Spiritual Disciplines: New Wineskins for Ancient Wellsprings: Part One

English: Altar and Reredos, St Wolfrida's Chur...
English: Altar and Reredos, St Wolfrida’s Church, Horton The reredos is early 18th century raised plaster work, coloured and gilded. The Dove in the centre symbolises the Holy Spirit; the four cherubs are said to be the four children of a vicar of the parish who died as infants. The “Pelican in her Piety” above is an emblem of Jesus Christ “by whose blood we are healed”. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

L.D. Turner

Solomon wisely tells us in the Book of Proverbs:

Keep watch over your heart, for therein lie the wellsprings of life

 The question that often comes as one reflects on these words of wisdom is simply this: How am I to go about keeping watch over my heart?”

 Throughout the history of the faith, one of the primary ways that sincere followers of the Master have gone about keeping watch over the heart, the deepest part of ourselves, is through the practice of spiritual disciplines. Meditation, prayer, sacred study, self-examination, confession, service, worship – all of this classical spiritual traditions have a role to play in helping us become more aware of ourselves and our behavior and, as a result, have withstood the test of time as quality ways in which we can deepen our walk of faith.

As Christians, scripture tells us that we are to increasingly grow into the character of Christ – in other words – become more Christ-like. Left to our own devices, this would be an impossible demand. Tainted by sin and mostly dominated by our lower nature, who among us could generate even a sliver of hope of emulating Jesus in thought, word, and deed?

Fortunately, scripture tells us that we have an omnipotent ally in this process of spiritual formation. The Holy Spirit walks along side of us, giving us strength to offset our weakness, wisdom to overcome our ignorance, and divine love to gradually eradicate our extreme self-centeredness. It is this promise of the Holy Spirit that gives us a reason to proceed down the road of spiritual formation and further, provides us with a legitimate assurance of success.

Still, we cannot fold our arms, lean back, and wait for the Holy Spirit to magically turn us into exact replicas of Christ. Over the centuries countless numbers of Christians have tried this approach with predictable results. Scripture is clear in stating that we have a part to play in the attainment of what we here at LifeBrook call “Sacred Character.” Sacred Character is based on the character and integrity exhibited by Christ during his mission here on earth. By studying the character of Christ, we can gain valuable insight into what it means to live our own lives from the sure foundation of Sacred Character.

As Jesus walked this earth, he revealed the character of God. “He who has seen me has seen the Father,” said Christ and in this statement he revealed a profound truth. Christ was so intimate with the Father that his character and his behavior were perfect reflections of his heavenly parent. Our goal, with the help of the Holy Spirit, is to live in the same intimacy with Christ as he lived with the Father. If you want to gain a deep and abiding perspective on this kind of intimate relationship, I suggest that you prayerfully read through the 17th Chapter of the Gospel of John.

In order to grow into this type of intimacy with Christ and increasingly manifest Sacred Character in our daily lives, we must engage in certain activities that foster spiritual development in a positive and proven direction. These activities have a long and valuable history in the Christian tradition. Here I am speaking of the classic Christian spiritual disciplines.

In some quarters, sincere believers become edgy just at the mention of spiritual disciplines. Steeped in the theology of God’s unmerited and unlimited grace, these well-meaning Christians believe that pursuing the practice of the classical spiritual disciplines is somehow “salvation through works.” This kind of thinking is both incorrect and unfortunate. It is incorrect in the sense that the spiritual disciplines are not related to salvation or the final destination of one’s soul. Pursuing spiritual disciplines is more concerned with placing ourselves in a position of receptivity to the action of the Holy Spirit in our lives. It is about allowing the Holy Spirit to form us into the image of Christ. Although this spiritual formation is ultimately a work of the Spirit, we are told to do all that we can to assist in the process. As the great Quaker writer Rufus Jones once said,

“The grace of God is like the wind blowing across the Sea of Galilee; if you want to get to the other side, you have to raise your sail.”

 The notion that practicing the disciplines is “works” is also highly unfortunate in that this misguided belief has prevented countless Christians from availing themselves of the very thing they need in order to foster the deeper, more effective walk of faith. I am of the belief that the great “faith/works” controversy of the 16th Century, although beneficial in many ways, gave birth to a trend in Protestant Christianity that resulted in pews filled with believers that were both powerless and confused. This tragic trend continues even today.

As the Body of Christ moves forward in this challenging age, establishing ministries focusing on vibrant, dynamic discipleship is of paramount importance. Unless the church develops consistent ways to grow its members deeper in the faith, it runs the danger of becoming, at best, irrelevant to the contemporary culture, or at worst, dead.

To begin, I think it is critical that we come to understand just what a disciple is. From all evidence, it would seem the church at large has lost touch with a crucial element of its mission – disciple-making. Just prior to his ascension, Christ did not tell his inner circle to “go and make converts.” No, he told them to go and make disciples. It is obvious that constructing a workable definition of a disciple is a high priority. Margaret Campbell gives us a great jump-start:

A disciple of Jesus is a person who has decided to live in attentiveness to Jesus. We live in attentiveness in order to become like Jesus on the inside and, thereby, able to do what Jesus would do on the outside. As maturing disciples we progressively learn to live in attentiveness, adoration, surrender, obedience, and thankfulness to God, and all of this, without ceasing. Through the hidden work of transformation, God writes his good way on our minds and hearts and this is very good. By his grace, our hearts are divinely changed. We are progressively conformed to be like Jesus in mind and will and soul and word and deed. What we say and what we do more consistently reflect the glory and goodness of God.

 If that isn’t clear enough, let’s listen to George Barna:

True discipleship is about a lifestyle, not simply about stored up Bible knowledge. Often, churches assume that if people are reading the Bible and attending a small group, then real discipleship is happening. Unfortunately, we found that’s often not the case. Discipleship is about being and reproducing zealots for Christ. Discipleship, in other words, is about passionately pursuing the lifestyle and mission of Jesus Christ.

 From these two definitions it should be clear that real discipleship, the kind of Jesus-following that makes a difference in a person’s life and the life of others, involves more than wearing a “What would Jesus Do?” bracelet.

It is apparent, however, that the church lost its focus on the practice of spiritual disciplines over the years. As mentioned in Part One, I think this is one of the unfortunate side effects of the historical “faith/works” controversy. The result has been a general sense of confusion on the part of the Christian community in terms of the spiritual technology available to those who desire a deeper walk of faith.

One of the primary reason today’s church is becoming less of a force in society and even in the lives of those professing to be Christian is the fact that for many years the Body of Christ as a whole had lost the real meaning of the word “disciple.” Dallas Willard speaks directly to this tragedy:

 For at least several decades the churches of the Western world have not made discipleship a condition of being a Christian. One is not required to be, or to intend to be, a disciple in order to become a Christian, and one may remain a Christian without any signs of progress toward or in discipleship. Contemporary American churches in particular do not require following Christ in his example, spirit, and teachings as a condition of membership – either of entering into or continuing in fellowship of a denomination or local church. I would be glad to learn of any exception to this claim, but it would only serve to highlight its general validity and make the general rule more glaring. So far as the visible Christian institutions of our day are concerned, discipleship is clearly optional.

 This lack of emphasis on discipleship in the contemporary church has led to many unfortunate circumstances, not the least of which is that so many Christians are walking around feeling as wounded, depressed, and hopeless as those outside the faith. That this is so, however, should not be surprising. Christ did not call us to a “country club” religion. In fact, he didn’t call us to religion at all. He called us to relationship and mission. To participate in this life-giving relationship and to fulfill our mission as Christ-followers, we must indeed become just that – Christ-followers. Tragically, few realize that this involves far more than belief in a few arcane doctrines, tossing off an occasional prayer, and being a tithing member of a local congregation. And perhaps nothing is more essential in this challenging age than having an army of true Christ-followers. Willard understands this necessity:

Nothing less than life in the steps of Christ is adequate to the human soul or the needs of our world. Any other offer fails to do justice to the drama of human redemption, deprives the hearer of life’s greatest opportunity, and abandons this present life to the evil powers of this age. The correct perspective is to see following Christ not only as the necessity it is, but as the fulfillment of the highest human possibilities and as life on the highest plane.

 The notion that deep discipleship was optional was not a part of the early church. Willard continues:

…there is absolutely nothing in what Jesus himself or his early followers taught that suggest that you can decide just to enjoy forgiveness at Jesus’ expense and have nothing more to do with him.

to be continued…….

(c) L.D. Turner 2008/2009/2013/All Rights Reserved

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