Rule of Life – Strengthen My Corporate Spirituality

My times of solitude must be in balance with corporate responsibilities. It will not do to try and convince myself I am growing spiritually if I am not among the people of God and not in service to the world God so loved. So I must look for ways to grow alongside my sisters and brothers in Christ. Perhaps even spending time with others who do not come from my own faith tradition that we might become acquainted with the strengths of one another’s church. We want to walk together in this adventure called church. This is a corporate adventure and I want to take seriously what happens when two or three of us gather together in His name.

I will participate in corporate life and enjoy that I belong to a large family. I will pursue balance in Christian living. I will be reminded that I am to love God AND love my neighbor. Worship will be an enactment that spills over into everyday life. This will help me to shape my responses toward others. I will carefully deal with those who have different opinions than I do. I will attempt to reconcile those who do not get along on account of political persuasion and remind them that our relationship with one another is stronger than partisan views. I will bless my sisters and brothers, bless those who do not deserve blessing, and I will recognize that I have been blessed.

I want to bridge the gap between those of differing political persuasions. I desire to be a gentle reminder that the kingdom of God is bigger than the current political landscape, the Good News is better than the current political rhetoric, and that King Jesus rules no matter who lives on Pennsylvania Avenue. I desire to be a flesh and blood reminder of the living Jesus.

Living among others is one of the struggles of being human; this is the reality of the matter. Humans come in all different sizes and shapes and shades. Some sound like me, others do not. We have an assortment of eye colors, hairstyles and adorn ourselves in multiple ways. Some of us are noisy, some are quiet. We all think differently, have different levels of hope, and get excited about different things. In fact, something that excites one may infuriate another. So many of us, all different, yet all created in the image of God. May I recognize that these “two leggers”, these hominids created with the dust of Eden and filled with the breath of God, all wear the mark of their Maker.

I want to keep incarnation in the forefront. What a mystery that God became one like us. Heaven came to earth and God became earthling. If this does nothing else, it surely adds some dignity to the rest of us earthlings. I only hope that I am wise enough to step out of the way often enough to learn from others in the Body who think differently. I desire to bless those of like mind and those who aren’t. To be a blessing sounds easy enough. But Barbara Brown Taylor claims that the world needs us to do this, because “there is a real shortage of people” willing to do it. To bless another, whether we are authorized or not, is evidence we ourselves have been blessed. She goes on “That we are willing to bless one another is miracle enough to stagger the very stars.” I pray for a spirit of hospitality toward those who are difficult for me to spend time with. I want to be intentional at understanding the people whose opinions differ from my own. I want to develop a posture of humility instead of one that is defensive. I desire to “stagger the stars.”

In the coming season of my spiritual journey, I will ask questions that matter. Are there relationships that I should nurture? Would new relationships spark my spirituality? Should I initiate more interaction with non-believers? Should I look for new places of service? Can I support the community where I am called to serve in new ways? Is there something that may stretch me a little? Is there a conference I should attend? Questions like these will help keep me from stagnation. I will ask them often. I want to consider such questions with seriousness, remembering I do not wish to crowd my schedule with more to do unless it has spiritual benefit. Otherwise, I defeat my purpose. I have already been shedding obligations deemed less necessary that were crowding my spiritual formation.

Thomas Merton writes that he entered the monastery and a writer walked in behind him. It makes me wonder, who is following me around? What identities do I carry with me that are unnecessary? If I identify myself as democrat or republican how does that strengthen my spiritual formation? What things are neutral, good, or bad depending on the way I choose to implement them? What things enslave me? Am I asking for stones when God is trying to give me bread? Are there things to be pruned so that I might be more fruitful?

This rule of life is not intended to be a guilt producing exercise, but a guide to help keep me on a path of growth. It is not intended to give me something more to do, but an assistant to help me focus on spiritual formation. It is not designed for me to master anything or figure God out. In fact, it does quite the opposite. The rule of life is intended to keep reminding me that  my role in relationship with Jesus is to follow.

Rule of Life – An Introduction

When I learned to drive I had to be very intentional about every move and decision. But nowadays I drive miles without thinking about what to do next. When I go for a walk I do not think about each step. I enjoy the benefits of breathing without deliberating about how it happens. I sit down and stand up without much thought. These things just happen. They have become a natural part of my life. This is the way James K. A. Smith talks about discipleship. This requires a regular enactment of what we want to occur, so that it spills out naturally into our everyday lives. That is a primary reason we keep gathering for worship. We hope that our worship activity might spillover into our weekdays.

I have little interest in a rule of life that adds to my schedule unnecessarily. It is important that a rule of life not become restrictive, but something that encourages discipleship to occur more naturally. What if gratitude became the natural response to a new day? What if grace became the natural response to wrongdoing? What if peace became the natural response to aggression? What if love became my natural response to enemies? I want things Jesus considers important to spill over into the situations I regularly find myself in.

I cannot help but notice that culture encourages something different. Traditional authorities like politics, science, education, even religion are suspect and being criticized. Core assumptions are up for grabs. The media has unleashed a surge of new authorities. Perhaps more accurately, due to social media, everyone has become an authority. Whatever our thoughts about the direction of culture, we can all agree that things are changing. Everything is coming at us with greater ease, convenience, speed and efficiency. While this is not necessarily bad, it does bring with it tendencies to crowd spirituality. Society values progress and achievement to such a degree that even one’s spiritual life can become reduced to convenience and efficiency. Perhaps that makes now the perfect time to reflect on what it means to follow Jesus.

Bio – Present Ministry

At the present time I serve with others of a similar mind who are trying to be intentional about what Jesus taught. For centuries followers and disciples have taken these teachings seriously. We are following the same steps and praying the same prayers as these early followers. These are the people walking with me as I learn to be a grandparent and learn how to deal with the loss of my father. We break bread together and remember who called us. We walk through the church year with the understanding we are on a journey.

Early in my relationship with this body, I was called to a meeting held in the downstairs of the building. Some referred to this as the dungeon. I was ok with this description since some of the church’s best stuff has come from out of dungeons. We discussed details during the meeting.  But what I remember most was the way the meeting concluded. We joined hands and we prayed the Lord’s Prayer. I felt like part of something big. I felt like we belonged to a long history of people who have prayed these words in dungeons and church basements.

Of all the things that have contributed to my own spiritual formation, among the greatest is a sense of belonging. Being loved and belonging to something that is bigger than any individual effort may be the most sustaining force in my own discipleship. Such belonging is most evident when we gather together. We open the word and pray together. We practice silence and song together. We pass the peace and join one another at the Lord’s Table. It is our intention that this activity will spill over into our weekday lives where we are trying to love others. It is our intention that our Sunday liturgies will influence our weekday liturgies also. Once one begins to view themself as an active participant in the plan of God, our worldview is guaranteed to change. Once one begins to recognize the significant role we play in the community of Christ and in larger segments of creation, there is impetus to grow, to be faithful, and to complete the mission.

I cannot deny having growth spurts in what seem like unlikely places. I have discovered that I grow when I spend time in the nursing home, the rehabilitation center, the hospital, or at a funeral. I have grown on account of time spent in the home of one struggling with borderline personality disorder or reactive attachment disorder. Situations like these help me to recognize the privilege to spend time with people who struggle. Friendship may not seem a spiritual practice to some but I cannot deny the way friends have influenced and shaped me. The list of those who have helped to shape me is long and I cannot help but recognize that to have a friend is privilege as well. Friendships continue to pour grace into my life. These situations and relationships remind me I am not only to love God and others, I am dependent on them as well. Discipleship is not a solo venture.

The path of spiritual formation is not easily put into words and not easily diagrammed. It is not easy to state with certainty how we became who we are. It is easier to write about where one is, what he is up to, and who he is with when it occurs. Things that are good for the soul are usually things that take time to develop. There is no instantaneous event or practice that shapes us into a mature disciple. The list of things that continue to nurture my own soul cannot be overestimated. Such things help me to pause and allow space for God to perform His work.

Yet, soul work is always done best in the midst of the community of God’s people. The list of people who have influenced my own discipleship is significant. Some of these are further along than I am. Some are contemporary allies. Others have challenged me. Some have ministered alongside me. Some have reminded me of wonder. Others have reminded me that I am unfinished. Some continue to love me while I continue the journey. I need them all. This is a group project, a corporate adventure.

There is a strong connection between our identity as individuals and our role in the church. We become who we are not only by our spiritual practices but by those we travel with as well. When we talk about relationship, we know that basic relationship is imitative. To learn to relate lovingly, we live in loving community and we copy the most loving members. To learn to become forgiving people, we live among forgiving people and we copy the most forgiving members. We could go on. As James K. A. Smith says “Such dispositions are not natural… virtues are learned and acquired, through imitation and practice.” I have been fortunate to have belonged to a people where these skills are demonstrated.

I am beginning to understand the church for what it is – an adventure. I have not experienced an Egyptian slave camp, a Babylonian furnace, a Jerusalem stoning, or a Roman imprisonment. But I belong to a people who have. I have been shaped by these people. I have learned from the words of this people. I am a disciple.

Bio – More Transition

Reading had become more than a data collecting exercise. It began to open me up for new possibility. Interestingly, movies began to do similar things and I became a lover of plot. It was becoming easier to recognize the plot of everyday life and my role in it. Part of my daily work began to include serving as a mental health professional. I am who I am in part because of time spent working in this field. The ways I engage others, the things I listen for, even the way I work with others has been influenced by time spent in mental health. My spiritual practices evolved as I learned to be patient with others. I had opportunity to work with people who suffered from serious challenges and with others who attempted to exploit the system. I had opportunity to learn from these people and am better on account of it.

It was during this time that writing became a more consistent spiritual practice for me. This helped me to articulate some things and to allow for regular feedback from others. Another significant source of spiritual support came to me from a golden aged group that I joined for a Sunday morning class. Though they called me the teacher, it was I who learned much about church in that room with those people. There is great benefit to spend time with those who are further along the journey than we are.

I had always found music to be entertaining. Yet, my enjoyment expanded significantly and became more than pleasure. I became a fan of classical music, especially Johann Sebastian Bach. Whenever we have precipitation, I still listen to classical music, it always seems like an accompanying soundtrack to raindrops or falling snow. Rock bands became my fairer weather friends. But music had become more than entertainment. Music spoke to my soul. I wish I played. Maybe I will take up the mandolin.

My family was growing. Nothing puts one into the mode of twenty four hour discipleship like children in the home. If raising children is a discipleship course, raising adolescents is the advanced course. Just when a parent starts to think they have figured everything out along comes a teenager to remind us we are not finished in our own spiritual growth. That Jesus encouraged us to receive the kingdom as a child has led me to ask, “Why aren’t we following our children around more closely in an effort to learn the kingdom secrets… We should be serving as apprentices to our children in the hopes that we discover more wonder and enter the kingdom.” I have many memories of my daughters and me sharing story, song, and outdoor adventure. We wandered over the mountain and through the woods and I learned the secrets of the kingdom.

I continue to make efforts to improve my attentiveness in the world around me. The practice of paying attention is a lifelong pursuit. Sometimes I am more successful than others. Attention to the beauties of creation, the diversities of people, and the mysteries of God help to shape the soul. There is so much going on that feeds our souls. If only we could pay attention.

Bio – Transition

I made the decision to enter grad school. The exhaustion from my prior experience was likely related to my youth and lack of experience as a spiritual guide of adults. The change was timely and the new relationships I formed were of mutual benefit. It became obvious to me that discipleship is rarely a one way enterprise. When we meet with others each of us have the opportunity to grow in spiritual maturity. But this was not accidental or coincidental. Some of my new friends and I began meeting for the purpose of supporting one another in our spiritual journey.

I began reading William Willimon and Eugene Peterson. In Resident Aliens, Willimon and co-author Stanley Hauerwas articulated church as an adventure in ways I had not heard before and it proved helpful for me personally and professionally. Peterson’s contemplative exegesis helped me make strong connections between a biblical theology and a practical pastoral theology. This changed my thinking and practice and helped me to see things in different ways. They were much more helpful than Peters and Waterman.

It was during this same time I began to become fascinated with the church year. Looking at the story that occurs from Advent through Easter, Pentecost and into Ordinary Time helped me to recognize my own role in the story. Time began to look different and I wanted to spend time differently. I really like what Dorothy Bass says about time. It “is a meeting place, a point of rendezvous with God.” Not only did I regain a sense of adventure, I had fallen deeper than ever into the story. I felt part of a “rendezvous.”

I began looking for ways to help those on the fringe. People on the periphery helped me to understand what the Kingdom of God looks like. I began seeking places where God was at work and attempted to join Him there. I began to see how my own spiritual growth benefits others in the body. The time I spent in activities that strengthened my own spiritual life was investment in the body of Christ. We are called to grow for the sake of others and for the sake of a broken world. There is a sense that to stay where we are and become stagnant is to cheat the body of Christ and to cheat a broken world.

Bio – Entering Vocational Ministry

Upon graduation my spiritual journey continued as a pastor in a small rural setting. It was a perfect fit; I was raised with people just like them and knew their ways of thinking. Or at least I thought I did. I was married while here and they did seem excited about that. But, I was not prepared for the way they thought about church. During this time there was much I learned about living in Christian community. I was thinking about the joys of ministering alongside others. I was thinking about helping people get excited about the word. I was thinking about baptisms and administering communion. I was eager for much, some of it happened. So did some things I was not expecting. I learned firsthand that Christians divide, even in a small rural church. I learned people can be impatient. I learned that things said in your absence do not always match what is said in your presence.

I learned the people of God are not a perfect group. The people of God can be an awkward bunch that can become caught up in untruth or division. The people of God are not always easy to work with. Still, these are the people of God. Despite difficulties and differences, we all belong to a Kingdom where we are treasured. We belong to a God who patiently walks with us as we develop in maturity.

My personal practices of exegesis and reading strengthened. I suspect this was partly due to the difficulties I faced outside the study. I was struggling with a pastoral theology that matched my biblical theology. It was as if I could point to things of significant meaning on Sundays but weekdays had me scrambling to respond to the challenges of leading a congregation. There were times it was difficult to maintain a sense of adventure. After one difficult meeting with the board, I purchased a copy of In Search of Excellence by Tom Peters and Peter Waterman. I think my plan was to fine tune the operation of the church to run so smoothly that even those who thought differently than me would change their mind. This was reactionary and uninspiring. It is difficult to juggle a spirituality based on the Bible one day and one that helps IBM remain successful on the other days.

It is now clear to me that the Spirit was working on me in ways that were not visible to me at the time. My history to this point had emphasized the spirituality of spontaneity. Anything else was something other than the Spirit. Planning and other liturgical practice was something for other churches. So was further education. Somehow during this time I was influenced to begin thinking that the Spirit could indeed work in advance. The God who is able to work in loud preachers and spontaneous displays is able to work in the study, the liturgy, even in written prayers. I was growing as a disciple by recognizing the sovereignty of God.

Bio – Growing Up

The spiritual change in Dad included a call to preach. We moved to upstate NY and suddenly I was a preacher’s kid. This resulted in a time of social and spiritual transition. While I never remember feeling external pressure about what to do or not to do in public, I often had internal conversations. It is possible that I made attempts to please others in the congregation, or to please my parents. This never resulted in undue stress that I can remember but this self-talk did become part of my personal spirituality.

Robert Mulholland Jr. suggests that spiritual growth occurs in similar ways to physical growth. He goes on to say that there may be growth spurts but those are not all there is to growth. My own experience tells me this is true. My early growth spurts occurred in the community of youth group and with a network of friends I met at youth camp. A bunch of us were even baptized together at the Hessler’s Pond. Other growth occurred through team sports and other sporting adventures. But often I would find myself wandering through the local forests alone. More than isolation, this was exploration. I became interested in what was living and growing around me. I ran up and down logging roads. I climbed trees just to get a different view. I entered posted land just to see what was on the other side of the sign. I sat quietly and listened. I began to learn to see and hear. The forest was my friend.

Sometimes I would journal. Usually what I wrote down were quotes and facts. The first books I remember reading on a regular basis were the almanac and the encyclopedia. My first journal began on a piece of notebook paper when I wrote down a Chinese Proverb “The palest ink is stronger than the strongest memory.” I was not consistent with writing but this was the start of a practice I continue today. I also began to draw. I suspect I enjoyed life because I practiced things that nurture the soul.

The time I spent alone was not totally a self-generated idea. There were suggestions that made the Christian journey seem like it was intended to be a lone adventure. There was a strong implication that it was in our quiet places that we prepared ourselves for public witness in the congregation and the outside world. This was part of a “boot camp spirituality” that included abstaining from things like skating and smoking. It also included indulging in other things like prayer and scripture reading. These things were the secret to surviving the warfare of the real world. This mentality suited me fine. I enjoyed people, but I did not totally trust them with my own growth or success. I was trying to convince myself I could cover my own back. I was convinced there was nothing I could not do. I had memorized Philippians 4.13 early on.

Overall, I tended to be quiet in conversation. Looking back, I think I had fears of being wrong. It was easier to be quiet than to explain myself afterward. While this may not have been a good social move, it did help me learn to listen. Though I did not utilize silence as a spiritual discipline at the time, I know of its benefits. When silent, one is able to pay attention and listen.

I suppose most of us experience a significant transition during college. Perhaps many of us experience a spiritual transition as well. I can say with some certainty that I did. I entered college as an undeclared major. College only lasts so long but it seemed like we were raised together in that short period of time. I still talk with college friends regularly about things that matter. Camaraderie, as it turns out, is an excellent means of discipleship.

At the same time, I began to enjoy studies. I had always enjoyed reading but began to read very differently. I was introduced to new ways of thinking and began to think critically. Things became less black and white. Life began to feel more like an exploration. Reading began to feed this exploration, and in my case, this strengthened my spiritual experience.

Authors like C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien fed my imagination and feeling of adventure. Along with Samwise Gamgee I began to ask “What sort of tale have we fallen into?” We talked about this adventure in the dormitory at night and my sense of adventure continued to grow. The parts of my spiritual life that had earlier been seeds or buds began to germinate. It was during this time that I suspect I changed most. Among other things, the way I prayed changed as well. Trips to the tree line or through the field or to the local lake were times to pray and contemplate scripture. Things I had read or heard or seen became things I wanted to share with others.

Soon I was actively preaching to local congregations. Life as story became clearer. There was a sense that I belonged to a story bigger than me and I became immersed in this story. I remember one clear winter night when I trudged through new snow. I stared at the sky and it dawned on me that the God who was keeping creation in order was also working on me. This was not a new insight, but it was very real. I did not wrestle an angel but I knew I was not alone. Somehow, unknowingly, I had bought into an idea later proposed by Brian Zahnd “It’s probably dangerous to do all of our theology in the close quarters of indoors. Theologians need to be outdoorsmen.”

Bio – Early Years

We lived in a rural setting saturated with Appalachian influence. Appalachia presents a great deal of cultural uniqueness and this includes its spirituality. We agreed with ideas about the omnipresence of God, but indirectly we were taught that God resided at the altar. This was the place to find Him and the primary place we could go to talk to Him. But we also believed that God could be found in revival meetings, camp meetings, and preachers. In our part of the world the louder the preacher and the more the preacher chastised the listener, the more of God they seemed to have.

We were also taught that God did not reside at bowling alleys, skating rinks, movie theaters, or places where dancing was permitted. It improved the odds of having an encounter with God if we only stayed away from the wrong places and the wrong people. Even other church groups were not as holy as we were and we had doubts they would even be in heaven. This influenced the way we prayed. It became essential to pray for others; after all we wanted them to become part of the right church.

The most significant impact on my spirituality during this time was my parents. They had become serious about their own spiritual lives and we were barraged with spiritual influence. We began attending church three times a week. We were frequent attenders of revival meetings. We listened to Christian programming on radio. We were encouraged to pray before bed, before our meals, and without ceasing. We were encouraged to memorize scripture. Somehow Mom and Dad were able to sort through the excess baggage and unnecessary furniture that came with much of Appalachian spirituality. Even more, they were able to point us in the direction to begin a journey with God.

Much of this was due to the high regard they gave to the word of God. The Bible was not just any book in our family. It was the book where we learned about direction and the place we learned about God’s will. I learned early that the Bible invites us into its story. I had discovered how a nation of slaves had been rescued. I had learned a young shepherd had taken down a giant with a rock. I had learned that three young Hebrews had survived a fiery furnace without a scratch. I discovered that a runaway prophet was swallowed by a big fish. These stories were eye opening for me. There were no doubts these were the kind of stories I wanted in on. I was convinced I was related to these people.

Social Media and Spiritual Deficiency

I suspect any of us could come up with a significant list of positives and negatives for social media. No matter how many of each, it may not matter much what we think about social media. Perhaps more interesting are the ways we choose to use it and what it says about us. For instance, it reveals our spiritual deficiencies. This is most evident when it is used as a platform to discuss polarizing issues. Culture thrives in the arena of instant critique. And the church seems to join right in. We don’t have to look far for evidence, just let Rob Bell write a book, Eugene Peterson get interviewed, or Donald Trump do anything.

I suspect we sometimes respond with “cyber rage” because we think others expect us to protest certain things. Maybe we fear silence will be viewed as agreement. There are likely any number of reasons we do what we do but anxious reactivity will always reveal something about our spirituality. Our words and other responses will impact our witness. We need a spirituality that refuses to rush to judgment. Among other things, the cyber age reminds us how easy it is for grace and truth and thoughtful response to be replaced by messages that are not part of our message.

One of the dangers of social media is that we can speak without looking at others. This is not the fault of social media. In this way, social media is like driving a car. During proper navigation, everything goes ok. Yet sometimes when we feel safe enough, out of reach, or that we have not been recognized we think we can get away with words and gestures we might never say or do if we were in closer proximity to those we communicate with.

I sometimes wonder if we believe condescending comments are acceptable if our theology is good. The fact is, our behavior reveals more about our theology than any verbal report. If we behave in hateful, hurtful ways our theology is bad. It is ok to disagree with others. It is ok to disagree with others publicly. It is not ok to become part of the larger problem to fail to love others.

Church and Compost

Pitchfork in hand, I am turning the compost. This pile is full of onion peels, the tops of tomatoes, potato skins, unused herbs, pieces of peppers, corn cobs, eggshells, tea bags, coffee grounds, clumps of hair, grass clippings, the list could go on. Occasionally I recognize some of the individual scraps, but the contents are being transformed into an entirely new material. They may not seem like much before they become a part of this collection. But together, this stuff is something. Turning the pile permits air to enter and allows the pile to breathe.  Turning it into the garden helps to hold moisture, fight disease and feed plants that will feed us.

I am turning the compost and can’t help but think about the church. I can’t help but think that individuals who become part of this gathering are no longer what they used to be. I can’t help but think of how God is turning this group into something new. I can’t help but think of the big plans God has for this group together as a source of blessing and hope for the earth.

I am reminded the apostle Paul sometimes made lists of common sins and sinners that could be found throughout the Empire. We often read Paul’s lists of sins and sinners as a list of who gets into heaven and who does not. But the text does not read as if these folks do not have hope. In fact, these letters are written to recipients who used to commit these very sins and were described like these very sinners. To the Corinthians he said, “Such were some of you; but you were washed, but you were sanctified, but you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God.” Perhaps we could say, “You are no longer what you used to be, you are being made into something new.”

Yes we look around and we might not see the church we dream of. Instead we find a broken, wounded, divided, spent, used, messed up group of scraps. But together our individual-ness, even our natural abilities and inabilities, takes a backseat. We may not look like much as individuals, but together we are God’s plan in action. Gathered and turned by the Spirit, we bring new hope to the world.