Posts Tagged ‘spiritual disciplines’

Do you want to be holy? Don’t neglect the life of the mind!

September 7, 2017

I did not arrange these books for this blog post. They were on a table in my office, in this order, completely randomly.

Facebook informed me that it’s been exactly five years today since my first trip to Kenya. I went there to teach theology and doctrine, church history, and polity to a group of indigenous United Methodist pastors. It was one of the greatest experiences of my life.

I love theology and doctrine, as readers of my blog know. I think about this stuff a lot; it’s important to me. Obviously, I get passionate writing about it, talking about it, arguing about it. I’m also sensitive to the charge—often put forward by United Methodist colleagues—that theology and doctrine are of far lesser importance than (to use a buzzword) “spiritual formation,” or spiritual disciplines, or the pursuit of holiness.

Several years ago, I blogged about a popular United Methodist pastor who “crossed the Tiber” and converted to Roman Catholicism. He did so in part, he said, because he met a group of nuns whose lives exuded a kind of holiness that he had never seen before. He wanted what they had, and he attributed this quality of life to their Catholicism.

Not that plenty of Protestants don’t cross the Tiber every week for any number of reasons (and they pass plenty of Catholics swimming the other way as they do so), but given the Methodist emphasis on holiness, sanctification, and personal experience—sometimes at the expense, at least unwittingly, of a more intellectual emphasis on theology and doctrine—it’s natural that a United Methodist would be susceptible to this kind conversion.

Not me! I “live in my head,” as one professor at Candler affectionately pointed out. No matter how appealing the spirituality of some Catholics, I can’t get past at least a half-dozen serious theological objections. For me, nothing less than the gospel is at stake.

But these are intellectual objections, of course. And in our Methodist tradition, when heart and mind compete with one another, we tend to side with the heart. (Isn’t this one reason our denomination is in crisis about our doctrines associated with marriage and sexuality?)

Regardless, the apostle Paul believed that for the sake of holiness, heart and mind must be in harmony. They need one another.

We saw this in last night’s Bible study in Galatians—in chapter 4, verses 17 to 20. The Galatians are in serious spiritual danger. Although they had gratefully received the gospel and were converted when Paul first preached to them a year or two earlier, Paul says he is “in the anguish of childbirth” all over again. From his perspective, nothing less than their salvation is at stake. It’s as if they need to be “born again” again, Paul says. Christ needs to be “formed in them” again. Whether they are, at that moment, still saved or not, they have at least “backslidden” enough to place their souls in jeopardy. (As a Wesleyan-Arminian, I believe in the possibility of losing one’s salvation.)

Is their problem related to sin and immorality? Are they acting like hypocrites? Are they failing to love God and neighbor sufficiently?

No. Their problem is that their theology is wrong.

They’re flirting with a seductive idea put forward by false teachers that they need to add just a few small “requirements” to the gospel in order to be saved. Paul has warned them that if they embrace a “gospel plus” anything else, they have lost the gospel entirely.

For the purpose of this blog post, however, the nature of their theological problem is less important than one principle that this problem illustrates: getting one’s theology right is, in Paul’s mind, an essential gospel issue. 

Last night, I challenged the class to consider how much value they place on the life of the mind versus the life of the spirit. They must go together! Paul implies that we should be as committed to theology and doctrine, to Bible study, and to scripture memorization as we are, for instance, to prayer, to worship, and to Christian service.

Are we? If not, why not?

The most important “spiritual discipline”

July 14, 2016

The July 13 entry in The Mockingbird Devotional: Good News for Today (and Every Day) is a helpful corrective for many of us Christians. We tend to overemphasize the work of “spiritual disciplines” or “spiritual formation” at the expense of the finished work of Christ—the sole basis on which we’re accepted by God. In which case, as it so often does, the Law rears its ugly head.

Please don’t misunderstand: While it’s hard to imagine how our souls can remain healthy if we long neglect the disciplines of daily prayer, Bible reading and study, and worship, among other Christian practices, they are not the center of gravity when it comes to the “work and rhythm of the Christian life.”

On the contrary, citing Jesus’ gospel proclamation in Mark 1:14-15 (“The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.”), a pastor named Curt Benham writes the following:

Christianity for many of us has come down to: “Just tell me what I have to do… Tell me the habits I must form in order to maintain my relationship with God.” We can run on spiritual disciplines for a while, but there’s eventually a breakdown between what it was meant for and what it has become.

That’s why Jesus’ words are so comforting… Jesus simply tells us this: repent and believe the gospel. This is the work and the rhythm of the Christian life.

Repentance really just means being honest about who you are. It means admitting there is a giant bedrock of self-centeredness that you can do nothing about. It means being aware of the fact that you’re really pretty into yourself, and you need help if anything’s going to change.

To believe the Gospel means to believe that help has arrived, that Jesus really is who he says he is and really did what he said he did… that, because of Jesus, you are loved and accepted by God, right now, as you are, and not as you should be. Rather than a repeated work through your week, we instead repeatedly return to a work that’s already been done on our behalf. Now there’s a Christians routine we can stick with![†]

The most important spiritual discipline is repeatedly “returning to work that’s already been done on our behalf.” I like that!

The Mockingbird Devotional: Good News for Today (and Every Day) (Charlottesville, VA: Mockingbird Ministries, 2013), 243.

Fasting during Lent

March 7, 2011

The vast majority of Methodists do not fast. The vast majority of Methodist clergy (I strongly suspect) fast only rarely, if ever. Yet, last June, before I was finally approved for full ordination as an elder, one of the “historic” questions the bishop asked us—which John Wesley used to ask of his preachers—was, “Do you fast?” (The correct answer is “yes.”) And, “Will you teach your parishioners to fast?” (Again, the correct answer is “yes.”)

In that spirit, I did preach about fasting last year in my sermon series “Putting the Method in Methodist.” On this blog, I also shared some helpful information from Richard Foster’s essential book on the spiritual disciplines, Celebration of Discipline. (If you haven’t read it, you should order it now—don’t delay!)

Wesley emphasized regular fasting as a means of grace alongside prayer, worship, Holy Communion, Bible study, and service, among others. He also believed that it was for everyone—certainly all good Methodists—not just for the superheroic saints among us.

But we in our modern age think we know better than Wesley and the vast majority of saints through two millennia who have routinely fasted as one part of their spiritual growth and development. We think we have “science” on our side, which tells us—we imagine—that unless we have at least three square meals each day, with ample snacks in between, we will drop dead from malnutrition.

Needless to say, this isn’t true. Wesley himself died at 87, without the benefit of modern medicine, and he fasted at least once, often twice, a week his entire adult life.

So I encourage you (and me) to fast. Given that Lent is fast approaching—this Wednesday is Ash Wednesday—what better time to start practicing the discipline than now? See my earlier posts or read my sermon for tips.

In my sermon yesterday, I talked about a common sight in the Holy Land—the Bedouin, a nomadic people who are often seen grazing sheep and goats on dusty, barren mountainsides throughout the Middle East. They have almost nothing by our Western standards. And the terrain on which they live is harsh and rugged. It seems highly unsuitable for supporting human life and livestock. Yet these Bedouin have been living this way, immune to the trappings of modernity, for thousands of years—and flourishing.

Bedouin grazing livestock is a common sight in the Middle East

How is that possible?

Their example challenges me. It makes me face the fact that we human beings really require very little to live. We usually live as if we require a great deal. Their example also helps me to see how faithful our heavenly Father is in providing for us. Maybe during Lent—through fasting or the more common practice of “giving something up”—we can learn that we, too, can live on a little less. And that we can trust in God a little more.

“Turn and face the strain, ch-ch-changes”

January 4, 2011

I finally finished reading a book by N.T. Wright entitled After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. It’s a book that focuses not on Christian ethics—a subject we study in seminary that relates to our understanding of “the good,” and tackling often difficult questions of right and wrong—but on a subject we don’t study in seminary: becoming good and virtuous people. To put it in theological terms, the book focuses on what the church (and our Methodist tradition, especially) calls sanctification.

It doesn’t sound like much fun. And it was difficult at times to slog through (in part because the prolific Wright has touched on similar themes in various places before). But it was worth it.

The book begins with an analogy: In January 2009, Captain Chesley Sullenberger III, known to friends as “Sully,” successfully crash-landed his Airbus jumbo-jet, which had just taken off at LaGuardia, into the Hudson River. Everyone survived. No one was badly injured. (The plane’s jet engines had sucked up a flock of Canadian geese not long after take-off.) In the two or three minutes he had before the plane crashed, he had to make literally dozens of intricate decisions. There were probably 5 millions ways to get it wrong, costing the lives of everyone on board, and exactly one way to get it right. Sully found that one way.

How did he do it? He had never crash-landed a plane before, or practiced this exact scenario on flight simulators. He didn’t have time to consult a manual or even think much about what he must do. In order to be successful, his decisions and his actions had to be automatic. And he had to make them without freaking out or losing his cool. Read the rest of this entry »

“Now that you’re here, be here”

November 19, 2010

A month ago, I, along with every other clergy person in the North Georgia Conference, had to take part in something called the “Bishop’s Day Apart” at the Simpsonwood retreat center. Bishop Watson plays host to these short retreats each year. The theme of this year’s gathering was clergy “self-care.” The United Methodist Church wants us clergy to take better care of ourselves—emotionally, physically, and spiritually. I’m sure this emphasis on self-care comes in the wake of published studies that show that clergy suffer obesity, hypertension, and depression at rates higher than the overall population.

Most of us weren’t excited about spending a couple of days away from our churches or places of ministry in order to focus on self-care. In his opening remarks, the bishop likely sensed the mood of the room when he said, “I know that you are here today…” He paused. “Because I told you to be here.” Everyone laughed. “But now that you’re here, be here.”

“Now that you’re here, be here.” I like that. Ancient wisdom from a large number of religious traditions teaches us to be present in the moment, not to be distracted but to focus on the task at hand. Jesus captures a sense of this in the Sermon on the Mount when he gives us these challenging words: “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matthew 6:34).

Now a recent study suggests that this ancient wisdom is exactly right: People are happier when they devote their full attention to what they’re doing at the moment. Daydreaming and mind-wandering is not merely a symptom but a cause of unhappiness. Distressingly, according the study, our minds wander about 47 percent of the time. One of the researchers, Dr. Daniel Gilbert, said, “I find it kind of weird now to look down a crowded street and realize that half the people aren’t really there.” Read the rest of this entry »

Faithfulness to our calling

October 28, 2010

I’m at Simpsonwood Retreat Center this week for a conference on “church planting” and church revitalization. So far, I’ve learned a few interesting things, including how to access a free online resource that offers exhaustive demographic information on local populations for all churches within the North Georgia Conference. A friend of mine led a discussion about her experience starting an innovative storefront church in an affluent Atlanta area that offers high-church liturgy mixed with a jazz brunch. Her words inspired me to reflect more seriously on what successful evangelism looks like in our culture.

What bothers me, however, is the continued emphasis on having a “vision” for one’s church, and implementing the vision through various leadership principles that have been lifted from any number of corporate best-sellers and then “christianized.” Even if the principles themselves are good (and many are, if a little common-sensical), they feel kind of shallow. It doesn’t help that the conference’s theme verse (Proverbs 29:18, from the KJV: “Where there is no vision, the people perish”) is better translated, “Where there is no prophecy, the people cast off restraint” (NRSV).

I can only imagine how different the conference would seem if they substituted the word “prophecy” for “vision” in all of these talks. You might think we’d become Pentecostals!

If you want to get theological, a conference like this is in danger of a kind of Pelagianism that overemphasizes what we pastors need to do in order to be successful—never mind that we’re only successful as the Holy Spirit does through us and our congregations. (We could actually stand to be a little more charismatic in that regard… I don’t think anyone here has mentioned the Holy Spirit all week.) Instead of focusing almost exclusively on what we pastors must do, why not also focus on what we pastors must be?

I know enough about what’s in my own heart to imagine that most of my fellow clergy struggle with some of the basics. Here are some of them: Being a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ. Praying and developing habits of disciplined Christian living. Loving the people Jesus has put under our care. Being responsive to the Holy Spirit. Being faithful to our calling. Being humble enough to know that we don’t have all the answers. Being free from anxiety. Not taking ourselves too seriously.

When I shared some of these thoughts with a conference speaker, he said, “I assume I’m talking to a group of clergy who already get that. Are you saying I should have offered an altar call?”

He was joking. I think.

The point is, I’m all for disciple-making. I feel convicted that I have more work to do in the area of evangelism and in leading my congregation in that area. But disciple-making is a two-way street. Even as we make disciples, let’s not forget that we ourselves must continually be made into disciples. Unless we’ve already “gone onto perfection” (and I don’t know anyone who has), we’re all works in progress.

I don’t know how many clergy are in the North Georgia Conference. Many hundreds, at least. Can you imagine all of those women and men on their knees every morning in prayer, reading scripture, seeking God’s guidance and direction, trying their best to discern God’s will and be obedient to Jesus?

I bet that would make as positive an impact for the kingdom as any 22-step plan!

Regardless, we need to trust in the Lord, knowing that, ultimately, the only true measure of success is Christ saying to us on the Last Day, “Well done, my good and faithful servant.”

Sermon from 03-14-10: “Putting the Method in Methodist, Part 2: Fasting or Giving Something Up

March 24, 2010

Sermon Text: Matthew 6:16-18

In part 1 of this sermon series, we talked in general about what John Wesley and much of the universal Church call the “means of grace,” practices or disciplines such as prayer, Bible study, Holy Communion, worship, and fasting. As I said last week, in the early days of the Methodist movement, John and Charles Wesley and some of their Oxford classmates began meeting in small groups to practice these disciplines and hold each other accountable. Some of their classmates who didn’t approve of what they perceived as religious fanaticism called them “Methodists” because they took very seriously these methods of living out the Christian life. But “method” isn’t a good word: it’s not about simply employing a technique or following a plan or developing some kind of spiritual skill whereby we can grow closer to God. No, we call them means of grace because it’s about grace, not what we do but what God the Holy Spirit does through these disciplines to transform us into the people God wants us to be. Read the rest of this entry »

“God in Christ takes time for us”

March 10, 2010

As we continue over the final few weeks of Lent to focus on practicing the Christian life, United Methodist Bishop William Willimon has a helpful word of warning for us in this week’s Christian Century magazine. He points out that any Christian spiritual discipline, absent of its object—the God revealed in Jesus Christ—can become a way of deflecting attention away from God.

Among other things, this means for me that the primary goal of fasting or temporarily “giving something up”— which we’ll talk about in Part 2 of our series this Sunday—is to help us hear the Spirit of Christ speak to us. If God doesn’t help us through fasting, we are ultimately not helping ourselves. If we derive any benefit from a religious practice, it must be because Jesus graciously meets us through it.

Willimon writes:

Christians have learned from bitter experience that many of our allegedly helpful means of climbing up to God are easily perverted into ways of defending ourselves against God. We’re always in danger of reducing Christianity to a matter of our experience. The true God can never be known through our practices but comes to us only as a gift of God, only as revelation. This is why I can say (as a Wesleyan) that Christian practices are not primarily what we do. Rather, our practice of the faith is something that God does for us, in us, often despite us.

Sermon from 12-27-09: “Fully Human”

January 2, 2010

Sermon Text: Luke 2:41-52

Merry Christmas! During the Christmas Eve service, we sang “Away in the Manger.” When we sang that line, “The little Lord Jesus no crying he makes,” I turned to Don Martin and said, “Wanna bet?” Of course, Jesus cried as a baby…. It was that sweet little newborn baby cry, which is very mild compared to the full-throated cry of a six-month old! The little Lord Jesus cried because he was human, just like any other baby.

I think that we Christians sometimes believe that Jesus came into the world like Superman, with superpowers and invulnerability. But this is not what the Bible teaches. The amazing healing miracles, the feeding miracles, the walking on water, and whatever else Jesus accomplishes, he accomplishes not because he possessed any innate abilities that you or I don’t possess, but because of the Holy Spirit working through him as a consequence of his obedience to the Father. It’s the same way we accomplish good works. Remember, with faith the size of a mustard seed, Jesus tells us, we can move mountains—not because of what we can do, but what God does. Read the rest of this entry »

Online resources for guided prayer

November 5, 2009

I’ve mentioned both of these websites in previous sermons, but I wanted to link to them here. Since most of us spend at least some portion of our day in front of a computer, both of these websites are useful resources for weaving prayer into the fabric of our busy days.

daily_prayerThe first site is from Britain and is sponsored by many Christian churches there. It changes three times a day for morning, afternoon, and evening prayer time. It’s supposedly for “beginners” to prayer and the Christian faith, but perhaps when it comes to encountering God we’re all beginners.

The second site, from the Episcopal Church, is based on an ancient liturgy for praying taken from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (which is also a part of our Wesleyan tradition). It changes based on the date and the time of day. I like it because it includes all scripture, readings, and prayers in one place. As you use it, you are joining with Christians all over the world in prayer.