An experiment

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?

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4 thoughts on “An experiment

  1. OK, keep going :)

    Although I agree with many of your insights, some auxiliary observations:

    1) I disagree that the spiritual disciplines aren’t capable of yielding spiritual fruit. I think they can. Jewish Sabbath observance, for instance, has taught me a lot about patience and self-control over the years and indirectly a fair bit about humility. I’m not a consistent Sabbath observer at present but during the periods in which I was, it pretty clearly reduced the level of stress in my life simply because there were many things that were not permissible to do on the Sabbath (drive, turn on the computer, cook, etc.) and these standards were reinforced by community practice. That said, I don’t know why spiritual disciplines and intentionality have to be (or are?) seen as mutually exclusive. Surely one can observe the Sabbath AND try to cultivate the fruits in one’s daily life. One might bolster the other.

    2) I would also disagree about prayer not leading to the practice of the spiritual fruits in one’s own life; however, I think that there’s a huge difference between what the Jewish communities of Jesus’ day defined as prayer, Jesus’ understanding of that in challenge to the practice of those communities, and what Christian communities today practice as prayer. When I say “prayer leads to spiritual fruits,” I would not include the typical kind of spontaneous intercessory prayer that is typical of a lot of the Christian communities I’ve encountered over the years — even if one asks specifically for G-d to assist one in the cultivation of the fruits. I agree that is not likely to bear fruit because on the whole it’s focused in the wrong direction.

    3) Those two things being said, I definitely think there’s room for better instruction on them (and on many things), although I’m also marginally suspicious of certain kinds of instruction. I was catechized to pieces as a young person and required to memorize large portions of the Scriptures and the hymnal. I still wonder if the benefits of that outweighed the negative consequences. In any case it would have to be the right instruction, so …

    4) I’m leery of the mentorship thing. Although I do think that the people who are least inclined to give advice often give the best advice.

  2. Although I agree with many of your insights, some auxiliary observations:

    Servetus,

    Thanks, this is helpful. Some of the trouble lies in the writing, some in the thinking. Clearly some polishing of both is in order!

    I disagree that the spiritual disciplines aren’t capable of yielding spiritual fruit. I think they can. Jewish Sabbath observance, for instance, has taught me a lot about patience and self-control over the years and indirectly a fair bit about humility.

    Since I agree with this, I need to elaborate somehow. The disciplines are a good arena for growing in the virtues they exercise, but need to be approached with that in mind in order to produce the fruit. Just like waiting in a long line is an excellent opportunity to cultivate patience and humility … as well as an excellent opportunity to feed your impatience, anger, and pride—it all depends on how you approach it.

    Similarly, Sunday worship was an excellent (incomparable, really) venue for instilling some important qualities in our kids, e.g. the ability to sit quietly for long periods. They can now do it easily in church or anywhere else. But that’s not the goal of Sunday worship, and many (most?) kids never benefit from it that way.

    Surely one can observe the Sabbath AND try to cultivate the fruits in one’s daily life. One might bolster the other.

    Again, I agree, and I need to find a way to be clearer about that.

    I would also disagree about prayer not leading to the practice of the spiritual fruits in one’s own life; however, I think that there’s a huge difference between what the Jewish communities of Jesus’ day defined as prayer, Jesus’ understanding of that in challenge to the practice of those communities, and what Christian communities today practice as prayer.

    This I will grant, and except for pointing out the possibility of a fruitless going-through-the-motions maybe I need to make an explicit exception. I have a shelf full of books on prayer, and the older ones speak to an experience I simply don’t get. And not for lack of trying—reading what they said about prayer and how to pray led me to make repeated serious attempts to explore what they mapped out. To no avail. I may come back to it at some point, but at this point I haven’t found it helpful to treat prayer as more than a constant, continuous engagement with God’s creation (pray without ceasing)—and that’s been plenty helpful in itself.

    I still wonder if the benefits of that outweighed the negative consequences. In any case it would have to be the right instruction, so …

    I have similar issues, and they’re coming up again with respect to mindfulness meditation. I need the core guidance that a teacher gives a student, but that community has also surrounded the core with a bunch of other stuff that is irrelevant and sometimes off-putting to me, e.g. dharma talks. But every retreat seems to include regular one-on-one meetings with a teacher to discuss the practical aspects of where one is at in one’s own practice, and it looks possible to arrange such meetings outside of a retreat. In the Christian tradition spiritual direction seems to advertise this, but I don’t trust it—I suspect such directors are focused on things I don’t need to know, and are likely not competent to give advice anyway.

    I’m leery of the mentorship thing. Although I do think that the people who are least inclined to give advice often give the best advice.

    “Mentor” may be too loaded a term, and I’ll keep looking for a better one. I’ll try in an upcoming post to give some examples of what I’m talking about, which I don’t think most people would see as mentoring—but then again I don’t know if they’d have a name for it at all.

    Incidentally, I may start posting less frequently. Perhaps due to getting back into the habit of writing, I think I’ve come up with a good subject for a longform piece, the sort of writing I’ve always wanted to try. It’s about recent improvements in online discussion software (StackExchange, followed by Discourse, if you’re familiar with those). It occurred to me this morning that it would be a good topic to tackle, because (a) I have some informed opinions on the topic, (b) I have two concrete examples to discusss, and (c) much of the thinking behind developing that software was done online, making it easy to research and cite.

  3. Yeah — I agree re the same action potentially having opposite (or at least differing) outcomes. It’s not like there’s a “just do this and you will be healed” aspect to any of this stuff (which is part of what you’re criticizing).

    re: prayer, for me “right prayer” accomplishes an emptying of self. However, the ways that different people get there are potentially strikingly different. I was raised in a relatively “high” church setting with a regular, detailed, specific, inflexible liturgy that was repeated inexorably. The paraments changed color, the sermon was original, and we didn’t sing the same hymns every week, but other than that it was very predictable. I loved it, and one appeal of orthodox Judaism for me has been having that experience squared, so that it really is a discipline to pray correctly. That said, some people are so turned off by this idea, that the prayer ritual is in control of them and not them in control of the ritual, that they can’t ever get into it.

    I experience that as a “recharge” that makes all spiritual resolutions easier. When I feel the resulting divine love inside me it is easier for me to act in the loving ways I wish to act, etc., and when I am successful in acting well that increases my eagerness to pray, and so on. But I recognize that is not what most people get from it.

    re: Xian spiritual directors — aren’t most Roman Catholic? That definitely means certain priorities. But my most successful prayer experiences have been with Hasidim and they absolutely have priorities I am opposed to. I try to keep my eyes on the religion and not get caught up in the ideology.

    I get email notifications when you post, so I’ll definitely see whatever you write. I doubt I have much to say about software though :)

  4. Yeah — I agree re the same action potentially having opposite (or at least differing) outcomes. It’s not like there’s a “just do this and you will be healed” aspect to any of this stuff (which is part of what you’re criticizing).

    Breaking down my criticism, I join Richard Beck in countering the presumption that practicing the spiritual displines for their own sake will produce fruit—If you want patience and don’t have it, you need to pray harder/read your Bible more—with the claim that you have to practice the fruit directly in order to produce it—if you want patience and don’t have it, you need to deliberately practice patience.

    But I part ways with him when he pins the blame on lack of intention—if you are working at patience and aren’t developing it, you don’t really mean it and need to mean it more. I would claim instead that you’re doing the wrong work, and there is a better and reliable path one can follow to success—but you need to figure it out through study and application of common sense, or (if you’re blessed) with the help of someone who has already traveled the path.

    re: prayer, for me “right prayer” accomplishes an emptying of self.

    Me too. Which fits together with my belief that life should be fully devoted to living for others—which ends up benefiting you as much or more than the others. I empty myself in order to get myself out of my field of vision, so as to see the other (and God’s creation in general) more clearly.

    That said, some people are so turned off by this idea, that the prayer ritual is in control of them and not them in control of the ritual, that they can’t ever get into it.

    C.S. Lewis speaks somewhere, probably in Letters to Malcolm Chiefly on Prayer, of a fellow who told his priest that the Prayer Book had dried up for him. The priest responded that it was now time for him to set the book down and just pray. I expect this happens for some and not for others, and I can imagine yet others who put the book down for awhile then come back to it.

    As I’ve mentioned, I would be thrilled to gather with a group who had a joint commitment to ritual as a reason for gathering and a shared activity, but didn’t require you to invest any more meaning into it than that (although all would be welcome to invest it individually with more). But to me it’s the gathering that matters, because of the potential it creates—for hallway conversations, or just whatever might happen in the course of being with others in that context.

    I experience that as a “recharge” that makes all spiritual resolutions easier. When I feel the resulting divine love inside me it is easier for me to act in the loving ways I wish to act, etc., and when I am successful in acting well that increases my eagerness to pray, and so on. But I recognize that is not what most people get from it.

    I think the mindfulness meditators are way better about this when it comes to gathering. There’s a deep recognition that although folks gather for a common purpose, the individual experience can be very different—stages along the path, different paths for different types, and so on. And all those differences are somehow honored equally. Christian congregations in my experience expect much more uniformity, and in fact would be freaked out if someone publicly acknowledged that they weren’t experiencing what the group purports to experience (in fact, from time to time I’ve freaked out fellow parishioners by doing this).

    re: Xian spiritual directors — aren’t most Roman Catholic? That definitely means certain priorities. But my most successful prayer experiences have been with Hasidim and they absolutely have priorities I am opposed to. I try to keep my eyes on the religion and not get caught up in the ideology.

    I think Christian spiritual direction for lay people is a recent thing, and a fad. Which is why I wouldn’t trust anyone who offered to direct me—incompetence, hidden agendas, etc.

    I get email notifications when you post, so I’ll definitely see whatever you write. I doubt I have much to say about software though :)

    You might be surprised. Although it’s about software, the larger topic is how to conduct profitable interaction via the internet. But let’s see first if I make any progress in the writing.

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