A Modern (Really Not So Modern) Christian Rule

“Rule” does not always have be a negative term.  While our first thoughts might associate the word with strict legalism, a rule or discipline can give our spiritual lives the direction we need, so long as Christ’s grace is not forgotten. In fact, with any rule, Christ’s grace must be a priority.

Moreover, within Christian history, a rule can be considered a set of guidelines or precepts.  Consider something along the lines of “The Rule of St. Benedict.”  I’m not advocating for the type of legalism often found in medieval monasteries, but I am saying that seeking to live by a set of rules and exercising discipline in that rule gives purpose and direction, and forms a foundation for our spiritual lives.

With modern Christianity in the United States being all over the theological and ecclesiastic-church-structure map, often finding itself bogged down in bureaucracy, and even acting like quite the circus, seeking to follow a general, simple rule might be something to consider. In the midst of so many distractions, a rule gives focus.  Within the greater Christian Church, the following is a rule that those called by God to do ministry can seek to live by.

1. Seek spiritual formation.

Spiritual formation and cultivating one’s relationship with God come first.  Silence, submission, solitude, and time with the Word – the Word as Christ and Scripture – help us understand our true identity in Jesus Christ and the Spirit working within us.  These aspects are not all encompassing of spiritual formation, but they start a formation for it. Considering Christ’s greatest commandment, this could be considered as loving God with heart and soul.

Exercising a sabbath, committing one’s self to the fruit of the Spirit, showing humility, and ridding one’s self of arrogant attitudes are all examples of spiritual formation.

2. Exercise the mind.

Just as much as Christians are called to love God with heart and soul, we are also called to love God with our minds.  However, learning as much as we can about God must be coupled with spiritual formation.  Knowledge, in and of itself, is a tool, must be paired with wisdom, humility, and good judgment, and by itself is not necessarily the end goal.  James reminds us that even demons know a lot about God; knowing a lot about theology is important, but it is not the singular factor that determines a Christian.  If knowledge is strictly sought for its own end, knowledge can be easily manipulated.

However, we must always seek to challenge ourselves with information, think critically and in a balanced way, stretch and stimulate our minds, evaluate and discern intellectual ideas for what is good and bad, and learn as much as we can about God.  Moreover, learning about an idea does not mean agreeing with an idea.  Finally, Christians can have civilized dialogue with people about various ideas and philosophies, agree or disagree, and still cheerfully love our neighbors.

Exercising the mind means that intellect and heart go together, not against one another.  Intellect and humility show the heart of a Christian.  Intellect and arrogance do not and can become an opportunity for knowledge to be manipulated.

Loving God with our minds and seeking to learn as much as we can about God also involves a commitment to staying on the path and trajectory of historical Christian orthodoxy.  This path is already at work through the Spirit moving in two millennia of Church history and should be studied.

3. Strive for good health.

We must also love God with our bodies.  God created us with physical selves, in goodness, and out of love; therefore we must take care of our bodies.  Physical fitness, eating well, and taking care of the overall wholistic health of our bodies and minds are very important.  Moreover, doing this, and helping others to do this, allows Christians to maximize God’s gift of life for each one of us with our actions each day.  It doesn’t mean maintaining the fitness level of a Navy SEAL or Special Forces Soldier, but it does mean being willing to put in the necessary work to take care of yourself and your body.

 

4. Live in community.

As Paul wrote to the Church in Ephesus, one of the main roles of a church community is to build people in the faith.  Community and the people around us help form, build, disciple, and encourage authentic Christians.  Community keeps us accountable, helps us learn how to love people that we don’t always want to love, and spend time with one another.  Being a Christian is not a solitary activity.

Additionally, community also means understanding the role of the greater catholic, unified Church and the place of all Christians throughout time and space.  Within the greater authority of Jesus Christ and his Church, local churches and denominations are not ultimate authorities, nor infallible.  Tribalism, denominational sectarianism, and myopic, tunnel-visioned views do nothing to help the body of Christ.  We must seek to end these kinds of attitudes and tendencies.  Christians must be willing to see orthodoxy and truth in other churches and denominations, partnering with one another and building one another up.

Community makes us humble.  As individuals, we have to exercise humility in community and put other people before ourselves.  Churches and denominations have to stay humble in the context and authority of God’s greater body – the people of God throughout history, all over the world.

5. Apply simplicity.

Don’t make things more complicated than they have to be.  Making things as simple as they can be accomplishes the mission.  Occam’s Razor, a rule which  generally means that simpler is better, can often be applied to church organizations.  Applying simplicity declutters our minds, declutters churches and denominations, and removes distractions, needless obstacles, and layers of bureaucracy that we have set up which, in the end, only take away from fulfilling the mission of God.

6. Work.

Hundreds of years ago, John Wesley, founder of the Methodist movement in England, preached a message on finances that can be summarized as, “Make as much money as you can and as honestly as you can, so that you can give away as much as you can.”

Work gives individuals a sense of dignity and accomplishment, as well as helps us interact with and witness to the people around us.  Moreover, it allows individuals to be in a financial position where they can help others generously when others are in need.  I’m sure many of us are familiar with the proverb, “Give a man a fish, feed him for a meal.  Teach a man to fish, feed him for a lifetime.”  Working allows people to be in a position to do both.

The reality is also that work within the church, even in official pastoral ministry, increasingly does not provide necessary finances to take care of one’s family and be as giving as one always wants to be, so it is important to understand that many ministers must look for paid work outside the church.  Also, when ministers work full-time outside of ministry, they can better support their families, give to those who are in need, and empower other church leaders to run, lead, and take ownership in a local church.

Make money honestly.  Be responsible and generous with it.  Know that it belongs to God and you are only a steward of it.  Don’t allow money to become an idol.

To conclude, here is a modern (really not so modern) Christian rule: Seek spiritual formation.  Exercise the mind.  Strive for good health.  Live in community.  Apply simplicity.  Work.

Is this an order you’ll commit to living to?

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Leaders Leading Leaders

While many people lead, leaders are also necessarily followers on some level.  In writing from the viewpoint of the Church, many pastors, ministers, and elders follow the leadership of a bishop, superintendent, or similar position.  The hierarchy continues upwards in many denominations and sects of Christianity.

Although superiors have expectations of those who work for them, followers, especially those who are also leading people themselves, have expectations of those who they work for in the hierarchy.  In other words, expectations work both ways.

Recently, I came up with a short list of ideals that leaders would want to see from the people who lead them from the next line in the hierarchy.  It’s definitely not exhaustive and in no particular order, but I hope this list shows some of the main considerations any leader would want as they also follow.  I believe these lessons apply just as much to a church organization as they do to any other organization in the world.

1. Treat people with the same dignity and respect you want to receive.  The measure, judgment, and whatever else that you give will be the same measure, judgment, and whatever else that you will receive.

2. Give people opportunities and chances to take initiative.

3. Give people opportunities to earn your respect.

4. Look at people’s potential.  Consider accomplishments, but also give weight to their potential.

5. Give people opportunities to be a part of the team.

6. Be humble.

7. He honest.  Don’t blow smoke or hot air.

8. Lead, coach, guide, mentor, and invest time in those you are leading.

A Prayer at the Feet of Jesus

In the desert,
on the foundation of Jesus,
bowed before his feet.

His feet in front of me,
my hands on Jesus’ feet.

Jesus, help me to be your feet.
Jesus, help me to go, as your feet go.
Jesus, help me to be humble,
so that I may be a servant of you.

Jesus, help me to trust that as I go,
you will be with me.
Help me to trust that as I go,
you will prepare the way.

Psalm 93 Reflection

“The Lord is king, he is robed in majesty; the Lord is robed, he is girded with strength.  He has established the world; it shall never be moved; your throne is established from of old; you are from everlasting.  The floods have lifted up, O Lord, the floods have lifted up their voice; the floods lift up their roaring.  More majestic than the thunders of mighty waters, more majestic than the waves of the sea, majestic on high is the Lord!  Your decrees are very sure; holiness befits your house, O Lord, forevermore.” – Psalm 93

A rock in God’s ocean,
a rock shaped, formed, and eroded in God’s power and patience.
A pillar, sculpted by the wind and water of his Spirit.
A pillar, an example pointing to God.

Sitting on Christ’s stone foundation,
a foundation shaped and flattened against the desert sands,
a refuge in the apparent wild.

Will you seek him?
Will you ask to enter into his presence?
Will you be present to meet him?
Will you be humble before him?

Sitting on Christ’s foundation,
silent in solitude with Jesus,
meditating, praying, enjoying the company of Christ.

Yet your arms become heavy,
your legs encased in stone,
your body unable to move,
formed as a statue in the wilderness,
a rock for all eternity to see.
A pillar meditating on Jesus Christ.

Unable to move without Christ’s release,
only able to deeply breathe the peace of Christ’s Spirit,
your muscles are encased in the statue’s stone.
Your heart beats.
Your blood flows.
A subtle anxiety courses in your heart.
A nervousness beats in your body,
trapped by the stone Christ has encased you in.

“What is the meaning of this?”
You ask Jesus.
“If there is a lesson in this, please let me know.”
You say to Jesus.

Jesus smiles.
The Spirit’s presence glows bright.
A moment passes in the desert sand’s silence.
Your anxious heart beats faster.

“All you must do is rest in my presence,
and I will take care of you.”

“Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?”

A test of faith.
A lesson in patience.
An exercise in giving up control.

The future uncertain,
but trusting God with everything that will come.

“Help me have faith.”
You say to Jesus.
“Help me learn to wholly rest in you.”
You ask Jesus.
“Help me trust in your sovereignty and love.”
You pray to Jesus.

Slowly, you are released.
Patiently, your cocoon disappears.
Yet with the challenge given to your heart, mind, and soul.
The challenge to rest given to you.

The power of God – his authority and sovereignty greater than the oceans that shape the earth.
The waters that build, erode, destroy, create, and give life.
He is even greater.

You are a rock, shaped by his oceans, eroded by his waves.
The strength of the stone built up,
the weakness sheared off,
weathered away by time spent in his presence,
in the power of his waters.
His ocean is shaping you into the pillar he needs you to be.
Resting in him forms you into the pillar you are to become.
He is the ocean.
You are the rock at his edge,
shaped so that others will see his work.

Others come, seeking God’s ocean,
seeing the meditating, praying individual at the sea’s edge,
powerfully pointing to his work.
Solitary, silent, humble before God.
A servant, yet a marker for who he is.
Unwavering, shaped and moved only by the power of God’s waters.

To be a pillar of God, a rock shaped and weathered by him alone, one who towers, demonstrates, and points to God as one of his saints, one must first learn to rest in silence and stillness before his power and truth, before the raw force of an ocean crashing against the rough and rocky crags, sharpened cliffs, and heavy boulders of the stone formations at the edge his shore.

Humility and Meekness in the Christian Life

In his biography of St. Anthony of Egypt (c. A.D. 251-356), St. Athanasius recorded Anthony saying the following in a sermon to those who came to him in the desert:

“Why not rather get those things which we can take away with us – to wit, prudence, justice, temperance, courage, understanding, love, kindness to the poor, faith in Christ, freedom from wrath, hospitality? If we possess these, we shall find them of themselves preparing for us a welcome there in the land of the meek-hearted.” (Life of St. Anthony of Egypt, para. 17)

While these characteristics found in Anthony’s words seem rather simple, it can often seem difficult to put them into practice.  He asks those who came to first examine their own motivations and work on the character of their hearts.  However, beyond focusing inwardly and allowing the Spirit to work on our own hearts, there is the temptation to judge these characteristics in the hearts of others.  Too often we ignore the difficulty of pulling the plank from our own eye in an effort to help others pull the speck from theirs.  Even under the guise of trying to be helpful, it is a temptation that leads to pride, self-righteousness, and even wrath.

Are you willing to take time in silence, perhaps upwards of a half-hour to an hour, to simply pray, meditate, wait on the Spirit patiently, and ask God to illuminate the desires, emotions, and nature of your own heart?

Are you willing to be humble and meek-hearted before God and others, and be slow to judge others before you honestly look at yourself for a period of time, and then ask God to forgive selfish, prideful, or arrogant attitudes?

Are you willing to receive God’s grace and forgiveness for the nature of your own heart, and then extend that grace and forgiveness to others in whose hearts there may be some specks of dirt?

“By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And 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. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.” – Galatians 5:22-26 (NRSV)

For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” – Matthew 6:14-15 (NRSV)

Psalm 55 Reflection

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“Listen to my prayer, O God, do not ignore my plea; hear me and answer me.” – Psalm 55:1-2a

“My heart is in anguish within me; the terrors of death have fallen on me.  Fear and trembling have beset me; horror has overwhelmed me.  I said, ‘Oh, that I had the wings of a dove!  I would fly away and be at rest.  I would flee far away and stay in the desert; I would hurry to my place of shelter, far from the tempest and storm.’” – Psalm 55:4-8

“Cast your cares on the LORD and he will sustain you; he will never let the righteous be shaken.  But you, God, will bring down the wicked into the pit of decay; the bloodthirsty and deceitful will not live out half their days.  But as for me, I trust in you.” – Psalm 55:22-23

Sitting at the stone desert circle,
the fire burns on its pillar.
The smoke rising, the embers burning,
the fire is small,
yet burns with strength and eternal endurance.

I stand up from the bench on which I am sitting,
from looking intently upon God’s fire,
and look to the horizon.

Dark clouds, heavy with rain,
envelop the barren horizon.
The sky is thick and grey.

From the distance, over the expanse,
across the dirt, sand, shrubs, and rocks,
I smell the rain.
Humidity presses against my skin.

Amid the empty desert,
secure on God’s stone foundation,
I watch the sky grow dark.
I wait upon the impending storm to assail our position.

The fire burns bright and strong,
the Spirit’s flame distinguished against the darkening sky,
contrasted against the impending battery of rain, wind, and thunder.

The storm is upon us.
Rain pummels the desert sand.
Wind beats the brush against the dirt.
Thunder breaks overhead.
Lightning flares in rage across the now blackening sky.

Water rises against the foundation.
The desert, a black ocean,
with waves darkened like oil,
emerging from the depths of the earth.

The wind riles the ink-like, glimmer-less water,
agitating it into madness,
enjoining it to rise, towering above us;
in the storm’s ire, charging it to crash against us.

The sky coal, the water oil,
the earth dark and outraged,
there is no light to look upon but God’s fire.

Its flame burns tall into the sky,
swelling in intensity,
point by point,
matching the storm’s ferocity, strength, and violence.

The stone foundation,
inundated in the storm,
is washed of its desert sand,
its true character and integrity revealed.

Standing upon the rock, peering to its edge,
I see the eternal abyss below,
haunting the depths of the water’s surface.

Fear enters my mind.
Possibilities emerge from its pathways.
Knocked over, pushed to the edge,
my fingers clutching the lip at the edge of this rock,
mustering strength to reach up my hand for Jesus to take hold,
yet my strength finished;
losing my grasp, tumbling deep into the abyss,
forever falling, hopeless.

Water rising, crashing,
seeking to intimidate any who would stand on God’s foundation,
against the brutality of the rain, wind, thunder, and lightning.

I look to the center of the rock,
to the radiant ferocity of its blinding flame,
the illumination of its brilliant pillar of fire.
The storm, in all its indignation,
unable to affect God’s signal in the darkness,
exasperated.

Saturated though I am,
my skin and clothes deluged with the storm’s rain, wind, and waves,
compelled to kneel in reverence and awe,
I look towards the blinding fire’s vivid light before me.
Its tower rising above the clouds,
God sees into the light, beyond the tempest’s edge.

Like Peter, focused on Jesus standing before him,
in the darkest of nights, terrified,
stepping out of the boat,
battered by the squall’s wind, waves, and rain.

Stepping in faith, during the storm.
Overcoming the abyss to where God is calling.
Walking into the waves, understanding the pit that lies beneath.

Focused on Christ.
Knowing his fire is upon you.
Lighting the way before you.
To see Christ and look to him alone,
despite the distraction around you.

Jesus, let your fire fill me.
Let the brilliance of your Spirit strengthen me,
to step into the darkness of the storm.

I step.
A valley opens in front of me.
The sky clear, the pasture green,
God’s creatures grazing in its peace.
The storm gone.
Mountains beset the pasture before me,
framing the meadow to the east and west.

To step into the savagery of the storm,
God with you,
is to step into the valley.
Knowing the fear of the pit underneath,
the anxiety of drowning,
the doubt of falling into a depth with no end,
floundering with no hope.

Yet to look at Jesus and step anyway.
Yet to know the Spirit is with you and step anyway.

You feel the water give way beneath you.
Despair rushes into the cracks of your soul.
Yet an arm reaches out towards you,
grabbing your arm, unrelenting,
strong, and not letting go.
Holding you, bringing you up.

Jesus, with you.

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Psalm 54 Reflection

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“For he has delivered me from all my troubles, and my eyes have looked in triumph on my foes.” – Psalm 54:7

Sitting in the desert, there is a clear sky above.  A circle, elevated, maybe built up a few inches from the sand, rocks, and shrubs, is laid with stone, constructed in the desert, built by the work of Father, Spirit, and Son.  The desert is flat and far from civilization, with sand, dirt, rocks, and shrubs for as far as the eye can see.  One stone bench, set in a circle, is on the perimeter of the circular foundation, with a grey stone pillar, a couple feet in diameter, built in the center, a few feet high, with a fire burning atop, so that the fire burns at the same level as the bench.  Embers glow hot at the base of the small fire, so hot they would sear and scorch the top of the stone pillar if they were not from God – the burning fire that doesn’t burn.  Smoke rises, drifting towards me, as the dry desert kindling is set up in the shape of a teepee above these hot, burning, foundational embers, sending smoke rising through the gaps in the teepee of desert sticks. 

Sitting, waiting for Jesus.  Knowing that his Spirit is here.  Learning how to sit in the Spirit’s presence.

Jesus, deliver me.
Jesus, bring my heart your deliverance.
Jesus, let me sit in your presence.
In the desert, let me breathe in the smoke of your Spirit.
Let me breathe deeply your cleansing Spirit.
The Spirit that comes forth from the very fire of who you are.
Jesus, put the glowing, burning embers –
the inner foundations of your holy fire – on my heart.
Let it burn my sins away.
Let it burn through the hardness of my heart.
Put the ember on my tongue,
the burning coal you gave to your prophet Isaiah,
and let it sear through the pride and arrogance of my actions and words.
Let the coal make my heart humble.
Jesus, bring healing to my life,
the healing of your holiness,
your holy, burning coal upon me.
Deliver me.
Only your love brings lasting deliverance.
Give my heart the reality of your love.
Make your love more than just knowledge.
Make your love a reality for my heart.
A bright, fire-ful, burning stone that is placed on my physical heart,
piercing it with your powerful love,
melting through the shell of my calloused heart,
penetrating to the core of my soul,
the deepest, most hidden part of my very soul.
Pick up the bow you hung in the sky, once again.
Take your arrow and make it a weapon of your convicting love.
Put the tip in your Spirit’s river of molten fire.
Aim it towards me in my fearfulness.
And shoot it straight through my heart.
I ask you, Jesus, to make your love that kind of reality,
imprinting itself upon my soul, eternally, irreversibly.
Deliver me from my troubles.
Let me live in the triumph of your love.