I thought it might be interesting to publish a raw piece of writing here, the first part of something that may take me a good while to finish. The piece itself needs reworking, and may change quite a bit as I rework it into something that says what I think—and as I continue to discover what I think.
The title of the piece for now is Come Alongside, and describes what I think is one good way to walk the path of character development, Christian or otherwise.
Why are we stuck?
Richard Beck recent wrote a series of posts called “The Most Important Word in Christianity” (one, two, three, four). They’re good reading, short and to the point, but I think I can summarize it fairly as follows:
- Christians have an understanding of the fruitful Christian life and a desire to live it, but in general make no progress toward that end.
Seriously, just take a look at your church. How many times have you heard the call to more Sabbath, simplicity and prayer? A bet a million times. Now ask: Is your church any less busy or stressed out than it was ten years ago?
- We fail to develop the fruits of the Spirit because we don’t intentionally set out to develop those fruits.
For example, how many of us woke up today with an intentional goal to be more gentle? I expect very few. Which means, by the end of the year, none of us will have become more gentle. That’s a Fruit of the Spirit, a key marker of being like Jesus, totally ignored.
- Spiritual disciplines, good in themselves, will not produce fruit because they are not designed to produce fruit.
Consider how Jesus ends the Sermon on the Mount. Having set out his vision of God’s kingdom rule in our lives, Jesus doesn’t conclude with the suggestion that we should practice prayer, fasting, Sabbath, and silence so that the Sermon can be formed in our lives. No, Jesus ends by saying this: “The one who hears these words and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house upon a rock.” […]
Jesus’ vision of spiritual formation is simple: Put these things into practice. Don’t wander off to do other sorts of things. Intentionally do these things. Intentionally put these things into practice. Yes, prayer and fasting are mentioned in the Sermon on the Mount, but intentionality in practicing prayer and fasting is primary.
- We can progress in fruitful living by cultivating the actual fruits.
My biggest problem with Christian spiritual formation efforts is the lack of attention given to the Fruit of the Spirit. Somehow, prayer and fasting are supposed to cultivate love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I’m not wholly convinced that’s the case, all things being equal.
Here’s a crazy idea: I think you cultivate something like patience by being focused and intentional about being patient.
To my mind Beck is right about two things: (1) the fruits of the spirit are not cultivatable indirectly, i.e. practices such as prayer and fasting and Bible study do not by themselves produce the fruits, and (2) the fruits are cultivatable directly, i.e. we progress in them by practicing them.
This has been my experience. I’ve done both, and I’ve made progress in the fruits. For the record, I’m prepared to back up that claim in the case of joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control—love is harder to quantify, and I’ll leave it to others to decide whether I’ve progressed there. I’ve also worked at the spiritual disciplines with varying levels of diligence for twenty-five years now, and I am confident now that, beneficial though the work was, it didn’t produce the fruits. At best it deepened my understanding of them, intensified my hunger to bear them, and cleared the way of certain obstacles.
So, Beck says e.g. we are not growing in patience because we are not focused and intentional about developing patience. But doesn’t this simply beg the question? We know we should be patient, we want to be patient, pastors urge us to be patient, we have before us the perfect model of patience—with all that, what keeps us from being focused and intentional about developing patience?
I’ve sat through enough sermons where the pastor was Homer Simpson to my television in this clip:
TV Host: Well, sir, it has been an uneventful week in Badger Falls… where the women are robust, the men are pink-cheeked… and the children are pink-cheeked and robust. [ Wild TV audience laughter ]
Homer What the hell’s so funny?
TV Host: At the Apple Biscuit Café… where the smiles are free, don’t you know… Sven lnqvist studied the menu. Finally, he ordered the same thing he has every day. [ Wild TV audience laughter]
Bart: Maybe it’s the TV.
Homer: Stupid TV! [Starts banging on TV] Be more funny!
Well, OK, pastor … but how? Is the path to patience so obvious that deciding we want to go there is enough, the work to be done will unfold before us as long as we set forth with intention? This hasn’t been my experience.
Richard Beck says the missing ingredient is intentionality, that we don’t progress because we make no serious effort to do so. I agree, but I think that such effort never materializes (or dies on the vine) because of a second, more important missing ingredient: clear and simple guidance on how to proceed. That we are left to work out for ourselves. For those few who are able to chart their own path, the progress will come. The rest are left to drift.
But as I suggested in my post earlier this week, the failure should not be chalked up to the individual but the community.
Most Christians know they are called to behave a certain way, and many are doing their best to answer the call, but they don’t seem to be enjoying it one bit. They are not content, but they don’t know why, and constant exhortation from the pulpit to just be content isn’t making it any easier. They don’t yet have the answers. But I think the answers are out there. I think that Christian thinking actually works, and it’s completely fair for someone to point out to the teachers that they can’t be telling the whole story if a Christian who honestly and diligently applies these teachings doesn’t experience joy and contentment as a result.
There are answers. But until we figure out how to (a) live them in our own lives, and (b) teach others how to live them in theirs, we don’t really have them.
Clear and simple guidance is a possibility, but somehow the community isn’t delivering. We can’t deliver an answer we don’t have, and we don’t have an answer until we have lived it in our own life and taught others how to live it in theirs. The pieces are floating around—some know how to live it out, some know how to teach—but we’ve forgotten as a community how to collect, cultivate, and communicate wisdom for living.
But … how?
In the mid-90s I saw a training video for Alpha course leaders where Nicky Gumbel, the Anglican priest who created the course, talked about once going on and on in pastorly tones about the importance of prayer, to which his wife responded in essence, yes, well and good … but how?
He then advised the small group leaders that, when they introduced prayer into their groups (about five meetings along, I think) they should initiate it … and keep it simple. As he said, if the group leader opens with a elaborate, articulate, delicately phrased prayer, those in the group with little or no experience of prayer at best are likely to think “Wow! That was wonderful, I loved that! Of course, I could never do such a thing …” Whereas if you open the meeting with “Dear Lord, thank you for the lovely weather this week, amen” those folks are likely to think “Huh … well, I can surely do better than that!”
Provided this is what you think prayer is about, then the above is great guidance—clear, simple, and practical. We might wonder why a collection of advice just as practical doesn’t exist, a training manual for those new to prayer (as far as I know it doesn’t, at least in the sense I’m describing). I think the reason is a simple one—the above bit of advice is specific to a time and place and situation, provided by an expert in such things, and if we were to collect all such advice even the world itself could not contain the books that should be written, only the tinest fraction of which would be relevant to a given person’s life.
And we don’t really need such a comprehensive library. We would be fine with just one book, as long as it were addressed directly to us and the writer added to it the things we needed to read at just the time we needed them.
Such books are occasionally written, though not always by setting pen to paper. They are written by mentors on the hearts of those they advise.
I think mentoring is nearly a lost concept in modern Christian circles. No one wants the responsibility that comes with doing it, and although many will make noises about wanting to be discipled no one wants to subject themselves to the actual discipline, which involves humility and docility and other quaint character qualities.
I was in a weekly Bible study with some of the other evangelical-leaning Episcopalians at my church, a Christian for just a few years, and ran through the standard litany of complaints about how unnamed “mature” Christians (I had none in mind) were apparently neglecting their mentorly duties to me and others, for reasons I couldn’t fathom.
To make the point, I turned to an older couple in the group, married perhaps forty years at that time. and said, “Look, surely if a young couple came to you and asked for guidance and wisdom about being married you’d be glad to give it.”
Instead of the vigorous nodding I expected to get, I got a deer-in-the-headlights look. Even after forty years of marriage my friends reacted in terror to the thought that someone might actually ask them for advice—after all, they might follow it, and it might not turn out well, and then who would be responsible?