Friday, February 26, 2010

Spiritual Formation and Discipline and Donald Whitney

Don Whitney's book, Spiritual Disciplines for the Christian Life, has a table of contents that serves as a Biblical reality check on the subject of spiritual formation and discipline. While I haven't read the entire book yet, I was drawn back to it by a cursory review on the web of the subject of spiritual formation, as well as by a recent conversation on the subject with a denominational official.

When I see the terms spiritual formation and spiritual disciplines used by Christians in a non-Christocentric fashion, as if spiritual formation is a stand alone subject and can be treated as such apart from Jesus Christ, it concerns me. 

While Whitney's book includes chapters on Fasting, Silence and Solitude, and Journaling; it also has TWO Chapters on the Bible (he calls it "Bible Intake" - please Don?!), Prayer, Worship, Evangelism, Serving, and Stewardship. Assembling with God's people is one of Whitney's spiritual disciplines - I find that refreshing. 

Spiritual formation is not about technique; it is about transformation into the image of Jesus Christ in order that He might be the firstborn among many brothers - Romans 8:29. It is as we behold Him that we are transformed into His image, 1 John 3:1ff. 

Now I happen to think that the process of spiritual formation looks different in individuals and in local congregations; but I also believe that there is commonality and overlay and that the nexus of transformation is the Bible. There is a sense in which I would rather have my congregation spend a year in Colossians and read nothing outside the Bible than read ten books on spiritual formation and never actually absorb a book of the Bible. Give me a Biblically-based people in Christ and I'll show you spiritual formation - how could it be otherwise? 

So I find Whitney's inclusion of chapters on Evangelism, Stewardship and other Biblical subjects refreshing.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

Frodo, Sam and Friendship

In thinking about friends and significant people in my life I turned to The Four Loves to look-up a passage and noticed the following by C.S. Lewis:

“…but very few modern people think Friendship a love of comparable value or even a love at all. I cannot remember that any poem since In Memoriam, or any novel, has celebrated it. Ristan and Isolde, Antony and Cleopatra, Romeo and Juliet, have innumerable counterparts in modern literature: David and Jonathan, Pylades and Orestes, Roland and Oliver, Amis and Amile, have not. To the Ancients, Friendship seemed the happiest and most fully human of all loves; the crown of life and the school of virtue. The modern world, in comparison, ignores it.”

I wonder why Lewis didn’t think of Sam and Frodo? Was that relationship friendship or was it the devotion of a servant to his master? A devotion animated by love to be sure…maybe I’ve answered my own question…I don’t know.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Hobbit Forming Songs

One of the things I love about The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings is smoke, ale, and song. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not endorsing smoking or excessive drinking, but I am endorsing time spent with friends, telling stories and singing songs. There is something about taking a break on pilgrimage in the midst of orcs and goblins and the occasional troll, and writing a song or poem and sharing it with friends.

I don’t know if this is simply nostalgic musing or not, but there was a time when Christians sang at the drop of a hat. We sang at picnics, we sang at home meetings, we sang at Sunday morning gatherings – and we sang songs that could be sung by nonprofessionals, we sang songs that could be sung by folks not vocally gifted. People used to hunger for new lyrics, sharing them with each other like a hot tip on the stock market. Guitar or not we sang.

A while back I decided it would be good if our church leadership meetings incorporated singing along with prayer. So one meeting night I asked, “Who has a song he or she would like to lead us in?” The response I received made me feel like I was on a country road at 2:00 A.M. and had just come upon deer starring into my high beams. What was particularly interesting about this group was that it included four members of our musical/vocal worship team. Since no one had a song to sing I reached deep within and started singing – I figured if they didn’t know the words immediately that after the twentieth time they’d begin to pick things up.

Not long after that I was on retreat with a few pastors and after a meal one of us suggested that we sing – while it wasn’t quite as bad as with my church leadership group it still had its challenges. We could have used some Hobbits, Elves and good Dwarfs with us to propel our voices. 

The Scriptures encourage us to live life “speaking to one another in psalms, and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody with your heart to the Lord,” Ephesians 5:19. 

Has singing been removed from the fabric of congregational life? Are we so accustomed to highly orchestrated and arranged music that people no longer feel comfortable giving voice to lyrics? If “Praise & Worship” has been relegated to sets of music on Sunday morning then perhaps we can learn something from Bilbo, Frodo, and friends – for it appears that they were never at a loss for a song.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Peace or Wrath?

For a number of years I’ve pondered the tenor of communication within the professing church, particularly as it relates to social commentary and politics. There are at least three reasons the subject draws my attention:

a. My historical mentors, men such as Andrew Murray and Francois Fenelon, are men who were centered in the peace of Christ in trying times. Murray ministered to both Boers and Brits during the Boer War – thereby incurring the wrath of both. Fenelon ministered to both French and British armies as they marched across his bishopric of Cambrai – and was appreciated by both.

b. I am concerned about our “witness”. During the presidency of Bill Clinton, as I observed the vitriolic and disrespectful language directed to the President, I asked myself why anyone would want to be a Christian – we were ugly people…and we still are as I consider the language directed toward President Barak Obama.

c. I am aware of my own propensity to lapse into attitude, emotion and language that is outside the Lordship of Jesus Christ and that brings disgrace on the Gospel. In one of my Bibles I have struck through the word “man” in James 1:20 and replaced it with “Bob”. It therefore reads, “The wrath/anger of Bob does not work the righteousness of God.” I need that reminder. I am also keenly aware of falling short of Paul’s instructions in 2 Timothy 2:24-25, “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness opposing those who are in opposition…”

Elsewhere I have written about respect for our President, (see my website); here my focus is anger, or better “wrath”, as opposed to peace. After all, we are called to be peacemakers and reconcilers.

In 1941 Dorothy L. Sayers delivered a lecture titled, The Other Six Deadly Sins, it was subsequently published in a collection of lectures titled, Creed or Chaos, which is the name of one of the lectures.

When Sayers addressed the deadly sin of Ira or Wrath she observed:

“To foment grievance and to set men at variance is the trade by which agitators thrive and journalists make money. A dog-fight, a brawl, or a war is always news; if news of that kind is lacking, it pays well to contrive it….That is not to say that scandals should not be exposed, or that no anger is justified. But you may know the mischief-maker by the warped malignancy of his language as easily as by the warped malignancy of his face and voice. His fury is without restraint and without magnanimity – and it is aimed, not at checking the offence, but at starting a pogrom against the offender. He would rather the evil were not cured at all than that it were cured quietly and without violence. The evil lust of wrath cannot be sated unless somebody is hounded down, beaten, and trampled on, and a savage war-dance executed on the body.” Dorothy L. Sayers

“I am therefore the more concerned about a highly unpleasant spirit of vindictiveness that is being commended to us at this moment, camouflaged as righteous wrath and a warlike spirit. It is not a warlike spirit at all – at any rate, it is very unlike the spirit in which soldiers make war. The good soldier is on the whole remarkable both for severity in his measures, and for the measure in his severity.” Dorothy L. Sayers

“If I say, “Do not listen to them,” it is not because there is no room for indignation, but because there is a point at which righteous indignation passes over into the deadly sin of Wrath…” Dorothy L. Sayers

I suggest that we have become addicted to wrath with media personalities and religious leaders dispensing the drug wrath on both the right and the left. This drug impairs our judgment, causing normally civil Christian men and women to not only forget their God-mandated respect for authority, but also the Biblical injunctions to live at peace with all men and to allow the peace of Christ to rule in our hearts. Wrath bends our hearts and minds, it warps our spiritual discernment; it causes us to forget who we are - the Church of Jesus Christ in an age that is passing away. Perhaps worst of all, rather than reflecting the Gospel of the Prince of Peace and the character of that Prince, we show ourselves to be purveyors of vitriolic and toxicity, and we become dealers of the drug wrath ourselves – users turned to dealers. We are called to show the world a better way.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Dr. King: An Irenic Example With Moral Courage

Since February is Black History month I’ve made it a point to revisit Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by renting video documentaries. Everything Vickie and I have watched has consisted of film footage and interviews and I haven’t detected anything that leans toward hagiography. Dr. King was not perfect, but to use his imperfection as an excuse to belittle or ignore his moral courage in the social arena, and to not learn from his non-violent and visionary words and deeds, is to fail to appreciate and learn from a remarkable man.

And just to try to make my point: who among us would want our unedited thoughts, words, and our deeds projected on Power Point for the entire world to see? Now let me proceed.

Dr. King was, first and foremost, a Baptist preacher. This comes out again and again in his own words and in the words of those who knew him. Dr. King’s message concerning the dignity of human beings was based on God creating man in His image – without this bedrock conviction could Martin Luther King, Jr. have faced the constant physical danger and emotional and psychological strain that he did? Without a Biblical foundation would not Dr. King have caved into political pressure to back-off on his activities and speeches – as the White House pressured him to do on more than one occasion?

This leads to a point which I have not considered before now: Dr. King was able to resist the intoxication of the White House – of being in proximity to the seat of the greatest power in the world – he remembered that he was a man on a mission and was somehow able to maintain his course and resist the raw and direct power of the President of the United States, which few people, including religious leaders, are able to do.

When Dr. King was accused of being a communist his first response was to point out that he was a Baptist preacher and to demonstrate the incompatibility of atheistic communism with, what we call today, a Biblical worldview.

Lately I’ve been reading about uncivil political discourse as if it is something new on the American political scene. It has been with us from the beginning. Our political history is rife with slander and character assassination which has often destroyed lives; just ask Andrew Jackson about his wife Rachel, or ask John Adams about Thomas Jefferson’s underhanded campaign to destroy him, or read the political cartoons and commentary in Northern papers on Abraham Lincoln. We have always been street fighters, the Marquess of Queensberry rules have never applied to American politics.

Yet Dr. King was able to irenically articulate a substantive message in a vortex of hatred – he did not engage in vitriolic as far as I can see. Here is something that we can all learn from Martin Luther King, Jr. – how to communicate peacefully and yet firmly in a society in chaos, in a polarized political and social arena. I’ll pick this up in my next post.


Saturday, February 13, 2010

Jefferson Street and the Bible

Yesterday I had an appointment at the Panera Bread on Jefferson St in Newport News. Because we live southwest of Richmond, and because I wasn't certain of the driving time, I left during the front-end of rush hour to give myself plenty of time. As I approached Williamsburg I realized that if I remained on I-64 that I'd be quite early (something par for the course for me, just ask Vickie), so I took a Williamsburg exit, deciding to slow the pace down by getting off the Interstate.

Now I knew that Jefferson St is an I-64 exit - and I had a picture in my mind that as long as I continued on a main road into Newport News that I'd crisscross Jefferson and find the Panera. I picked up Route 143 in Williamsburg and continued on it into Newport News. However - I didn't see Jefferson St.

I passed the Newport News airport and recalled seeing on Mapquest that the Panera was in proximity to the airport - but after driving a couple more miles there was still no Jefferson St. Shortly after the airport, I should mention, I saw signs with the name Jefferson in them, shopping centers, research buildings, and the like - but no Jefferson street.

Finally I decided that I'd better pull off Rt. 143 and look at the rather poor map I'd printed out - for I had a sense that I'd driven too far into Newport News. I pulled into a retail parking lot, could learn nothing from the map - it wasn't detailed enough - and thought about calling Vickie to Google the Panera address and also check a Google map - but I really didn't want to do that. After deciding to backtrack on Rt. 143 and to find a ramp to I-64 and then look for the Jefferson Exit, I looked up at a sign hanging from a traffic light, the sign read "Jefferson" - Rt. 143 is Jefferson St. - I had been on Jefferson St. the entire time I had been in Newport News - I was on the street I was looking for and didn't know it.

After retracing my route a mile or two I found the Panera with plenty of time to spare.

I wonder how many times I've been looking for something and have been in the place I've been looking for without knowing it? How many times have preconceived images blinded me to the fact that I already am where I am going?

Late yesterday a pastor friend from Cincinnati called me to catch-up. As he was sharing with me about his teaching in Leviticus I said, "You know David, a lot of pastors don't talk about the Bible. We talk about this program, or that book, or what this person is saying, but oftentimes we don't talk about the Bible. I wonder why that is?"

Don't get me wrong, I love to read and through reading my life has been enriched beyond measure and I have gained mentors who lived hundreds of years ago. But those mentors have tended to lead me to the Bible as the Living Word of God. As a pastor I've yearned to hear my people talk about the Scriptures they've been reading - as opposed to a steady diet of Christian fad material - or even (hypothetically) a steady diet of sound and meaty Christian material. 

I think one of the reasons I loved my association with the Jesus People in California in the late 60's and the early Charismatic Movement was because people were excited about Jesus and excited about the Bible.

One day in 1968 I asked my friend David Hoyt in San Francisco why he decorated the pages of his Bible with artwork. He replied, "Well, the Bible is my home and people put art in their homes." That's been over 40 years ago and I still remember that.

I love my books - but I love my Bible more than all of my books. The fact is that no book is going to give me an answer that isn't better answered in the Bible; and no book can have its proper place with a proper perspective unless that place and perspective is the Bible. Sounds a bit narrow doesn't it? Nah - not really, not if you know the depth and width and height of the Scriptures, not if you've touched the texture and tasted the flavors of the Living Word - not if you've begun to plumb the deeps and adventure to the peaks.

My friend and former worship leader, Andy Shipp, used to say, "It's all in here. The answers are all in here. The more I read the Bible the more I see it." Now that's music to a pastor's ears.

So how many times have I been looking for something in this book or that book, or in this speaker or that one, or in this program or that...just fill in the blank...when if I would just center myself in the Scriptures and seek communion with my Father that a sustainable answer would be found as I come to see more of Jesus revealed in His Word and in my life?

How many times have I been on Jefferson St and didn't even know it?

Deuteronomy 30:11-14.


Thursday, February 11, 2010

An Old Man With A Staff

"All that unsuspecting Bilbo saw that morning was an old man with a staff."

"But I have no time to blow smoke-rings this morning. I am looking for someone to share in an adventure that I am arranging, and it's very difficult to find anyone." [Gandalf speaking].

"I should think so - in these parts! We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures. Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner! I can't think what anybody sees in them," said our Mr. Baggins.. [The foregoing is from The Hobbit].

I wonder how many times all I've seen in front of me is "an old man with a staff"? I wonder how many times I've missed Christ in the mundane, in the outward appearance, in the midst of my routine? I wonder how many people have been invisible to me that have been the apple of God's eye? 

And I wonder about this idea of sharing in an adventure.
A few years ago when I was facilitating an adult class on Narnia I asked the participants to describe the sense of adventure they had as children; after they had finished I asked them to describe their sense of adventure as adults - I think perhaps one person still claimed to have a sense of adventure. We had been taught to be safe, to conform, to stay within recognized parameters, to not stand out from the crowd.

I wonder what the men and women of Hebrews Chapter 11 would say about a sense of adventure? Suppose Abraham, and Moses, and Deborah, and the rest had replied to God, "Nasty, disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" Or there is Jesus by the sea of Galilee calling Peter, Andrew, James and John on the adventure of a lifetime and they reply, "Sorry Jesus, can't do it, got to be back for dinner."

I have worked with churches whose attitudes are, "We are plain quiet folk and have no use for adventures." And yet we have that disturbing teaching that they who are led by the Spirit of God are the sons of God. It does seem like there might be a bit of adventure in that thought. 

As the scene with Gandalf and Bilbo unfolds, with Gandalf refusing to leave, Bilbo tries again to dismiss his visitor by saying, "We don't want any adventures here, thank you! You might try over The Hill or across The Water."

That's kind of like me saying, "God, could you please go somewhere else and find someone else to share this adventure with You?" 

How many times have churches said, "Not here God - we don't permit the unexpected. Dinner is at 1:00 P.M. sharp - please come back next week but also please try to be good - after all - aren't you supposed to be good all the time?" 

What does your adventure with God look like today? What does mine look like? Am I willing to leave The Shire with Jesus - or will I spend my life in a Hobbit hole?