November 11, 2017

On Outward-Facing Spiritual Practices

Photo by Shane Rounce on Unsplash
After hurricane Harvey hit, we found out that the city would only be able to provide limited trash services. For an indefinite amount of time, we would not have recycling service at home!

I know.

First world problems.

Stick with me.

Following this announcement our family collected our recycling in a separate can just as we always have. The night before our trash is picked up we would take out our household trash and roll out our big black trash can on two wheels to the street for the following morning. The big green can stayed in its place. The recycling we would collect into large leaf bags to then separate into types and take to a recycling center on the other side of town.

I think we dropped off recycling once.

In our kitchen, we have a recycling can next to our regular trash can. We have continued to put our recyclables into that separate container. Yet, once a week when that container begins to fill what do we do the recyclables? I'm sad to say that we got into the habit of just dumping the recycling in with the regular trash. As week after week has gone by, it's become a thoughtless action. We drop recyclables into a container that we know contributes absolutely no end good to us or the world around us.

I tell you this in part simply to break the habit. By saying it "out loud" to you, I've now got to do something about it. But there is also another reason for writing this:

For many of us, spiritual disciplines are no different than my trash dispensing habit.

Spiritual disciplines are frequently talked about in regards to the impact they have on the inner life and our personal benefit. For example, as a podcast listener I've noticed that meditation is en vogue. Many public figures talk about the personal advantages of meditation; the serenity it brings along with the increased productivity. Christians use different language but frequently say something similar. It makes me better.

The trouble with this approach to spiritual disciplines is that they are often a lot like my trash dispensing habits. They produce a chemical reaction in our brain that tells us we're making the right decision, doing the right thing. Yet, when push comes to shove, when we are truly challenged to adopt an additional rhythm, habit, or practice that benefits another ... will we do that? We pick up prayer books, kneel on mats and sit with legs crossed like me dropping an empty glass bottle in that recycling container; I feel better but who else does it benefit unless this habit shapes me for another practice that benefits someone else? I mindlessly drop that glass bottle into a recycling container and the items in that container still find their way to a landfill. I have changed nothing.

How do our spiritual habits change anything?

Our shared public life has displayed just how spiritually malnourished we are. This is not the same as what some will say about the loss of a "Christian" America. In fact, what surveys about spirituality in America have shown is that while participation in religious institutions has significantly declined, the spirituality of every generation has changed very little. In other words, the same number of people from generation to generation still pray, engage in other spiritual practices, read holy texts and believe in God. There is a longing for a healthy spirituality. Yet, an increasing number of Americans have simply determined that the Church is unwilling to share that. Or maybe Christians forgot what that looked like.

I once heard Reggie McNeal say that this era may be the first spiritual awakening in America of which the Church was at not the center of. All the while, the Church in America has within its tradition spiritual practices that our church fathers and mothers taught us were intended to feed the soul and through that change the world. Instead of share these with the spiritually hungry we've engaged in spiritual consumerism and colonialism.

In 1 Corinthians 12, as Paul shares his definition and purpose of spiritual gifts he begins by saying this,
"Therefore I want you to understand that no one speaking by the Spirit of God ever says 'Let Jesus be cursed!' and no one can say 'Jesus is Lord' except by the Holy Spirit."
It's a strange sentence. To grasp what it means, it is important to recall the context in which it is being said. When Paul refers to Jesus, he is speaking about a man that if even known to others would have been know as a man convicted of treason and executed by the State. Paul is calling that man "Lord," a title reserved for Caesar. To call Jesus "Lord" was treasonous. Roman soldiers would torture early Christians in an attempt to get them to renounce Jesus. Renunciation was achieved when one cursed Jesus. In effect, what Paul is saying is that when someone is filled with God's Spirit they can take on the powers. Without God's Spirit you will give in, cripple under the blows of the system. Yet, the early Christians were convinced that if they could display such an outward facing spirituality, one that was selfless and sacrificial, others would come to know the Jesus they knew and loved.

Too often, our modern, western spiritual practice is like those that cursed Jesus. We say Jesus is Lord in our safe spaces but not where it really counts. When tyrants billow and tread on those we are commanded to stand up for, we do not stand up and declare that there is one King and they are not that King. We are quick to defend ourselves and no one else. We sacrifice nothing. Ours is a selfish spirituality. All the while there is spiritual hunger all around.

What would it look like for us to begin exploring a different kind of Christian spirituality? A Christian spirituality that prepares us to meet God and others in the world around us. What kind of practices would you adopt if you were to have an outward facing spirituality? How many around you long to deepen their well of spirituality in order to be able make a sustained difference in the world? How many of these would be joyfully astonished to find that Christianity has these practices embedded deep within our tradition and that Jesus is at the center of these?

I'm biased but I think missional communities are an excellent way to develop such a spirituality. In fact, throughout Church history it has been communities like these that have nurtured such. These small communities would come together for mutual edification, nurturing the kind of spiritual formation that was intended to impact the world around them and withstand the external pressures of the marketplace and state. The early monastic cells, early Anabaptist communities in Europe, hush harbors of the antebellum south, Wesley's classes and bands, Bonhoeffer's underground seminary in Nazi-Germany, base communities of Latin America, the underground church in various parts of the world where Christianity is illegal or stigmatized ... a trait they all share is outward-facing spiritual formation; a spirituality the engenders love of God, of othera love that is sacrificial and centered on others.

This is not as complicated as I may have made it sound. And I am not as dismayed as it may appear here. I'm actually quite hopeful, in part because I think solutions are not as difficult as we may imagine. A fantastic, short book that addresses this is Michael Frost's Surprise the World. But if you don't have time for a book, choose to do things such as listening well to others, sharing meals with others, praying for others while you regularly engage in serving others ... such practices can radically change us if we let them. The renowned psychology professor Dr. Philip Zombardo has said that adopting such activities as listed above as practicesspiritual practices, I'd argue, can shape us for the moments when it really matters. Moments such as what Paul wrote about to the Corinthians.

Time to make a trip to the recycling center.

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