Starting the Spiritual Life

The more that I engage with the sayings of the desert wisdom the more I come to see how little I really know about the Christian spiritual life. For instance, I struggle with anger and I try really hard to say the right things. I do not want to offend my neighbor and I do not want to say things that do harm. Of course I fail at this, but I still feel that the “ideal Christian” would never say anything hurtful. And then I read this:

They said of Abbot Pambo that in the very hour when he departed this life he said to the holy men who stood by him: From the time I came to this place in the desert, and built me a cell, and dwelt here, I do not remember eating bread that was not earned by the work of my own hands, nor do I remember saying anything for which I was sorry even until this hour. And thus I go to the Lord as one who has not even made a beginning in the service of God. - The Wisdom of the Desert by Thomas Merton

Pambo thought, right up to the point of his death, that self-sufficiency and not being a drain on anyone (by avoiding bread he did not make) was virtuous. He thought that never saying anything he was sorry for was a saintly. And then, right at the point of his death, he saw that this “ideal” way of living was in fact not the way of God at all. Receiving hospitality and seeking reconciliation are the very beginning steps of one in the service of God.

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It is faithful to seek reconciliation. It is not faithful to keep so quite as to never offend or to think all that you say is without flaw. It is faithful to receive the work of others. The deficient one is someone who has never asked for help.

I am reminded once again that American values are not Christian values. The pious self-sufficient individual might think they are at the pinnacle of heaven, but Pambo says they have not even begun to walk the mountain.

The Boxing Preacher

Preachers have different goals to their preaching styles and content. Some talk about changing our heads and thus preach intellectually engaging sermons. Others talk about changing our hands and give us actionable steps to go out into the world and do something. Still others speak of preaching to the heart so that over time the heart is converted to Christ and love for neighbor expands beyond our small identities. Still others argue for a combination of these three goals.

In this way, preaching is like boxing. Using different moves, statements and arguments, the preacher is attempting to spar with the congregation. Not in a combative way, but in a way that builds stamina and endurance for the struggles of life.

And so, many preachers are looking for the one line, the one idea the one point for a sermon that can “land”. Something so poignant, clever, beautiful or compelling that it hits people and knocks them off their feet. Some preachers might even try to preach to hit you in the face so hard that it knocks you out! The preacher is trying to land blows on a congregation that is sparing with her.

However, in our attempts to "“knock people out” or “hit em in the head” with such powerful sermons, we are overlooking that Jesus is more of a body puncher than one who goes for the face.

Going for the knock out blow is quick and exciting, and going for the body is slow and less flashy. The preacher who “hits” people in the stomach with the sermon, may never knock anyone out. But after we are hit in the body a few times our breathing changes.

Rather than preach to the head, hands or heart, what would it look like for the preacher to preach to the breath.

What would it look like for sermons not to change our minds or even our hearts, but the very way we breathe? The very way we take in and let go of the breath/spirit in our lungs?

Tradition - Handing On/Handing Over

In a section of the book "Invitation to Research in Practical Theology, the authors write the following about tradition.

Tradition is a key religious word. It is an ambiguous word: carrying etymologically the meaning of ‘handing on’ but also ‘handing over’ - passing on or betraying: ‘traditio’ in Latin, ‘paradosis’ in Greek. Paul hands on the witness he has received to the death and resurrection of Jesus (1 Corinthians 15:3) and to the Last Supper (1 Corinthians 11:23); Judas hands over Jesus to the authorities (Matthew 26:45-46).

They go on to explore how we wrestle to be faithful to develop traditions so to not hand them over (betray) but to hand them on to the next generation.

Photo by  Justin Main  on  Unsplash

Photo by Justin Main on Unsplash

What stirs in my soul is not just the ways we are to be faithful to not betray tradition and how we ought to faithfully hand tradition on to the next generation, but the ways that tradition betrays us.

Traditions hand us deep wisdom and knowing that is valuable and important. We tend to idealize and romanticize the tradition of the past. Everyone has “golden years” they remember as the best times of their life and many of us work hard to try to get back to those times or lament that we are no longer in those glory days. And this is where tradition can betray us.

Tradition, like other living things, do not like to change and are biased toward self preservation. Tradition’s evolutionary advantage, if you will, is to convince us that they are powerful and that change is deadly. For instance in the United States the tradition that argues the Civil War was not about slavery is still very much alive and those who would change this tradition are faced with very harsh words and actions. (For those outside the United States, the Civil War is complex like all wars, but it was chiefly about slavery.)

Tradition is a big reason that I am dedicated to the Church. I love the tradition and believe there is deep wisdom and Truth contained within them. But until I come to grips with the reality that traditions are not just handed on but they also hand us over, they can betray us, they can enslave for their own existence.

Do not forget that tradition is never dead, it is alive and tradition is using every advantage it has to breathe and spread. Let us not be fooled, tradition is powerful and beautiful. But tradition can also betray us, leading us down a dark road, for the sake of it’s own survival.

The Road to Hope

Civil Rights leaders knew the power of suffering Photo by  History in HD  on  Unsplash

Civil Rights leaders knew the power of suffering Photo by History in HD on Unsplash

I spend much of my days shoring up that I do not suffer. I take aspirin. I work hard to ensure my kids are quite and not yelling. I turn the news off that I don’t want to see. I time my driving so to avoid traffic. I delay sharing bad or unwelcome news with others. I order things online so I do not have to go to the store. I look for the shortest lines.

Recently this line came through WeCroak: “Our avoidance instinct is also due to the fact that our culture has decided that suffering has no value.” (original source)

As a human I work to avoid suffering but as a Christian I know that suffering has immense value. As Paul writes:

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us.- Romans 5:3-5 (NRSV)

Paul seems to suggest that suffering is the road to hope. It is a road less traveled in my life.

I live in a bubble wrapped existence where the extent of my suffering is a power outage for a few hours or failing to meet some arbitrary expectation. I can imagine that many of us in the Church in the United States also do not suffer much at all. Which of course begs the question - if we suffer little do we hope for less?