Category Archives: Spiritual Formation
This is kind of a follow-up to yesterday’s post about the church becoming so focused on not offending someone that it loses its sharp message. Related to political correctness is a belief that the church is to measure its success based strictly on numbers. That is a false assumption, but it drives virtually every mission that the church seeks to promote.
I have been a part of the Church of Christ for all of my life – and a paid minister for much of that life. I can attest that whenever a new mission is being evaluated, or an old mission is being reviewed, one of the most important questions that must be answered is, “How will this help us grow numerically?” The question may not be asked in such bald terms, but whether it is blatant or more covert, the question is still there. If we are going to invest dollars in a mission, we want to see numerical results.
This eventually leads to the problem I discussed yesterday – if we want rear-ends in the pews we cannot preach or teach anything that might offend large numbers of our target audience. If we are a large, up-scale, predominantly white and affluent congregation the talk of greed, avarice and selfishness must be banished. If we are poor, lower-class and predominantly dependent on government aid we cannot discuss that issues of envy or resentment. If a large percentage of our congregation is borderline obese forget hearing a sermon on gluttony. If we live next door to a military base do not even think about hearing a sermon on the evils of military aggression and the need to obey Christ’s call to lay aside the weapons of destruction. The point is the overwhelming majority of the content of our sermons and lessons is determined not by the content of Scripture, but by the location of our church buildings and the make-up of our congregational membership rolls.
Believe me, I have been both perpetrator and victim of this mentality. Much of my job security has revolved around the stability, if not the growth, of the numbers of the ministry I have been associated with. I have been all too much a promoter of the “we have to have more and more people here” kind of thinking. But, I have also been burned by the same mentality. You are not invited to speak at all the brotherhood soirees if your only claim to fame is that you drive people away from your building.
I don’t think Jesus was all that hung-up about numbers. In fact, he was just as willing to see the slackers and the hangers-on turn around and leave him as he was to see the faithful follow him. He lamented the fact people would turn their back on him, but he never promised to bring in donuts and coffee if they would stay.
What Jesus was vitally interested in was the quality of the life of the disciple. If you said you were “in” with Jesus, he wanted to make sure you understood what that “in” meant. The cost of discipleship varied with the person, and Jesus would not expect the same effort from a 75 year old convert that he might expect from a 25 year old convert. But he would expect the same amount of love and commitment.
Churches of Christ are in a major quandary these days, as are congregations of virtually every religious stripe. Some of the issues confronting the churches have been created by our opponent, Satan. Some of the wounds we are seeking to heal, however, are purely self-inflicted. Part of the problem, although not all of it by any stretch of the imagination, is the fact that for several generations now we have been measuring success by the quantity of numbers in our pews, and not the quality of discipleship in those who sit in the pews.
In an odd sort of way, Jesus may be happier with us if we had fewer congregations made up of smaller memberships, if those members were fully committed Christians. The interesting thing is, if that were to happen, my guess is the numbers of the members of the church would grow exponentially. I believe people want to be a part of genuine Christianity. I think they are just sick and tired of the pseudo-christianity that is being peddled by so many number-hungry churches today.
I’m not exactly sure the process that encouraged me to read this book – I had a bunch of “irons in the fire” over the past couple of years, and a note indicates I bought this book in July of 2013 – so it has been a while since I have read it. It has taken me a while to get around to reviewing it, but that time delay does not reflect on the importance of the book.
There are some books that you read and you think, “Wow, I wish I had thought of that.” Other books you read and you think, “I’m not sure I agree with that, or I do not think the author made his case very well here.” And then there are the books that you read and you think, “Wow. I agree with the author, and I really wish that he was not right.” Bergler’s book fit that third category for me. I have felt that Bergler’s thesis was true for quite some time, but I could not have said it as powerfully or as eloquently as Bergler does.
Bergler’s thesis is given on pages 4 and 8:
Beginning in the 1930s and 1940s, Christian teenagers and youth leaders staged a quiet revolution in American Church life which can properly be called the juvenilization of American Christianity. Juvenilization is the process by which the religious beliefs, practices, and developmental characteristics of adolescents become accepted as appropriate for Christians of all ages.
And then this:
Adolescent Christianity is any way of understanding, experiencing, or practicing the Christian faith that conforms to the patterns of adolescence in American culture.
The main point of the book is that due to the influence of the adolescent culture shift that started in the 1930’s, the American church is basically a church of adolescents. This is not something that can be undone, according to Bergler. Indeed, he states emphatically that his book is NOT a manual on how to eliminate juvenilization – and the last chapter is dedicated to “The Triumph and Taming of Juvenilization.”
Bergler demonstrates how each of the major groups of American Christianity (Liberals andConservatives, Catholics and Protestants) have been affected by this trend. The one group that he points out that has managed to resist the process is the Black church. This is true because Black Christians did a much better job of integrating their youth into the entire church and thereby fostered a greater degree of maturity as their youth matured.
In contrast, by creating, and by constantly re-creating age specific “youth groups” complete with their own “youth ministers,” the vast majority of the American church scene simply allowed their youth to stagnate in the period of life we call adolescence. The problem is that now “we are all adolescents” as the introduction is titled. Just think of the major issues in the American church today and you will find that at the root there is a systemic lack of Christian maturity. Everyone wants the church to be what they want it to be, not what Christ has called the church to be.
Having gone through adolescence in the 1970’s this book was a hard read for me. I loved the youth group that gave me so much strength as a young Christian. But I can see now how we have bent the church to try to match the demands of what can only be described as “adolescence” that we have lost sight of Paul’s instruction to “grow up into maturity . . . into Christ.” By allowing everyone to stay an adolescent, we have almost killed the church.
The one problem I have with the book is Bergler’s acceptance of the problem he identified. True, in the final pages he discusses how the process needs to be “tamed,” but I do not see how the issue he discusses can be dealt with short of ending it. Adolescence may be a necessary stage of growth for today’s young people, but in no way do we want them to stay stuck in adolescence. We want to move them to maturity – we want to move the church to maturity. We want, or maybe better put, we NEED to grow up!
I heartily recommend the book. It may open your eyes, it may challenge you, and you may thoroughly disagree with Bergler, but in my (humble) opinion you cannot disregard the issue that he reveals.
This is the third in my series of working through my Doctor of Ministry dissertation on confession in the Churches of Christ. Today I look at the biblical evidence for the practice of confession.
Within the Churches of Christ our focus has been primarily on the New Testament. The Old Testament is valuable, so children are told, but mostly because all the really cool stories are in the Old Testament. There are no floods, no arks, no fish that swallow humans, no giant-killing little shepherds in the New Testament. As adults we are told that the Old Testament is valuable because it “teaches us about God,” but if that is the case we must not want to know much about God because we spend precious little time studying (I mean really studying) the Old Testament.
However, in my doctoral studies I wrote a paper on the Psalms of Lament, and it struck a nerve with me. Depending on how you classify the Psalms, approximately one-third of the Psalms (maybe a little more, maybe a little less) are Psalms of lament. Now, stop and ask yourself a question – why was lament such a major part of worship for the Israelites/Jews? Well, that got me to thinking, and when the time came for me to select my dissertation topic, one thing kind of led to another and the subject of confession made itself sort of unavoidable.
So, as a result of the paper on the Psalms of Lament, I turned not to the New Testament for the “skeleton” of my biblical study on confession, but to the Psalms. What I discovered was that the Psalms are basically a roadmap for the practice of confession. In fact, you might say that “confession” is one major, if not the major, theme that unifies the entire book of Psalms.
In a very brief summary, I discovered that the book of Psalms contains the following four types of confession:
Adoration, Praise, and the confession of belief/faith in God
Confession of sin
Now, some may quibble about my taxonomy here, but as John Denver once quipped to his audience that was clamoring for him to sing their favorite song, “Hey, this is my show.”
I then turned to the narrative sections of the Old Testament and discovered that these same qualities, or types, of confession are described throughout the text. Within the prophetic material the aspect of lament is particularly evident in Jeremiah, but the other types of confession are evident in the prophets as well. Certainly the book of Job contains both lament and praise.
Turning to the New Testament I discovered the same thread – there are examples of each of the four main types of confession, although lament is noticeably more subdued in the New Testament. I believe there is a theological reason for that – but there are examples of lament within the New Testament as well.
The purpose of this section of the dissertation was to demonstrate that confession (in all of its various forms) was, and is, a critical component of the daily life and worship of God’s people. The absence of a clear and sustained emphasis on confession in the Churches of Christ is all the more striking, then, because one of the “pillars” of our heritage is that we want to go back to the Bible and practice the pure faith and religion of the earliest church. I am convinced, and I argue in my dissertation, that we have failed to do so when it comes to the practice of confession.
I realize these blog posts are rudimentary – just giving the briefest sketch of my work. However, I am creating a seminar that covers this material in-depth, and if you would like more information about scheduling a seminar in your area, please contact me at abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com. Also, I am presently searching for a publisher who might be interested in publishing the dissertation (although expanded and modified for a general audience), so if there is anyone out there in the blogosphere who has a connection with a publisher who might be interested, please let me know at the above email address. I will be deeply grateful!
Thanks for following me in the fog!
One of the greatest blessings given to me through my studies for my DMin. coursework was the realization of how secular philosophies affect our theology. Second to this observation is the further truth that these philosophies are virtually hidden to our conscious thought. These philosophies are just like the air we breath – we are controlled by them yet we are hardly aware of them, if at all.
In my last post I discussed the reality that for many members of the Churches of Christ, our physical history is something of an enigma. We clearly have one (kind of like a belly button) but for many of us we do not want it to be seen or discussed (again, much like a belly button). We can cover it up, and refuse to admit we have one, but sooner or later the truth comes out and our history rises up to bite us when and where we least expect it.
If acknowledging our history is difficult for the majority of the members of the Churches of Christ, the admission that we are affected by secular philosophy (or philosophies) is tantamount to heresy. Even those who accept that the Restoration Movement is rooted in history will more often than not claim that this history is divine history, and therefore unstained by any human embellishment. In that limited world-view, God simply swooped down and deposited the Restoration Movement onto the pages of history much like he swooped down to snatch Elijah from the earth. Don’t laugh. For many years this was my concept of Restoration History. Sort of like the “big bang,” first there was no Restoration, and then “POOF” there was a Restoration. Call it Restoration ex nihilo.
This, much to my initial chagrin and later relief, cannot be any further from the truth. The fact is that Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Tolbert Fanning, David Lipscomb, and every leader down to the latest graduate from our universities or schools of preaching were and are profoundly affected by the prevailing philosophies of their day. For Campbell and Stone that meant the philosophy of John Locke, Francis Bacon, and the political philosophy that drove the “Founding Fathers” of our nation to create the Constitution. Evidence of this can be amply produced through the language used in the early documents of the Restoration Movement. This is why so much of our contemporary language focuses on “pattern” and “constitution” and “blueprint.” We are simply following in the footsteps of those who were following in the footsteps of those who formed the new Republic.
For us today the situation is the same, although the prevailing philosophies have changed. We are no longer marching in lock-step with those who believe in the ultimate goodness of technology or the limitless capacity of the human mind. We have seen both the incomparable good of splitting the atom, and also the horrific evil of the same. Yet, having split the atom, we cannot seem to figure out a way to put the thing back together. We realize now that man is more likely to be the cause of his own demise, rather than the source of his own salvation. There is no “ultimate good” for which man is destined. The “modern mind” which so fully captivated Campbell has been replaced with the “postmodern mind;” therefore, much of what Campbell believed to be incontrovertible truth now just seems like a quaint little fairy tale. Such is the air that we breathe, the truth that we hold to be “self-evident.”
What does all of this “philosophizing” have to do with theology? Simply this – if we do not at least attempt to recognize our own temporal worldview, we will end up making the same mistakes of our spiritual forebears. I for one am an avowed restorationist. I am constantly awed and humbled by the profundity of Campbell, Stone, Walter Scott, “Raccoon” John Smith and a host of others. They were centuries ahead of their contemporaries, as modern theological thought has proven. But, that having been said, they were woefully unaware that the basic philosophy of their day was coloring the theology that they were producing. Therefore, they read early 19th century America back into the Bible, especially the New Testament, and the result of their research was that Jesus was the quintessential American Patriot. That philosophical blindness has been passed down for numerous generations, and it has affected our spiritual vision at every step along the way.
The solution to this vision problem is not to discard our history! (As so many are wont to do). Neither is it to idolize our history and simply ignore the reality of temporal nearsightedness. The solution is to acknowledge the reality of our own human frailty, to acknowledge the affect of secular philosophy upon our most deeply held convictions, and then to challenge those convictions with the penetrating truth of God’s word.
In my own, very narrow study of confession, what I discovered was that the Lockean/Baconian empiricism of Campbell and his early disciples made it virtually impossible for them and their heirs to develop and bequeath a healthy practice of confession. Stated in its most raw expression, if you have everything all figured out, if you have perfectly restored that which was defective, there is no need for confession. That, of course, is an over-simplification, but it works for a “nuts-and-bolts” summary of the early chapters of my dissertation.
Lest I be counted as an ancestor-bashing, history-hating, long-haired, dope-smoking hippy, let me repeat – I am an avowed restorationist. I am far more Stonian/Lipscombian than I am Campbellian, but if I am cut I bleed Restorationist blood. I wrote my dissertation to honor my heritage, not to trash it. So, in the greatest heritage of seeking to improve upon that which has been given to me, I recognize some areas where my spiritual heritage can be strengthened. One of those areas is confession, and that is what led me to my final research.
As I mentioned in my last blog, I will create a seminar dedicated to sharing this information with any who are interested. Please contact me at abqfr8dawg (at) msn (dot) com and I will gladly get back with you.
Andrew Root, Bonhoeffer as Youth Worker: A Theological Vision for Discipleship and Life Together (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2014)
I am a Bonhoefferophile. Happiness to me (if I cannot be fly fishing somewhere on a cold trout stream) is a big cup of Earl Grey tea, a book by or about Bonhoeffer, and a long afternoon. But, that having been said, there is nothing worse than a bad book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Regardless of how much you like steak, there come a point that if it is cooked poorly, even a filet mignon is a wretched piece of meat. So, when I heard that a book about Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a youth worker had been published, I was immediately and deeply suspicious. Possibly no theologian has been used and abused more than Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Liberals see Bonhoeffer as the consummate liberal, conservatives see Bonhoeffer as a flag carrying conservative. I was afraid to find that Mr. Root would make Dietrich Bonhoeffer out to be the paragon of modern “pizza and praise God party” youth minister. I read some encouraging reviews, so I cautiously bought the book. The siren call of another study on Bonhoeffer was just too strong to resist.
Boy, am I glad I did.
My fears of Mr. Root transposing American youth ministry onto Bonhoeffer were dispelled on p. 3 when he wrote, “Actually, as we’ll see in the chapters below, Dietrich Bonhoeffer more than likely would have been strongly against many of the forms American youth ministry has taken since its inception.” Mr. Root is still too kind, but at least he put my mind at ease. The rest of the book served this summary well – he clearly demonstrated the vast difference between Bonhoeffer and American elitist, entitlement based youth ministry.
Root’s work is divided into 14 chapters and runs 208 pages long – so the book moves quickly. Root takes a chronological approach to studying Bonhoeffer’s work with youth, which is not the only way to study Bonhoeffer’s theology, but it works very well in this case. Root demonstrates that throughout his work with youth (which is far more extensive than most people realize), Bonhoeffer was consistent and demanding. Bonhoeffer was a theologian first and foremost and not at all concerned with the “bottom line” that defines so much American youth ministry. However, he was particularly adept at recognizing the capacity of his audience to perceive and adopt theological concepts, and so Bonhoeffer was a master at pedagogy as well as theology. Reading this book illuminates how important it is for a youth worker to be firmly grounded in theology, as well as methodology to convey that theology. (Note especially chapter 6, “Tears for Mr. Wolf: Barcelona and After”, and chapter 9, “They Killed Their Last Teacher! The Wedding Confirmation Class.”)
I am afraid that many (if not most) American youth ministers will not like this book – if they even understand what Root is saying. Most American youth ministry creates idols out of young people. “Do this, or we will lose our youth!” “Don’t do that, or say that, because our young people will not like it and they will leave!” Most critical, youth ministry in America treats theology like the plague – you can do just about anything, but for crying out loud stay away from theology. Even if you have to (horrors) talk about God, make sure he comes across as a BFF, so that you will not scare the poor little darlings.
Bonhoeffer, as Root so powerfully and eloquently demonstrates, viewed young people as individuals who were both capable and responsible for learning about the great and deep things of God. And Bonhoeffer viewed youth ministry as a critical part of the entire congregation – Bonhoeffer never wavered from his insistence that the church, and especially the congregation, was the center of the world for the Christian. I think Bonhoeffer would be aghast at the way our youth ministries pull young people away from the church – we actually destroy the community of the saints by isolating one of its most critical components.
Root demonstrates beyond question that for Bonhoeffer, theology had to be the center for youth ministry. How he managed to accomplish what he did is another story – certainly not everyone is going to be as gifted as Bonhoeffer in working with youth. But, if you love young people, if you are concerned about the young people in your church, and especially if you are currently involved in ministering to young people, this is one book you need to buy, read, and most important, fit into your ministry.
Just do not expect to find a 21st century youth minister in Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was not, and for that we should all be very grateful.
One of the joys I have is teaching and learning from some really great young people. The other day following class a few of us were discussing various topics, and one of the things we were talking about was faithful obedience. The story of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego and their great statement of faith came up,
O Nebuchadnezzar, we have no need to answer you in this matter. If it be so, Our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the burning fiery furnace; and he will deliver us out of your hand, O king. But if not, be it known to you, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the golden image which you have set up. (Daniel 3:16-18, RSV)
One of the students told the group he had prepared a lesson on the difference between faith and fear. The lesson is profound, so I share it with you.
Fear says, “What if . . .” Fear says, “What if I fail, what if I get sick or die, what if this solution costs too much or does not achieve the goal for which we out to overcome, what if the people reject me, what if there are unforeseen setbacks, what if, what if, what if.”
Faith says, “Even if . . .” “Even if I fail, even if I get sick or die, even if this solution costs more that the value returned, even if the people reject me, even if there are unforeseen setbacks, I am going to follow God and his word, and I am not going to give in to fear.”
It was a powerful moment. Far too often I have collapsed under the weight of the “what ifs.” I am cautious by nature, almost to a fault (maybe certainly to a fault). I like to see the end before I take a step. Could I have uttered the words of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego? I shudder to think.
How many times do we worship false gods because we are afraid of the “what ifs.” How many good projects are not even attempted because of the “what ifs.” How much good could be accomplished if we would just say, “even if.” We really need to have the courage to swim against the crush of the crowds – the courage of our convictions.
I needed to hear that message. I hope it helps you too.
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!