Friday, September 14, 2018

City Notes '18 | The Eternal Current: Practice-Based Living, Community, & Mission

If a church service takes up one or two hours of a week, and there are 168 hours in a week, how does that one or two hours inspire and equip for one's devotion to God and others the rest of the week?

This final post is the conclusion to some notes from one of the top books I have read in 2018: The Eternal Current: How a Practice-Based Faith Can Save Us from Drowning by Aaron NiequistBelow are the previous two posts of notes from The Eternal Current:

City Notes '18 | The Eternal Current: A Prayer for Practicing Forgiveness  
City Notes '18 | The Eternal Current: Praying the Daily Examen

Today's notes focus on how to step into a practice-based life of following Jesus throughout the week with a practice-based community after we gather with His Church on a weekend.

Chapter 6 | Sunday Is Not the Main Event: A Practice-Based Life

The weekly gathering of the Church is incredibly important for those who want to swim with God's River (John 7:37-39; Ezekiel 47). No one can do it alone, and something supernatural happens when the whole body is together (1 Corinthians 10:16-17Hebrews 10:19-25). God is creating a people on earth, not a collection of spiritual individuals, and the Church is eternally important.

But placing too much emphasis on a weekly church service of worship results, for many people, in de-emphasizing practice-based faith throughout the week. Overemphasizing what happens with a local church during a service of worship also tends to assign too much importance to professional church workers. They have a role to play, to be sure, but their primary job is to launch everyone else into the remaining 166 hours of the week. Of the fifty-plus "one another" commands in the Scripture, such as "Love one another (John 13:34) and "Forgive one another" (Colossians 3:13), most can't happen fully while sitting in a church service.

What does practice-based faith look like Monday through Saturday? How do we swim with the River of God in every area of life—family, work, and relationships with our neighbors? Let's return to a key text with Jesus:

Come to Me. Get away with Me and you'll recover your life. I'll show you how to take a real rest. Walk with Me and work with me—watch how I do it. Learn the unforced rhythms of grace. I won't lay anything heavy or ill-fitting on you. Keep company with Me and you'll learn to live freely and lightly (Matthew 11:28-30, MSG).

As our community meditated on this text, we noticed that the invitation to rest accounted for only half of the invitation. Most of Jesus's words call us to action: come, walk, work, watch, learn. At first this seemed contradictory. But as we sat with the text, we began to settle into the reality that rest and work are far from opposites. In this context, they are the same thing—two sides of the same coin.

Grace and Faith Fuel Works with Jesus

While there is much to affirm in proclamations like "It's not about what you do for God but what Jesus has done for you," and "There is nothing you could ever do to earn God's favor or blessing," these teachings often leave people paralyzed. God gives us grace because God is gracious, not because we deserve grace; this is a foundational reality at the heart of the Good News. But Jesus does not handcuff us from participating in our spiritual lives with Him. He does not have a one-dimensional understanding of faith versus works. Notice the way He ended the Sermon on the Mount:

Everyone who hears these words of Mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash (Matthew 7:24-27).

Jesus basically said, "In summary, do this. Whoever puts My teachings into practice will survive the storms of life." He didn't say, "Whoever believes that My words are true ... " It is not just a matter of assenting to the rightness of certain teachings or affirming one's beliefs in the correct doctrines. His final teaching was do this if you want to live. The invitation is participation. 

Dallas Willard, a brilliant teacher on the Kingdom and spiritual practice, said it this way:

You can be sure that if you do not act in advised fashion consistently and resolutely you will not grow spiritually. We all know that Jesus said, (in John 15) "without Me you can do nothing." We need to add, "if you do nothing, it will be most assuredly without Him."

It is crucial to realize that grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning. Earning is an attitude, effort is action. When you read the New Testament you see how astonishingly energetic it is. Paul says, "take off the old self, put on the new." There is no suggesting that this will be done for you.

We have been invited into the River by grace and grace alone. There's nothing we can do to earn our way into the water. But the invitation is to swim, and that takes grace-empowered practice.

Practice-Based Living: 4 Suggestions

What does this grace-empowered practice look like in our daily lives? I will offer four suggestions: we need a toolbox, a rule of life, a plan to help us throw off sin, and a commitment to engage messy, risky service.

| 1 | A Spiritual Toolbox for Interacting with God: One afternoon, while meeting for spiritual direction with Father Michael Sparough, SJ, I mentioned that my daily quiet time was feeling really dry. I wanted to learn from his personal practice, so I asked what he does every morning. "There are a couple practices I follow every day," he said, "but for the most part, if I don't vary my prayer practice, I get really bored." He went on to describe the different ways he opens his day with God. I am grateful that this godly priest admitted he could get bored in prayer. Me too. His humble honesty created space and grace for my relentlessly spinning mind. He met me where I was—rather than where I should be—and reminded me that I was neither alone or hopeless. Further, as he described the ways he prayed and practiced his faith, I noticed how many tools he had in his spiritual toolbox. All I had was a "daily quiet time," so my options felt scarce and binary: do a quiet time or avoid God. But Father Michael, in his robust Jesuit tradition, talked about prayer practices such as the Examen, Scripture practices such as Lectio Divina and the lectionary, different prayer postures that help a person open to God, ways to connect with our Creator in His creation, and on and on. I encourage you to take advantage of accessible books that focus on historic (and modern) spiritual disciplines of the Church. Richard J. Foster's book Celebration of Discipline and Dallas Willard's book The Spirit of the Disciplines are classics. Others include Adele Ahlberg Calhoun's Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, Barbara A. Holmes's Joy Unspeakable: Contemplative Practices of the Black Church, Mark Scandrette's Practicing the Way of Jesus, and Tish Harrison Warren's Liturgy of the Ordinary. While you are immersing yourself in the wisdom of these books, remember that the invitation is participation. Knowledge is essential to learn how to swim, but the goal is to get into the water. Take holy risks. Try different practices for a set period of time and notice how they help you align with God's unforced rhythms of grace. If they do help, add them to your toolbox. If not, do some prayerful reflection about why not; then feel free to set the practice aside. No one can or should do every practice, but we all need a well-balanced set of practices. Nathan Foster, author and son of spiritual disciplines teacher Richard J. Foster, told me, "When you boil it all down, each spiritual discipline is simply a slightly different way to offer our bodies to God as a living sacrifice." It really is that simple ... and life changing.
| 2 | A Rule of Life: The key involves small, consistent practices. Engage the small stuff over and over. A rule of life simple refers to an "exterior framework for our interior journey: a kind of scaffolding to use to build the spiritual structure of our individual life with God." Pete Scazzero said, "It is an intentional, conscious plan to keep God at the center of everything we do." Every one of us has some type of rule of life—how we organize and spend our time and energy—but few of us have a holistic framework that will form us into the fullness of Christ. "A rhythm of life is a description of the life we long for and the disciplines we will practice to open ourselves to the transforming work of the Holy Spirit to close the gap between the life we long for and the life we are living." Build your rule on four relationships: with God, ourselves, our communities, and the world. Commit to a time-bound experiment. For the next three to six months, what concrete practices will help you close the gap between your deep longing and your lived reality in terms of your relationships with God, yourself, your communities, and the world?
| 3 | A Plan to Throw Off Sin: The goal of the Christian life is not merely to sin less but to swim more. However, we must acknowledge how difficult it is to stay afloat in the Eternal Current when we are loaded down with the heavy weight of sin. The writer(s) of the book of Hebrews advised, "Since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith (12:1-2). To swim with Christ in the River, we must let go of the sin that sinks our soul. We don't do this to earn our way into the water; the love of God through Christ beckons us to come as we are. But as we wade deeper into the Current, we begin to notice all the different weights of the world around our ankles, wrists, and neck. For some, this is gnawing resentment that keeps us chained to the person who wounded us. For some, this is a secret (or not-so-secret) addiction that anchors us to a substance, activity, or late-night website. For some, this is a subtle but insatiable greed that binds us to our income and what we purchase, can afford, or can't afford. The human soul is easily entangled. Dallas Willard observed that many of Christ's teachings were "mere observations about how life actually works." Jesus wasn't merely trying to enforce God's law. He was trying to save us from the self-sabotage of sin. Would you take a moment to notice the way(s) you are most likely to get entangled and drowned by sin? Especially when you are afraid, exhausted, and disappointed, what sin or "self-medication" do you find most enticing? Try to notice the usual pattern. And then spend some time asking God for eyes to see underneath this pattern. What is the unmet need you're usually trying to meet? What created the empty space, and how can you bring that emptiness into God's presence, rather than filling it in your own way? What most often stops you from swimming with Christ in the River?
| 4 | A Commitment to Messy, Risky Service: A practice-based life Monday through Saturday must involve regular risk in serving others. We need to get our praying hands dirty. We often begin in the safety of personal spiritual practices and comfortable circles, but we can grow only so much in these still waters. There are things we can learn only by moving into destabilizing reality. Reality has a way of exposing who we really are and how we need to grow. Simple answers and self-assured opinions can thrive in the safety of our insular experience, but stepping into the messy world with serving towels over our arms has a way of scaring us straight. Psalm 24 declares, "The earth is the LORD's and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it" (verse 1). A Sunday service of worship is a crucially important subset of reality, but the whole earth is God's tabernacle. Every square inch of existence overflows with the holy potential of God's infinite presence, power, and grace. "Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty; the whole earth is full of His glory" (Isaiah 6:3). The whole earth is flooded with the Eternal Current of God. Christ invites us to learn to swim in it for the sake of our lives and the life of the world.

Chapter 8 | We Can't Do It Alone: Practice-Based Community and Family

Practice-Based Community: Gathering with Jesus's Church 

Friends, this may be the most succinct way to describe a practice-based life: it is a kingdom vision (swimming with Christ for the sake of the world) that propels us into a wise plan (spiritual practices that form a rule of life) that can be sustained only in community. What does it mean to live a practice-based faith with others? The writer(s) of Hebrews advised,

Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another—and all the more as you see the Day approaching (10:24-25).

In my experience, a Sunday gathering is one of the indispensable springboards for practice-based faith. Legendary Presbyterian pastor and author Eugene Peterson has observed, "Every congregation is a congregation of sinners. As if that weren't bad enough, they all have sinners for pastors." Or as the saying goes, "If you ever find a perfect church, please don't join it because you'll wreck it." Eugene Peterson has also made this painfully honest observation: "There's nobody who doesn't have problems with the Church, because there's sin in the Church. But there's no other place to be a Christian except with the Church." We don't continue to gather on Sundays simply out of habit or to maintain a tradition. We gather as a church because God is creating a people, not just billions of individuals on independent, parallel journeys. Gathering in worship helps us submit to something bigger than our personal preferences. We are invited to sing new songs, listen to new ideas, and follow a plan that often is not one we would have chosen for ourselves. As we are stretched, we learn how to find God's fingerprints beyond our preferred pathways. 

Professor Soong-Chan Rah, in his masterful book The Next Evangelicalism, makes a case for why we need one another. He teaches that a theology of celebration is not complete without a theology of suffering. Resurrection is impossible without the reality of crucifixion, and crucifixion without the hope of resurrection is pure despair. Yet while Jesus lived and taught both, most of us spend our lives caught in the limits of only one side. For example, those of us who grow up with power, affluence, and mobility often get trapped in a theology of celebration that keeps us most ignorant of the other side—suffering. And even when we try to bring our celebration into the suffering, the holy impulse to "bless the needy" can quickly lead to paternalism, arrogance, and seeing ourselves as the teachers rather than fellow creations and equals. This "hinders genuine mutuality and reciprocity," according to Soong-Chan Rah. The poor are not problems to solve but teachers to learn from. They understand a part of reality that the affluent often can't see but desperately need to embrace, and vice versa. Both the rich and the poor are image bearers of God. Celebrations is important, but it's only half the story. We need every one of one another.

Practice-Based Community: Being More Than a "Small Group"

A small group often has to do with only belonging or only learning. We desire either a place to be known or a place to study the Scriptures. Both of these desires are good and needed. The problem is, I don't believe that either desire should be the goal of a community. The goal should be learning to swim with Christ for the sake of the world. This involves putting Jesus's words into practice, not merely belonging to a group where we talk about them. The goal should be obeying Jesus's words, not simply studying them. Imagine joining a marathon runners' group that met once a week to talk about what it takes to train for a marathon but didn't run together. You'd share life updates, but the question of "How did your running go last week?" would come up only occasionally. That's because for this group, training for the big race is not the goal. Belonging to a running group is the goal. Or imagine that your runners' group met weekly to read books about running but didn't go out running. That's not a runners' group. That's a book club. 

I don't oppose belonging or learning, of course. I need to belong and to learn in deep and visceral ways. But they are the means to the end, never the end. One of my friends, Mindy Caliguire, often remarks, "Just because you are meeting with others doesn't mean you are in a transformational community." And the goal of any group (or church or life) is to be transformed into Christlikeness for the sake of the world. Being in community is a matter of life or death spiritually. But when the how gets disconnected from the why, it can lose the plot and lose the power. So with the why clearly in view, let us roll up our sleeves to explore the how of community. How do people form a practice-based community when gathered in a living room or around a dining-room table? They practice the way of Christ together, and they encourage one another to practice this way all week. The community is both the means and a beautiful benefit, but we never mistake it for the highest goal. When we gather with a clear vision to learn how to swim with Christ, we then begin to discover the transformational power of the Holy Spirit through communal practices. Every one of us, whether training for a marathon or learning to swim in the River of God for the sake of the world, needs a vision, a plan, and a community. The first two without the third won't get us there. We can't do it alone. As we learn to swim, not just on Sunday but all week long, the Eternal Current begins to sweep us into participation with God's heart and mission: the redemption and flourishing of all things.

Chapter 10 | For the Sake of the World: Practice-Based Mission

One of the great gifts of Ignatian spirituality is that it honors the connections. It never separates our inner world from our outer actions. Saint Ignatius taught his followers to be "contemplatives in action" rather than to concentrate exclusively on contemplation or action. We engage the spiritual life as a spiral through three interrelated postures: beliefs, action, and reflection/prayer. Our beliefs propel us into tangible action that creates an experience—both inside us and in the outside world. We humbly bring this experience to God in reflection and prayer, receiving God's perspective, healing, and strength. Once grounded in God's grace and power, we are propelled back into the world through action, which continues the spiral. As we grow in Christ, the spiral gets tighter and tighter, sewing action and contemplation into a seamless garment and drawing us closer to the heart of God.

God's great and mighty River (John 7:37-39; Ezekiel 47) flows throughout history toward the healing and restoration of all things. God has not given up on this world and invites you to join Him. Jesus showed us the way of the Kingdom—fleshed out through the Beatitudes and resulting in the fruit of the Spirit on earth—and you are invited into His redemptive flow. Can you see why they call it "Good News"? The invitation is to join Christ with the Current of God for the sake of the world. Regardless of what we believe, pray, or declare, if we're standing on the shore, we're missing out on the abundant life that is truly life (see John 10:10; 1 Timothy 6:18-19).

Gilbert Bilezikian was born in Paris in 1927 to Armenian refugee parents, served in the French army and then moved to the United States to teach theology at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. After returning from the Middle East a few years ago, one of my friends asked Dr. Bilezikian, "Dr. B., what do you think would happen if Jesus walked into Jerusalem today?" The eighty-five-year-old educator, theologian, and mentor to many closed his eyes for a moment and finally whispered in his thick French accent," Jesus would probably do now what He did then: take care of the poor, speak truth to power, and get Himself killed.

Here are links to previous City Notes books:

2017 | Gospel Fluency; Moving Towards Emmaus; Evangelical, Sacramental, and PentecostalFaith Without Illusions

2018 | The Eternal Current Part 1 of 3; The Eternal Current Part 2 of 3 

Christ is all,

Rev. Mike "Sully" Sullivan

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