Does Christian Spirituality Boil Down to These Two Questions?

 

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Christian spirituality often boils down to two questions: Do I have time? Will this work?

You could say these are chicken and egg questions. If prayer works, you’ll find the time for it. If you don’t find the time for prayer, it won’t work. If prayer doesn’t seem to work, you won’t find the time for it.

Find the time for prayer, and it will work… eventually.

This is why it has helped to compare the ways that the reflection of prayer resembles the reflection that goes into writing. The two use many of the same practices and mindsets. If I struggle at one, there’s a good chance I’m struggling at the other. My failures and breakthroughs in writing have helped me understand my failures and breakthroughs in prayer.

Writing is a lot like prayer since everyone thinks they can write, just as everyone thinks they should be able to pray. However, both require learning some basic disciplines, mindsets, and practices in order to make them more likely and more fruitful. True, anyone can and should pray. Anyone can and should write. However, just sitting down to write can be extremely frustrating. The same goes for just sitting down to pray.

Disciplines, structure, and the wisdom of those who have gone before us provide a framework that helps us stand. We learn within the security of these structures and disciplines. What we learn from others we imitate clumsily at first. Over time we find our own way forward.

In the case of writing, I’ve faced these questions about whether I have the time and whether writing will “work.” I’ve found that I had to spend years making time for writing, prioritizing it, learning from experts, imitating the masters, and failing a lot. The progress was slow and incremental.

We can find time for just about anything if we make it a priority. I have learned that prioritizing things like prayer, exercise, and writing means I have to really plan ahead during the day for things like:

  • When will I do the dishes?
  • When will I fold the laundry and put it away?
  • When will I sleep and when will I wake up?
  • How will I keep myself from wasting time on social media?
  • How will I focus on my work?
  • Some days go better than others with all of these tasks!

If I want to make the most of my writing time, I need to invest in things like:

  • Reading constructive books.
  • Free writing when I have a moment.
  • Jotting down ideas in a notebook or phone.
  • Practicing and stretching myself with new projects.

My growth as a writer is a lot like prayer in that I need to learn the disciplines of prayer, learn from people who have greater experience in prayer, and practice using them. Just trying prayer out a few times won’t give you a clear sense of whether it will work. It’s a long term discipline that you develop over time.

Will prayer work? Only if I make the time for it.

Can I find time for prayer? I can, but I’ll be more likely to do so once I see that it works.

If you’re uncertain, discouraged, or leaning heavily toward doubt right now, I trust that prayer is hard to attempt. Where do you begin if prayer has been a source of frustration?

I’ve learned that I need to begin with making time to practice and learning what I can.

We’re left with faith, believing that God is present already and that the greatest barrier in prayer isn’t coming from God’s end of things but rather training ourselves to become aware of God. We can step forward into prayer believing that those who seek will find. Mind you, we don’t know what exactly we’ll find when we seek. We can’t control the timeline of our seeking.

We can only control our schedules and what we believe about God: that God is present, that God is seeking us, and that the simple desire to pray is enough to begin making time for prayer.

 

Read more about the basics of contemplative prayer and Christian spirituality in my latest book:

Flee, Be Silent, Pray: An Anxious Evangelical Finds Peace with God through Contemplative Prayer

On sale for $2.99

Amazon Kindle | Amazon print | Kobo | B&N

 

 

Denomination Derby: Why You Should Join the Anglican Church

Denomination Church Logo

Whenever I have a question about liturgy, the sacraments, or the Anglican church, I always tweet at Preston Yancy, author of Tables in the Wilderness. Preston is one of those guys who has studied a ton of theology but has never lost his grounding in the church, and that commitment to serve the church shows in his moving blog posts, instructive tweets, and eerily spot on use of animated GIFs. A former Baptist who migrated to the liturgy of the Anglican church, Preston and his book are excellent guides into the depth and beauty of the sacraments. Where many dabble in liturgy, he helps us take the plunge. He writes today about the Anglican church in America:

Anglicans can be the most neurotic Christians. I say that upfront so as to not surprise you with it later. Known for our tendency to gravitate toward the middle of theological extremes, it can feel frustrating to try and grasp exactly what we are all about, what it is we believe. You’ll meet Anglicans who lean hard into our Roman Catholic roots of practice and Anglicans who run fast into the charismatic freedom of nondenominational-like belief. You’ll meet a few like me, too, who tend to feel most comfortable between those poles: happy-clappy Jesus-lovers who believe in sitting with the writings of the saints and the reverence of worship with common prayer. There are some essential beliefs that define us broadly, however, and if I were to ever try to convince someone of why they may find Anglicanism a good fit, it would be focused on these: we are a people of the Book, we are a people of the Sacrament, we are a people of the Community.

People of the Book

Anglicans are deeply devoted to the Scripture. Our prayerbook is mostly a weaving together of various psalms, Gospel readings, epistles. Half of our traditional worship service is devoted specifically to the hearing and reading of the Bible. A cycle of readings—one from the Old Testament, a psalm, the New Testament, and finally the Gospel—are read or read communally, are pronounced over us and by us, and then the preaching that follows ideally seeks to make clear the ways in which the readings for a cohesive whole, how God reveals Godself to us when we put the texts of Scripture in conversation with each other. There are more ways than this that Anglicans take the Bible seriously, but this is the one that most often comes to my own mind. We don’t believe in exclusively personal reading of Scripture. We need the community, we need to hear the Gospel literally spoken aloud, the Word, Jesus, literally proclaimed by words. We believe the Spirit makes itself known to us in the reading of Scripture, which pivots into my next point.

People of the Sacrament

Anglicans have a complicated understanding of God’s presence, but it could be said it distills into essentially this: we believe that God is everywhere (a classically Christian perspective) and that the Spirit of God makes itself known in the lives of individual believers (a classically Evangelical perspective). So between the way God is present outside of us and how God is present within us, we have a deep belief in the power of God to guide and direct us corporately and individually into becoming more and more like Jesus. Moreover, we believe that there are certain ways in which God has said that God makes Godself known to us particularly. One such way is Communion. In the Gospel of Luke, we read of the disciples walking with the unknown Jesus on the road to Emmaus that it was in the breaking of the bread that Jesus was made known to them. First they hear Jesus speak of the Scriptures—this serves my first point—and then Jesus breaks bread in a Eucharistic feast. In the breaking the disciples move from having their hearts stirred to recognizing Jesus fully as He is. Anglicans say that in Communion, Jesus makes Himself known to us, that we are filled with the power of the Spirit to continue in that good work that God has called us to personally and together. We are fed from the Table so as to go out into the world to feed it, to tell it where it too can be fed, where it can come and known this Jesus, which leads to this:

People of the Community

Because of our belief in God’s presence and work in this world, Anglicans are naturally inclined to social and political concerns. Our belief about the end times and the afterlife aligns less with a hope in a disembodied heaven where we have harps and sing forever and more about the beautiful and redemptive kingdom that God will bring into fullness with the return of Jesus but has already begun in shadows and imperfection now. “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” the Gospels remind us, and so we are committed to realizing that kingdom at present. The ways in which this is expressed is as varied as preferences of worship, but it would be fair to say that Anglican theology is essentially practical. We believe in an incarnate Jesus who hallowed bodies in His birth and that such a mystery leads us to make certain conclusions about life, about what we believe about bodies, of what we think God cares most about. We are a people of the community, because our faith obligates us to recognize the ways in which God is making Godself known outside of the walls of the church and, at the same time, how the Church is to be in service of the world in leading it back to the abundant Table of the risen Lord.

These are not features exclusive to Anglicans, of course. As I mentioned above, our middling position often means we share territory of belief and boarders with many in the larger Christian community. What tends to be unique, what keeps me confirmed an Anglican, confirmed in its ways of teaching me to pray, is the sense of great freedom the tradition offers within a context of accountability that is not only to a local community or a larger denomination but also to the Church in and across time. Within this vast territory, there’s room to express faith in a variety of ways that keep both a hold on a sense of orthodoxy and a lose grip on preference of tradition.

Some people find it chaotic, I find it oddly reassuring—we’re family here, struggling through and fighting and laughing and eating and celebrating. There’s a chair at this table for you, too.

About Today’s Guest Blogger

PrestonYancey.Headshot-23 copy Yancey is an Anglican priest-in-training, an author, sometimes-painter, sometimes-baker, sometimes-scholar interested in Christian theology and the arts.

He’s a happy-clappy, Jesus-loving, liturgy-liking evangelical Anglican confirmed in the Anglican Church in North America. He wrote a book about that and is also in the process of becoming a priest, with a likely ordination in November 2015.

About Denomination Derby

This series invites ministers or ministry volunteers with seminary training to share what they love about their denominations so that readers will have a greater awareness of and appreciation for the good things happening throughout the church.

We have several writers lined up to write about their respective denominations, but nominations for guest bloggers or requests for a particular denomination are welcome.

Subscribe to my RSS email list to make sure you get the posts each Friday as they go live.

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When Debating the Bible Isn’t Fair for Anyone

Bible debate fight

I’m no longer in the reformed theology camp. That isn’t a shock to anyone who knows me. I left it after being immersed in reformed theology in seminary.

Nevertheless, I would lose every debate to a reformed theologian.

But then every reformed theologian would lose a debate with me.

Here’s the thing: We’re both playing by different rules, and until we can admit that, we’re going to keep talking past each other.

We most certainly begin with different experiences. There’s no escaping the stories that send us speeding off in different directions. Sometimes we crash into each other, able to only see the present, and fighting tooth and nail against what is before us instead of all that has preceded it.

However, the main difference is that I play by different rules when I read and interpret the Bible compared to five or ten years ago. I could handle ambiguity and mystery, but now I’ve realized that comfort with uncertainty isn’t enough.

I needed to understand the role of creatively listening to the ways God speaks through scripture without necessarily looking for scripture to spell everything out.

That is not a very evangelical sentence. It most certainly doesn’t fit with many of the conservative reformed traditions I know.

I use the metaphors of blueprints and paintings in A Christian Survival Guide to describe these two ways of reading the Bible.  Here’s the full explanation:

“Sometimes I’ve used the Bible as if it was a blueprint that spelled out the precise way to live as a Christian. I expected everyone to believe and practice everything just like me. I’m sure you’ve attended churches where you feel tremendous pressure to conform in all areas. I once met a pastor whose church was considering firing him because he didn’t believe in the rapture. Other churches put pressure on families to conform to their specific biblical guidelines. I’ve had my own narrow theological guidelines that I’ve used to neatly divide my friends into insiders and outsiders.

Is the Bible supposed to do that? Does it give us specific guidelines to follow in any and every situation?

I have since found that the Bible functions more like a work of art.

We all know that paintings, poems, or stories have a range of meaning and can be interpreted in several ways within that range. As new generations view a painting or read a book, they can appreciate what it meant to the original author, what it meant to previous generations, and what it means to them in the present.

A painting can accurately portray an actual event. A poem can communicate a truth. Then again, there is a significant difference between a portrait that aims to capture a precise image of a person and an impressionist painting of a wheat field on a warm summer day where the wind gently courses through the heads of grain. In art and poetry, truths aren’t always dropped on us in plain, bold letters. We have to talk about them with others and think about them, returning to them over time to ponder the meaning further.”

There’s no doubt that sometimes a plain, word for word, literal reading of the Bible leads to a direct, unavoidable conclusion. I think we all try to read the Bible like this sometimes.

A conservative may argue that Jesus is fully divine and human because he stated, “I and the father are one,” adding that he was born of a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit.

A liberal/progressive may say, “Christians should not support war because Jesus commanded us to love our enemies.”

Both adopt simple, literal reading of passages. Neither strikes me as a stretch, and both represent New Testament teachings that are worth affirming.

However, there are ways some conservatives explain away Christian opposition to war. There are ways some liberals explain away the divinity of Christ.

You would think that a clear, easily applied blueprint would lead all honest inquirers to the truth. It’s no surprise that followers of Jesus are fragmented and divided over how to read and interpret the Bible, but if we want understand why we are fragmented so much, we need to look at our starting assumptions about the Bible.

We all believe that the Bible is telling us how to do something, but we aren’t agreed on what that something is. If we view the Bible as more of a painting than a blueprint, then we have a place to begin:

The first and really only “how to” the Bible offers is this: “How to meet with God.” Scripture is a series of paintings that show how people have met with God and points us toward ways we can interact with God—through the mediation of the risen Christ and the Holy Spirit. However, we aren’t necessarily supposed to duplicate the details of these paintings precisely.

Just as a Picasso would feel out of place with medieval iconography, so too would a series of realist landscapes raise eyebrows in a museum filled with Jackson Pollock paintings and other modern works that defy a predetermined form.

The interpretive work of the Bible is a creative process where the Holy Spirit meets us in the pages of scripture and guides us closer to the presence and, consequently, will of God.

My more reformed friends begin at a different place, arguing that the Bible is God’s revelation for us that tells us how to live—that’s at least what I was told while immersed in conservative reformed theology. If you want to know how to conduct yourself, structure your church, or set up your family, look no further than the words of scripture for your inspired guide.

We’re both starting with different questions and assumptions about what the Bible is and how it guides us. When we discuss these differences, we could sell each other short if we make the mistake of assuming we’re both starting with the same assumptions and expectations about the Bible.

There are pejorative statements like, “Progressives have a ‘low’ view of scripture.” But then it’s really just a different view of scripture.

As my view of scripture has shifted from a blueprint to a painting, I’ve found that I take the Bible far more seriously now than ever before.  I believe that the Bible is a tool of the Spirit for ushering God’s people into his presence. I believe that the Bible is a guide for living, but it’s not necessarily a word for word blueprint for all people at all times.

There are times when we may interpret the Bible in a more straightforward, blueprint sort of way, but that doesn’t negate the fact that oftentimes we can’t simply drop the stories of another people at another time in history directly into today’s context.

If anything, the Bible shows us a God who is always reaching out to all kinds of people, using actions, symbols, and customs that are familiar to them.

Need a temple with sacrifices?  You got it.

Need to switch things up for the exile? No worries.

Want to obey the Law perfectly? Stop worrying about obeying the Law perfectly and just love people, showing mercy and compassion—even if that requires breaking the Law.

Ready for me to welcome all nations? Let’s drop mandatory circumcision and those rules about animals sacrificed to idols.

The Bible does not reveal a God of blueprints.

If there’s any blueprint for how God acts, it’s that God rips up blueprints, sets a table before us, and says, “Hey, let’s talk.”

Pick up A Christian Survival Guide to read more about how and why we read the Bible (see the chapter “The Bible: A Source of Crisis and Hope”) as well as how we interpret the Bible today (see the chapter “The Bible and Culture: Less Lobster, More Bonnets”).

Coffeehouse Theology Event at CLC Bookcenter in Moorestown, NJ

coffeehousetheology230 The press release for my next book event follows:

South Jersey native Ed Cyzewski will be discussing his book Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life at the CLC Bookcenter in Moorestown, NJ on Saturday, September 25th at 11 AM.

Cyzewski will address where our beliefs about God come from, including the impact that cultural values have in shaping Bible reading. The talk will cover how to study the Bible, how the Bible shapes our beliefs, and how our beliefs impact our actions. Coffeehouse Theology is an ideal introduction to theology for Christians who want to dig deeper into what they believe.

Reviewer David Swanson writes in Leadership Journal, “I would recommend the book to almost any member of my church.” Publisher’s Weekly writes that Cyzewski “urges readers to explore theology while reassuring them that they don’t have to become postmodern philosophers: theology can be considered, as it were, in the coffeehouse,” and adds, “Personal anecdotes of his own growth in faith are disarming in their honesty”

Ed Cyzewski has contributed to several books including the NLT Holy Bible Mosaic and written for numerous magazines such as Adirondack Life and Leadership Journal. He blogs at www.edcyz.com. For reviews and sample chapters of Coffeehouse Theology, visit http://www.navpress.com

The CLC Bookcenter is located on 401 RT 38 across from the Moorestown mall. For more information, call 856-866-2688