all came from the gospels which are easier to break into contextual sections.
An objection to my longer reading schedule is often “I don’t have time to read that Bible that long every day.” Let me say first that there are some people for whom that is true. I think especially of mothers of young children. Babies and toddlers just do not allow for lengthy periods of quiet time. However, for the overwhelming majority of us, that excuse is just a dodge. How much time do you spend with your eyes glued to a screen – either your computer, phone, or tablet? Uh huh, thought so. Now, how much time do you spend reading your Bible? Yeah, right. See – our priorities are revealed by the amount of time we devote to certain tasks. I seriously doubt that many of us cannot devote 30 – 45 minutes a day to reading the Bible, even if it has to be broken into sections (Old Testament in the morning, Psalms and New Testament at night). It is not so much a matter of opportunity, but will power and dedication.
Another objection I hear is “I just want to read a verse or two and meditate on those.” Wonderful! I think that is a great idea. But with that idea comes the related problem of atomizing the Scriptures. The Old Testament in particular was written as a narrative, a story. By just pulling one verse out of thin air a reader misses the “story” that makes the verse important. So, by reading larger sections (and 5 chapters a day is NOT that long of a reading), a reader can follow along with the narrative of the text. Then, if a particular verse, or section of verses, strikes you as especially meaningful, then by all means take the time to meditate on those verses.
The point of any daily Bible reading schedule is that it is pointless if we do not spend time in the text. I fully admit that this “long” reading schedule is not for everyone. But, for some, it may be the schedule that opens entire new doors into the Scripture.
Whatever your plan, choose one that works for you and stick with it. Let us all become readers of God’s word in 2015!
I have not been posting much this summer (and probably will not, except for a stray column now and then). I am working on finishing my dissertation for my Doctor of Ministry program and I am up to my armpits in writing crises. I just have not had time for this space this summer.
But, some things are just too good to pass up.
As a part of my dissertation I was reviewing some material from earlier classes at Fuller Theological Seminary. I came across a book that I did not realize how important it was the first time I read it, but now after the passage of some time and the focusing of my dissertation I have an entirely new appreciation for the material.
The book is titled, Dissident Discipleship: A Spirituality of Self-Surrender, Love of God, and Love of Neighbor by David Augsburger. It is published by Brazos Press out of Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has a 2006 publication date. In a sentence, the book is a description of the Anabaptist view of discipleship.
I don’t want to spoil anything for those of you who are curious about my dissertation, but finding this book on my shelves again was huge. Augsburger works through eight core practices of discipleship: Radical Attachment, Stubborn Loyalty, Tenacious Serenity, Habitual Humility, Resolute Nonviolence, Concrete Service, Authentic Witness and Subversive Spirituality. Augsburger then concludes with six appendices, the most valuable to me was the seven “Core Convictions” of the Anabaptists. As you can tell from the chapter headings, this is not fluffy reading. Although Augsburger works through some heavy theology, the book is not written in “technical jargon” and is easily accessible, if the reader will simply devote some time to absorbing the material. The content will challenge you, regardless of whether you accept Augsburger’s conclusions or not.
Coming from a tradition that values reason and logic above all else, there was much in this book that was difficult for me to understand. I do not agree with everything that Augsburger says in the book – I never agree whole heartedly with any author (well, almost never). However, after the passage of several years, a whole heap of a lot of study, and the focus of my dissertation, all of a sudden I think I realize just how important, and how powerful, this book really is.
The fact that the book is based on the “radical” Anabaptist tradition will, no doubt, be distressing to many. If you judge a book, or an entire movement, by the fly-leaf of a book review or by the shallow lecture of someone who knows nothing about the tradition, then this is probably not the book for you. It would rattle your cage to the point you would probably lose your sanity.
However, If you are serious about learning about an often misjudged and abused people, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are serious about learning about what it means to be a disciple of Christ, then by all means buy and study this book. If you are interested in deepening your walk with God and your service to the church and world, then by all means buy and study this book.
But be careful, you just might end up becoming a dissident disciple.
I grew up loving guitar music. My father had several classical guitar records that I would play over and over again. I remember being enchanted watching a classical guitarist on TV, wondering how his fingers could fly so effortlessly across the fretboard. When I had a chance to take guitar lessons I jumped at the opportunity. I was going to be a concert guitarist. I even purchased several guitars – each and every one a very lovely dust collector.
Many years later I learned why I never quite made it to Carnegie Hall. I was watching a video on Christopher Parkening, regarded by many as one of the most accomplished classical guitarists alive today. Someone asked him how long he spent practicing. Parkening never fully answered the question as I remember, but he did point out that when he was a student he learned that Andres Segovia, certainly regarded as one of the finest to ever play the instrument, practiced for over 5 hours every day. Steve Kaufman, a legend in bluegrass music, warms up for an hour before a concert.
Oh, so that is why I never was asked to sign a record contract. I wanted to be a great guitarist – be right up there with Mason Williams and Roy Clark and Chet Atkins and the Romero brothers. There was only one problem (well, actually there were more, but let’s simplify things here…). I wanted all that greatness in about 15 minutes of doodling a day. To put it in perspective, I spent less time practicing than the great guitarists did in loosening their fingers to get ready to practice.
I wonder how many of us would really like to be known as a devout spiritual person. Maybe not a great spiritual person (because that would be a mark of pride, not generally considered a part of spirituality), but certainly someone who would be recognized as one who swam in the deep end of the spiritual pool. Yet, when we are told what it takes to leave the kiddie wading pool and actually launch out into deep water, we realize that maybe we did not want to be that great after all.
I have learned, much to my displeasure, that the great spiritual disciplines can be as difficult to master as the guitar. Very few of us are born spiritual giants. The spiritual disciplines of prayer, meditation on Scripture, fasting, worship and others take time to develop. But more than time, they take dedication and perseverance. They take physical effort. And, mastering any skill takes a significant amount of will power.
So, I’m afraid that for many of us, our desire to be spiritual people sounds a lot like my adolescent “desire” to be a concert guitarist. I wanted all the results; but none of the gritty, day-to-day, dull boring practice. I wanted to be great, but not that bad.
So, how much time have you spent in prayer, reading Scripture, and worship this week?
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good. (Romans 12:9, NRSV)
My thoughts turn to a dark theme today – Christians who hate. I have been tasked with a speaking engagement that really has made me do some thinking. It is obvious in this world there are many who claim to be followers of Christ who hate. Many of these, regrettably, stand behind pulpits and lecterns every Sunday morning. With the blessing of leaders who hate, is it any wonder that we are creating more generations of “Christians” who hate?
When challenged with such an accusation many who fit the above description would respond sharply, “Well, in the Bible we are told to hate that which is evil and cling to that which is good.” Their quotation of Scripture is far better than their exegesis. How do I know, you ask? Well, for one thing, take a look at what they hate:
- Democrats, especially Barak Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid. Many “Christians” have a pathological hatred of the leadership of the Democratic party.
- Anyone who is pro-choice. You obviously cannot be pro-choice and be a Christian, therefore I am fully empowered to hate anyone who is pro-choice.
- Dare I add anyone who sees homosexuality differently than I do?
- Anyone who sees common sense efforts to curb gun violence as being a worthwhile endeavor. Because God so clearly established the 2nd Amendment to the Constitution, if you want to challenge that inspired legislation you are obviously worthy of my hatred.
- In fact, anyone who can be labeled as a “pacifist” is deserving of my hatred, because God specifically created the American Armed Forces to be his “sword of Gideon.”
- And, let us not forget that we are fully permitted to hate those of other religious groups, even and especially those who consider themselves to be “Christian,” if they do not fit my definition of what it means to be a Christian. Everybody knows the Pope is the anti-christ, right? Who can I hate if I cannot hate people who refuse to interpret the Bible the way I do?
Do you see a common theme here? I have heard, and overheard, conversations where people who fit in these categories (and more!) are viciously excoriated – all with the assumed blessing of God because we are commanded to “hate what is evil and cling to that which is good.”
It is beyond comprehensible to me that people who quote (either verbatim or in spirit) Romans 12:9 are so totally unaware of the context in which the passage is found. Note, for example, how Paul begins the chapter:
I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. (Romans 12:1-3, NRSV)
Did you catch that? Did you see how Paul begins this new section (Paul clearly wants these verses to be the beginning of a new section, cf. 11:33-36)? Present your bodies as a sacrifice to God. Do not be conformed to this world; be transformed. Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment. Then, in v. 9, let love be genuine, hate what is evil, cling to the good – which Paul clearly states in v. 2 is the will of God!
That which we are to hate has nothing to do with other people! We are to hate the powers and the destructive tendencies in our own lives that make our actions putrid in God’s sight. All of these issues are inwardly directed, not outwardly directed! If we cannot see this in Paul’s intention, maybe we can see it if he makes it blatantly clear:
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. (Romans 12:14, NRSV)
Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all (Romans 12:17, NRSV)
Do not be overcome with evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:21)
You see, those “Christians” who hate Democrats, Pro-lifers, Pacifists and Popes all stand self-condemned, and the great tragedy is that they will go to their judgment thinking that they have followed God’s command to “hate what is evil.” That’s what Saul of Tarsus thought too, until God gave him three days of pitch black quietness to think things over (Acts 9:1-9).
So, the next time you are tempted to “hate” anything – stop and take a really long, hard look at the object/person/situation that you are supposed to hate. It might be that God is actually calling on you to be a blessing to that person/situation instead of hating it.
For our own soul’s salvation, it is at least worth considering.
It has happened again. When in happens in multiples it gets your attention. One is an accident, two is a coincidence, three times – well, you had better pay attention.
And they came to Capernaum; and when he was in the house he asked them, “What were you discussing on the way?” But they were silent; for on the way they had discussed with one another who was the greatest. And he sat down and called the twelve; and he said to them, “If any one would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all.” And he took a child, and put him in the midst of them; and taking him in his arms, he said to them, “Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me; and whoever whoever receives me, receives not me but him who sent me.” (Mark 9:33-37 RSV)
It would appear that there is no end of those who want to discuss among themselves who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. As I mentioned, I have come across several just in the last few days. The last one was the straw that broke this camel’s back, and so I had to vent some steam here.
There are a multitude of ways in which some declare their own superior discipleship over lesser “mere Christians.” Some do it through speaking in tongues or some other miraculous manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Some do it through rituals or practices -say fasting or praying or going on “faith walks” or the such. One favorite among preachers within the Churches of Christ is to measure Bible studies and baptisms. Some youth ministers can’t wait for summer camp so that they can carve a whole new row of notches on their spiritual six-shooter. I suppose, if I wanted to, I could add that some measure their superiority by their advanced educational degrees, or at least their advanced knowledge even if they do not have the paper to certify a degree. I mean, after all, did not Paul tell Timothy to “study to shew thyself approved unto God”? (2 Timothy 2:15, KJV) How much more of a direct command can we get than that?
The point is, it does not matter whether we quote Matthew 28:18-20 or 1 Corinthians 14:5 or 2 Timothy 2:15 until our faces turn blue – all our soap and blather will not change one basic, fundamental fact that is taught in Scripture from Genesis to Revelation – God’s grace is equal and equally undeserved and there are no levels of superior or inferior spirituality when it comes to the servants of the kingdom.
I mean, really, how many times are we going to have to hear the words of Jesus??
Listen to Paul explain, again and again, that there are NO super Christians:
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. No neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:5-7 RSV)
This is how one should regard us, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. (1 Corinthians 4:1 RSV)
For what we preach is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake…But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, to show that the transcendent power belongs to God and not to us. (2 Corinthians 4:5, 7 RSV)
See also 1 Corinthians 12:4-13:13, Romans 12:3-8. Ephesians 4:9-16.
What is so distressing to me when I hear or read these promoters of super-spirituality is that it is so believable! We want to believe that if we work a little bit harder, pray a little more fervently, teach one more Bible class that someone else or are able to parse a verb in one more language than someone else that God must pay us a little more. He has to reward us a little higher. We so desperately want to believe that there are levels of spirituality, so that I can be just a little better than the scum-sucking, bottom-feeding pew-sitter taking up space and wasting valuable resources of the church. And that is the deadly sin involved in this judgment – I am better than you because according to my measurement I am just a better, holier, more spiritual disciple than you are.
So tongue speakers measure spirituality by speaking in tongues, introverts measure spirituality by hours of prayer and devotions, personal evangelists measure discipleship by the number of Bible studies conducted and baptisms accomplished and scholars measure spirituality by articles written and conferences held.
And it is all so dreadfully, profoundly, disgustingly, sinful! Pride is a sin and it does not matter who is doing the bragging.
Why can we not just accept Paul’s teaching and realize that it takes all of us to make up the kingdom? If you have a miraculous gift – fine and wonderful. But don’t condemn me because I have another gift. Can you pray for hours uninterrupted? Wonderful! Do not cast off those who are a little more distracted. Can you initiate, teach and conclude dozens of Bible studies a year? Yahoo and praise the Lord – but do not sniff down your nose at those who cannot, and according to Scripture, even should not, be doing so. And can you translate the Bible from all the original languages into dozens of others? Jump for joy and pass the printing ink – but do not condemn, judge or dismiss those who do well to read from one easy-to-read translation.
One more passage from the mouth of our Savior:
So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, “We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.” (Luke 17:10)
Let us do our duty, fulfill our gifts, lift up those who are striving to fulfill their gifts, and let us for once and for ever get over this adolescent fixation on whether we are more spiritual that someone else simply because we have a different gift.
Stream of consciousness alert here – this post may not flow too logically. If you get confused, that’s okay. I am confused too.
Something Rush Limbaugh said the other day resonated with me. The only time I listen to Limbaugh is when I am in my car driving to my exercise or to lunch. I cannot give you the set up for the comment beyond he was discussing global warming (a massive hoax according to RL). The thing he said that made me start thinking was the overweening pride and arrogance that we who are alive today have when we think that we have everything all figured out, that we are the paragon of all human existence. In regard to global warming his point is that we think we have a real crisis here because the average temperature of the atmosphere has gone up a degree or so in the past 100 years or whatever. Of course, if we think that we are the be-all and end-all of civilization, we might have reason to be concerned. But if you look at the thousands of years of human civilization, who is to say that OUR atmosphere is the norm by which we should gauge all atmospheres? Maybe we have been living for the past 1,000 years in a atmospheric freak, and our world is just beginning to settle the score and get back to the way things were 1,000 years or more ago.
Whatever. You can have your own opinion about global warming or climate change or whatever you want to call it. But what does his theory have to do with spiritual issues? Have we decided that we, in the 20th/21st century have discovered what the sum total of godly living is? Are we going to measure all civilizations, past and future, against our vast and unchallenged spiritual maturity?
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As I was explaining to one of my classes this past week, if we viewed all of humankinds’ knowledge as one of our oceans, what we know right now at this moment in history amounts to about a sewing thimble full of water. Our arrogance, however, exceeds that of the distance between the earth and the sun.
Where this slaps me upside the head right now is in trying to figure out why so many young people who are raised in the church are leaving the church, and what we can do, if anything, to reverse the trend. In a moment that may be born more of fatigue and frustration I’ve come to think that what we have been doing for the past 40 years is exactly the wrong thing to be doing!
You see, I was lucky to be raised at a time in which youth ministry was just getting started. I was blessed to have some of the finest youth ministers in the Churches of Christ influence me – perhaps one of the finest ever in the person of Bobby Hise. But, looking back on the situation through the eyes of a (mumble, mumble) year old, I wonder if we are not doing more harm than good by trying to “meet the needs” of teenagers and trying to “make the Bible relevant” to teenagers. I see more time, money and energy going into youth ministries today than ever before with decreasing results – when the graduates of these programs enter college or young adulthood they leave the churches in droves. Why? What are we doing that is producing such negative effects?
I think part of the answer goes back to Limbaugh’s observation. We have convinced ourselves that the next generation is the only generation that matters, and we will do anything and everything to make sure they have it better than we did. We have flashier worship services, the latest and greatest (and hippest) songs, we have multiple screens for our video sermons and the teens can interact with the speaker on their smart phones. Yet, I can tell you emphatically that our college students know far less Bible now than my high school classmates did “x” number of years ago.
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My friends, in the local vernacular, we are all hat and no cattle.
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Okay, I’ll admit it – I grew up spoiled. I had the world handed to me on a silver platter and served to me with a silver spoon. We had youth rallies and special classes and impressive camps designed just for us. We got to sing our special songs and we even taught some of them to the adults. And, as good American parents we have even upped the ante with our children and grandchildren. We will move heaven and earth to make sure our children and grandchildren are pacified and satisfied in a church that they will believe is “relevant,” whatever in the world that means.
And, boy – just look at the results. Look around at the average congregation. How many college students do you see? How many 20-30 somethings do you see? Some congregations may be doing very well, thank you. I suspect most are not.
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I find it more than simply fascinating that at the exact moment in which Peter confesses Jesus as the Christ, the gospel writers emphasize that Jesus began to teach the disciples that being the Christ meant death on a cross. Not only that, but being a disciple meant following that death on the cross and perhaps even sharing in that death on a cross.
So, while we are teaching that the Christian life is cool and hip and everybody should be a Christian and churches should try to do everything in their power to make sure we are comfortable and satisfied and have all our narcissistic needs met (especially if we are young and beautiful), Jesus was saying, “Hold on here – you got the theology right, I am the Son of God. But do you really know what that means and what following me means?”
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The point is, when increased budgets and activity result in decreased results, maybe we have something backwards. Maybe we have had something backwards for over a generation now. Maybe we need to re-think the whole discipleship issue, from the ground up.
Maybe we should be teaching more about the cross and doing less spiritual spoiling of our children, grandchildren, and converts.
The sermon topic this morning was Paul’s message to the older women in Titus 2. Now, I can’t tell you for sure exactly what all the points were, because like every good sermon this one prompted thought – and some internal processing. I got to thinking about all the wonderful senior saints who have had an impact on my life. The quirky, the eccentric, lovable each and every one of them.
So much is being said and written these days about how the Church of Christ in particular is being oppressive to women. Yea, verily, you would think we make our females wear burqas and sit on split rail benches behind a screened in wall in an adjacent room while the men sit in upholstered recliners in a gilded auditorium.
And I remember these heroic women of my childhood and wonder – if they were so oppressed, if the men of the congregation looked down on them so much, if they were so 2nd or 3rd class – then why are they so prominent in my memory? How did they come to have such an impact on my spiritual development?
I really feel sorry for a woman who feels like the only way she can gain any respectability is to preach a sermon, pray a prayer or “lead” at the Lord’s table. What a small concept of self-worth. Honestly ladies – once you do it a couple of times you will realize how little “power” you will have. The glory that God has given the female far exceeds the menial task of standing behind a pulpit. To look at a man and say, “I want to be like him” is the worst kind of self-deprecation. If you do not like being a woman, believe me, you will not be worth much as a man.
I realize those may be harsh words in the 21st century and the age of egalitarianism. But as I sat this morning listening to Paul’s words to the older female Christians I could not help but stop and think that I sure am glad I had some older ladies in my life who were sincerely grateful to be God’s daughters. They knew the power that they held in their grasp – and they had no desire to exchange it for the role of a male.
I don’t think that was the main point of the sermon. But, it was a sermon well preached anyway. It has been preached by dozens of women in my life. Godly women who received their giftedness with strength, humility and grace. It was a sermon that is preached every day by God’s servants both male and female who have the ability to say, “may it be to me as you have said.” (Lk. 1:38).