June 30, 2013
The 6th Sunday after Pentecost
For freedom Christ has set us free…the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control….those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. We must stop being conceited, contentious, and envious.
So writes Paul in his Letter to the Galatians.
A lot of people seem to have a hard time with Paul. Unlike Jesus, who taught in concrete images and stories, Paul seems to speak in abstractions and rules. Where Jesus is often elliptical and surprising, Paul is explicit and systematic. And, as in the passage we just heard from his letter to the Galatians, Paul seems to set up a harmful dichotomy between the flesh, which is construed as bad, and the spirit, which is good.
As usual, I will leave it to other scholars to speak about the pernicious influence of Greco-Roman dualistic philosophy on the one hand, or legalistic Pharisee-ism on the other, on the way that Paul thought and taught. Instead, I would like to note that the word Paul uses here is “sarx” – which we translate as “flesh” – not “soma,” another Greek word which is generally taken to mean “body” in a more holistic way. In contrasting flesh with Spirit, Paul was using a word that means meat, unanimated flesh, just as we sometimes refer to certain singles-bars as “meat markets.” I do not believe that Paul was deprecating the body as such, but rather making a distinction between those whose life-choices were selfish and unreflective, and those whose daily lives were imbued with the Spirit of God. These, he says elsewhere, are members of the soma, the Body of Christ, those whom Christ has set free from slavery to selfish passions and desires.
Rather than worrying about such semantic distinctions, however, I think it is more helpful to understand this text in terms of our own language of the inward and outward journey. To me, Paul seems to be saying that our spiritual life is grounded in our daily realities, in the way that we conduct ourselves outwardly, in our relationships with others; and inwardly, in our feelings, thoughts, hopes, and desires. When we are “in the flesh” – given over to a crassly materialistic view of life, in which the only value is my pleasure, my desires, my selfish ego – we behave in ways that are harmful to others and destructive of our own peace of mind. On the other hand, the fruit of a life rooted in the Spirit is both caring and careful of the needs of others and filled with joy and inner peace. When we tend authentically and systematically to our spiritual lives, our inner journey, our relationships with the people closest to us as well as to the world beyond our familiar circle – I include both in my understanding of the outer journey – becomes easier, deeper, and more selfless. To put it more bluntly, the greater our commitment to spiritual disciplines, the less likely it will be that we will ignore the needs of those around us or get enraged by the guy who cuts us off in traffic, and the more likely it will be that we will pour out our lives for the healing of the world.
So, what do I mean by “spiritual disciplines”?
When was the last time you read “A Guide to Seekers Church”? Never, you say? Oh, you skimmed over it once, right around the time you started coming to church regularly, but you have no recollection of what’s in it? Oh, you say, you’ve read it over and over, and can even quote parts of it? Ok, then, quick –
What are the 9 spiritual disciplines of Stewards, as listed in the Guide?
1. Attending Sunday worship, usually with Seekers Church;
2. Observing daily quiet time – prayer, scripture reading, and reflection or journaling. Scripture reading is usually guided by the ecumenical lectionary, also used for our Sunday worship.
3. Giving proportionately of income, to Seekers Church, beginning at ten percent;
4. Making a silent retreat once a year, if possible with Seekers;
5. Participating in an ongoing mission group with two or more Stewards, for living out the person’s chosen ministry, for building the Church, and for accountability in spiritual growth;
6. Being accountable for the spiritual journey in a regular written report to the spiritual guide of the group;
7. Attending Stewards’ meetings regularly;
8. Expressing commitment to discovery and use of gifts, to education and growth in the faith, and to the pastoring and support of the community as a whole in the ongoing life of the Seekers Church;
9. Reviewing the Stewards’ commitment with one’s group or another Steward and spending an hour in meditation prior to Recommitment Sunday in October.
This is a formidable list! It sounds like a bunch of forms, activities, things to do, places to be, and hurdles to overcome. Even if we leave off extra meetings and pastoring and support of the community as a whole, and just concentrate on the classic Christian disciplines of weekly worship, daily devotion, and accountability, it begins to sound like the “order of constraint” that Fred was talking about last week, rather than the wild, unpredictable freedom of the Spirit.
So how do we get from a list of disciplines, or practices, to freedom?
I’ve been a Steward for more than 20 years. When I first came to Seekers, I was hungry for anything that would help me to know God. I took every class in the School of Christian Living that I could, I joined a mission group, and I became a Steward at the very earliest possibility. I joyfully took on all of the disciplines, delighting in my new discoveries in Scripture, my growing self-awareness through daily journaling, and the richness of communal silence at Dayspring.
Like the rich, young person who came to Jesus asking what was required in order to inherit eternal life, in recent years it has become easy for me to say that I have practiced all the rules regularly for a very long time. But at some point I started to notice that that it had all become a little dry and routine, and eternal life sounded more like a threat than a promise. After all, where else would I be on Sunday mornings, Wednesday evenings, or the first Sunday evening of every month? Contributing a tenth of my salary was automatic, as was my annual recommitment to Stewards. While my weekly spiritual reports were still life-giving and self-revelatory, my daily quiet time had become no more than a promise, I didn’t journal regularly, and any time I was spending in scripture was to prepare for preaching or leading worship and only fed my own soul kind of incidentally.
So, when, a couple of years ago, John and Jaquie offered a class in the School of Christian Living called something like “The Twelve Steps for Everyone,” I was eager to sign up. I already knew the letter of the law, but I had lost track of its spirit. I hoped that the Steps would help me remember not so much the answers, but the questions that I needed to be asking myself.
I was not disappointed. Over the course of twelve weeks, we looked at each of the Steps as they are practiced in a variety of addiction recovery programs, on the premise that every one of us is addicted to something, if only to avoiding the hard questions in our lives.
What, you say, you are not addicted to anything? Not even your own self will? Ok, then you can stop listening. I thought I was talking to a room full of sinners.
Yes, I know that’s a hard word for a lot of folks. Conditioned by the language of therapy and self-esteem, we do not like the concept of sin, with its implications of punishment in lakes of eternal fire. But I’ve been trying to redeem the idea of sin, and restore it to usefulness as a tool for repairing the brokenness of the world rather than adding to it.
For me, sin simply means “missing the mark,” not quite being what God wants me to be, never quite being my best self. And in this sense, although I haven’t taken a thorough survey, I’ve heard enough confessions in this room, and received enough spiritual reports over the years, that I am pretty sure that all of us are sinners, people who have been and continue to be broken in some deep, essential way. All of us regularly miss the mark of God’s will for us and for the world. We are all imperfect. Every one of us lies about something, if only to ourselves. Every one of us wants more than our share of something, even if we do not act on that desire. Every one of us has moments when we are judgmental, unreasonably angry, jealous of another’s good fortune, complacent, lazy, unmotivated, or so filled with unwarranted pride that we are unable to admit that we might possibly be wrong about anything. Every one of us has secret desires and fears that keep us from experiencing the fruit of the Spirit.
What I discovered in John and Jaquie’s class, and in my continuing study of the recovery community’s tools and traditions, is that a Twelve-Step program for sinners might be a way towards helping all of us see spiritual disciplines as a path towards freedom rather than constraint. So let’s take a look at where the path leads.
The first step is often the hardest: we have to admit that we are not perfect, and that we have no real control over much of anything. Only once we accept that there is something larger, more important, and more universal than our little wills and desires, and stop trying to act like God, we can begin to let God be in control. I seem to have to repeat this sequence several times a day.
The next steps require some serious digging – looking at the truth of our lives; examining where we have fallen short, and admitting all of our failures, our defeats, our mistakes to ourselves, to God, and to our some other person; and making amends for all the harm that we have done to others and to ourselves through action and inaction over the years. If you have never done this – or even if you have, but not for a long time – I heartily recommend it. It’s amazing how much baggage we can accumulate in even just a couple of years, and how freeing it feels to let it go. Recently, I asked forgiveness from someone that I had harmed a very long time ago, and received the most gracious response I ever could have imagined. I felt like my feet were hardly touching the ground for days afterwards.
But letting go of the burden of shame or regret or victimhood is not the end of the spiritual journey. Every day brings new opportunities to practice the ongoing self-examination of our motives as well as our actions, to surrender our selfishness to the will of God, to become free to live in the unpredictability of the Spirit. What have I done today to help someone? What did I do today that harmed someone? What can I do to make things better? How can I contribute to the healing of the world?
You might not like the answers to these questions. I know that for me, it’s easier to avoid them, to play dumb, to insulate myself in self-righteousness and complacency so that I can simply do as I please.
But the Spirit of God is wily as well as wild. Even when I avoid the questions, the answers start coming, not as accusations, but as little, flashing sparks, coming and going in my mind like fireflies on a summer lawn. And as I follow the sparks, I begin to realize that I am less angry, less selfish, less judgmental, less concerned with what I want than with what someone else needs. Step by hesitant, reluctant step, those little, evanescent sparks are leading me to a place of true freedom, where doing what I please looks more and more like doing the will of God.
For freedom Christ has set us free…the fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control…. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit.