October 23, 2017

Introducing “The Liturgical Gangstas”: How Can A Person Grow Spiritually in the Next Year?

UPDATE: We have a Lutheran. Rev. William Cwirla, whom many of you know from The God Whisperers, etc. His post has been added to this one.

Welcome to “The Liturgical Gangstas,” a panel discussion among different traditions represented in the Internet Monk audience.

Every episode of the Liturgical Gangstas will feature a question, and each member of the panel will make a response from within their own tradition. Then you and the Gangstas can interact in the comments.

Who are the Gangstas?

Father Ernesto Obregon is an Eastern Orthodox priest.
Rev. Peter Vance Matthews is an Anglican priest and founding pastor of an AMIA congregation.
Dr. Wyman Richardson is a pastor of a First Baptist Church (SBC) and director of Walking Together Ministries, a resource on church discipline.
Alan Creech is a Roman Catholic with background in the Emerging church and spiritual direction.
Rev. Matthew Johnson is a United Methodist pastor.
Rev. William Cwirla is a Lutheran pastor (LCMS) and one of the hosts of The God Whisperers, which is a podcast nearly as good as Internet Monk Radio.

Welcome to the Liturgical Gangstas, and here’s the first question: “A person comes to you and says “I want to grow significantly as a Christian in the next year. Using the resources we all share and the specific resources of your tradition, what kind of guidance would you give this person? Be as specific as possible.”

Father Ernesto/Orthodox: You need to make sure to get into the habit of some spiritual practices. Read the Bible daily and pray. Read the lives of the saints. As you know, our Church has a daily lectionary that is hundreds of years old. As well, we have a tradition of morning and evening prayers that dates back a long time. A good plan for reading the Bible in two years, that roughly follows our Orthodox way of reading is found at http://www.thomasnelson.com/orthodoxreadingplan and the Orthodox Study Bible, published by them, has a simple Orthodox-friendly morning and evening prayer in back. I would suggest that you start using that plan. A brief synopsis of one or two saints a day is found at the Online Chapel of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese found at http://www.goarch.org/chapel/.

2. You need to maintain a habit of community and sacramental life. Remember that for us Orthodox, the Divine Liturgy is an entry into heaven to be with God and His angels. We begin here and ascend to be with God. To be in the presence of God, and to receive His Body and Blood is to receive from the Holy Spirit that which we need to live the Christian life and to run the race. Do not forget the Mystery of Confession. That is a time of preparation where you can receive not only forgiveness, but also wise counsel for your life. Build relationships with others in the church, go visit them, and spend time with them outside the worship. We are a community and we grow and support each other as a community. Consider volunteering to help in one of the areas of church life.

3. Finally, commit yourself to service. “Faith without works is dead,” says St. James. If you want to grow, make some time and room in your life and chose a ministry to which you can devote a few hours in service of others. No, simple “altar boy” service is not what I am talking about. And, not even being a Sunday School teachers. Each of those is valuable, but if you want significant internal growth, then you need to look outwards. Consider volunteering at a hunger center, or a thrift shop, or being a nursing home volunteer, or a local soccer program for disadvantaged youth, etc. There is a synergistic relationship between faith and works. If you want your faith to grow, volunteer to do works which will help you to grow your faith. If you want your works to be meaningful, then pray, read Scripture, and participate in the Mysteries (sacraments). It is not either one or the other, but both that need to happen in your life.

Finally, may the Lord bless you this coming year as you strive to grow in the Lord.

Matthew Johnson/United Methodist: In many ways the history of the Methodist movement is richer than its present. Wesley was an evangelistic preacher who called people to faith in Jesus Christ and not content to leave converts with only faith, he organized them into groups that met regularly, holding each member accountable and taking care of one another. This is our Wesleyan DNA. We may have lost some of our evangelistic fervor, but one thing we continue to do well is organize for the sake of discipleship.

If a person came to me and said, “I want to grow significantly as a Christian in the next year”, after I recovered from my initial shock I would guide them in one of several ways. The first thing I would offer is participation in a Disciple Bible Study. Disciple is a 32-36 week Bible study through which participants not only learn the Bible, they also get to know one another, pray for one another, and are called to act as disciples as a response to the weekly readings. In my last church, I saw a man wrestle with the Old Testament prophets and their call to watch out for the widows and orphans. Through those deep questions, his faith in Christ led him to active roles in caring for widows in the community and orphans in Guatemala.

If the interest or resources were unavailable to get a Disciple class started, I would try to get this person to start a Covenant Discipleship Group or check to see if there was already one in the area this person could get into. Covenant Discipleship groups encourage participants to be spiritually engaged on a personal level and in a group setting both in works and in piety. It is a well-rounded program that helps believers grow in many different areas.

If none of these were a possibility, I would take the time to disciple this person one on one in much the same way I was discipled by one of my seminary professors who is also a United Methodist elder. We would study Scripture together, pray together, and find some way for our growing faith to manifest itself in the service of love in this world.

Peter Vance Matthews/Anglican: I am an Anglican priest so I answer from that perspective. To help this person grow I would suggest two central practices. First, assuming he is baptized, I would encourage him to go worship every Sunday. For an Anglican, that means hearing the Word of God preached and receiving Holy Communion. Anglicans believe the central thing a Christian should do is participate in this type of worship. It may sound strange, but we believe that it is in this kind of worship that what Christian teachers call the “mystical union” (the mysterious way Christians are connected to Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit) happens. In other words, we really are nourished and strengthened by the very life and presence of Jesus. For an Anglican this is the most important thing one can do to grow spiritually.

The second thing I would urge this disciple to do is practice daily prayer using The Daily Office. This is a set of prayers (typically morning and evening prayer) and scripture readings that are connected to weekly worship. They are best prayed with others, but even if prayed alone, they constitute the prayers of the Church. They root a Christian in the common prayer life of the Church and the Christian year as they act as a slow but persistent transformative agent in a Christian’s life.

These two practices comprise a kind of rule of life or pattern of discipleship for Anglican Christians. In fact, our worship source book, the Book of Common Prayer, is built around the rhythm of these two practices. They serve as the bedrock from which daily life is lived. Things like loving one’s spouse and children, being plugged into Christian community, exercising diligence and integrity at work and being a witness to one’s neighbor are cultivated and nourished by these two central practices.

Alan Creech/Roman Catholic: If someone asked me that, I’d assume they were ready to hear the answer I’d give – so I’d tell them to have a seat and not expect me to say anything near quick enough to take home and put on an index card or a post-it note.

The first thing I would address is the first part of their question – the “grow significantly… in the next year” part. I’d have to ask what they meant by “significantly” first of all. OK, I’ll switch gears to addressing this person… I wonder, why is it you want to grow, what you call significantly, in the next year? What does that mean to you? I would encourage you not to look at spiritual growth as something that can be done by leaps and bounds in a specific frame of time. A year might even seem long to our Western minds, especially our American minds, but as I have come to see it, a year in spiritual growth terms is a drop in the proverbial bucket. We’re on a looong journey and we need to not forget that. Short cuts produce a “short cut” kind of growth.

You may want to re-evaluate the kind of growth you want to experience and not look so much at time. If you look at time at all, I’d suggest looking at it liturgically. I mean, one of the “things” you can do is to place yourself inside the traditional Christian calendar. There is something very formational about simply living your life within the liturgical rhythm of the Church. And this is an intentional thing. I’m not talking about auto-pilot here. I mean, intentionally place yourself in it – Advent, Christmas (not just the day), Lent, Easter, feast days, Ordinary time – it’s the rhythm of our life as Christians, as members of the Body, the Church. As we breathe it, we take in some of the spiritual “oxygen” we need to survive, to grow. This can be a big change for some of us if we haven’t been used to this kind of rhythm, but I believe it would be worth whatever time and effort you have to put into it.

Again, the kinds of things I’m talking about here aren’t to be equated with something like a high-protein diet that you go on for a while to shed some pounds. You have to look at this as long-haul life change. And you may not get where you think you want or need to be in a year. I bring this up again because I believe it’s crucially important to understand that this is how things work.

Now for a few more concrete things you can do… Understand, first, that in doing these things, what you’re doing is tapping into an ever-flowing river of God’s Grace, into His very Life. It’s there, all the time. He loves us, all the time and has provided for us this New Life in Christ, and there are many ways to tap into it, into Him. So, what we’re doing when we engage in these activities is simply putting ourselves in the river, getting under the flow, and that’s what produces any kind of “growth” in us.

Be in the community of faith – worship God with and in the Church – if you’re Catholic, there’s a Mass every day, not just on Sundays – this include the Sacraments – regular participation in the Eucharist especially. Also, in the community vein, find some kind of Spiritual Director – a person you trust, who’s mature, with whom you can talk about your spiritual life and struggles, etc. Pray always – back to liturgical rhythm, I’d encourage you to pick up the practice of liturgical prayer of some sort (Psalms, prayers, other Scripture readings) – also something like praying the rosary (some kind of rosary/prayer beads) as a tangible and tactile way to pray when you’re idle. Find a way to get a steady diet of Scripture. The Liturgy of the Hours provides some of this – maybe also read the lectionary readings each day. Find some time for quiet – quiet for your mind, for your soul – this is restful and allows you to hear better. Try to make time for a retreat (maybe at a Monastery) at least once a year, maybe a shorter day retreat every now and then – this will help you rest, which promotes growth. Wrap yourself in these things like a monk’s habit. Let them weave their way into the rhythm of your life. These are the things that keep us focused “on that which is above.”

Lastly, don’t try so hard to measure your growth. This can be very counterproductive. When you do this, you’re possibly focusing on yourself a little too much. Don’t make a tick-list and go about ticking things off. This can build a sort of inward “see there, I did it, look at me” mentality. Pride, by the way, is a bit of a growth killer. I’ll end by saying, again, to make sure and look at this as a life thing, not just something to do for a year to get somewhere. Long journey. There is no such thing as “spiritual miracle-grow” – let’s stay “organic” in this thing.

Wyman Richardson/Southern Baptist: To begin with, I’d likely ask the person to make sure he/she understands what he/she means by the word “significantly.” I think we oftentimes set ourselves up for spiritual frustration and disillusionment by trying, in one fell swoop, to be the next Saint Francis, or, for Baptists, to achieve William Carey status in a week! Now, the questioner isn’t necessarily implying such a thing, but I’d just want to make sure. I think I’d want to point out that, in the economy of God, “significant” is often small in the eyes of the world. So I’d encourage the person to relish the small victories and not get frustrated when, 2 days into 2009, you’re not seeing the progress you want to see.

Secondly, I increasingly find in my own life that loving my neighbor as myself is ground-zero for my relationship with Jesus. I’d encourage the questioner to make a deliberate, intentional plan for being Christlike to his or her “neighbor,” whoever that might be. By Christlike, I mean acts of service and the giving of time.

Third, I’d encourage the person to break what Calvin Miller called “the sensual thrall.” This is the obsession with creature comforts. Here’s where a little St. Francis might help, by the way! We don’t talk enough in Baptist circles about the devastating effects our consumer culture has on our walk with Christ. So, I’d encourage the person to give something that they have and that they value away…possibly each month and maybe even preferably to a complete stranger.

And finally, as a Baptist, I’d like to take the opportunity of this question to strike at the root of what C.S. Lewis called “the heresy of Jesus and me” (Letters to Malcolm). I want to challenge, a bit, that first word in the question: “I”. I’d want to encourage the brother or sister in Christ certainly to strive for advancement in his/her personal pilgrimage with Christ. That’s essential. But I’d like to also encourage him/her to work hard to make that “I” a “we”, especially in a Baptist culture that seems to have a diminishing ecclesiology.

William Cwirla/Lutheran: This is a great question and one that comes up often. First, letʼs be very clear. Spiritual growth comes from God who works by the Spirit through the Word. Growth, as we experience it, is our perception of what God is doing with us. So the first thing I would say is donʼt focus on growth but keep your eyes fixed on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of your faith. Donʼt look inward for growth, you wonʼt find it there. If you start looking at your feet as you run the race that is set before you, youʼre going to trip and skid on your chin. Look outward to Christ.

Having said that, I will add that there some things we can do to sharpen our spiritual senses. The first and foremost is to be in the Word. By that I mean be in church regularly in a disciplined way, hearing the Word (faith comes by hearing) and receiving the Sacrament of Christʼs Body and Blood. This is our spiritual food, Living Bread come down from heaven, our Manna in the wilderness. You canʼt expect strength if you donʼt eat and drink. In addition to regular corporate worship, develop a rhythm of daily prayer, morning and evening if possible, including the psalms, hymns, readings from Scripture and the church fathers, the Creed and the catechism, and a pattern of prayer that centers on the Our Father and intentional prayers for the various needs and circumstances of those around us. Our church body has recently published a Treasury of Daily Prayer which is a great resource.

Our of my pastoral experience, I will warn that certain vices and habitual sins can quickly dull our spiritual sense. This is especially true of the appetites – sex, food, and drink. Drunkenness, gluttony, and sexual sin war against the spiritual life and are a snare for many in our society. If you are weak and tempted in these areas, pray for strength and pursue the discipline of fasting. By fasting, I donʼt necessarily mean going hungry, but being intentional about what you eat, drink, and do and when you do it, consecrating everything with the Word of God and prayer. In my Lutheran tradition, Advent and Lent are special seasons of fasting and restraint to exercise our self-control. Self-control is among the fruit of the Spirit, by the way, so you canʼt say you donʼt have it.

The gift of confession and absolution – Iʼm speaking of the personal one-on-one variety – is a great tool and one that is not understood or used well in Protestant circles. Lutherans still maintain the confessional, at least on paper, but the takers are few when it comes to regular use. I believe that personal confession with a father confessor leads to a much deeper awareness of oneʼs sinfulness and of the magnitude of Godʼs undeserved kindness to sinners in Jesus.

Last, as I indicated above, I would encourage active use of the fruit of the Spirit – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. These gifts are always other-directed, looking to the neighbor, the ones God places in your path. Expect these fruits to be there as a Christian. Baptized believers have the Spirit, they may was well enjoy His fruit.

Comments

  1. can I say how happy I am to hear a southern baptist to say what he said at the end. that is one of the big reasons i left the SBC was because of the i-disease that has plagued the SBC and so many other churches. thanks wyman to all the pastors who responded and thanks I-monk for a great posting

  2. Bob,

    I agree with what you say – it is a reorientation – the reduction or elimination of those activities/behaviors/attitudes that keep us focused on things other than God. But sometimes the undivided time you describe has to be developed over time – especially the comtemplative way you describe. Some are not ready for that and may have to work towards it through prayer and meditation. But if you can get right to it then …. good stuff.

  3. Jenny Bluett says:

    Just LOVING the excellent ecumenism vibe in this article.

    Kinda reminds me of the evening prayer with the ECUSA, UMC, ELCA, AG and BGC pastors/brothers and sisters we shared at our RCC parish last night.

    The mainline liturgical guys we enormously comfortable, having no problem with the altar and showing a sign of respect on their way to the lectern. I heard some interesting raving and doting during the intercession for our incoming “incredibly WISE leader”; little disapppointed in there were no in the prayers dealing with our own small community.

    The good AG pastor was diverted from banging his big black KJV on our altar, as he did last year, by our ginormous, honkin’ rainbow Easter candle.

    My husband’s pastor from the BGC, we’ll he found the MOST evangelistic Scriptural passage of benediction he could, steering way clear of the altar, averting the lectern altogether ;).

    Seriously though, I am very encouraged by the mutual discussion.

    Best,
    Jenny

  4. No apologies necessary Justin. I had been thinking about that for a bit and just wanted to sort of clarify. The whole business of spiritual formation and “growth” is just a huge lifetime of a subject. There are tons of things that can be drawn into the discussion for sure. Peace to you.

    Oh, I’m nerd enough to love the name Radagast – Radagast the brown – you’ve got to be a Tolkien nerd to know who that is. I had a little blackish brown kitten I named that once upon a time. 🙂

  5. This looks very interesting, I hope to follow this blog.

    Peace

    Marquis

  6. [Modertor edited]

    MODERATOR SEZ: Stay on topic please. If all blogs suck, then please stop reading and commenting on them.

  7. Yes… Tolkien Rocks… I kind of associate Radagast with Francis of Assisi – at least when it comes to the animals… 😉

  8. should I be concerned that 2 of the 6 spiritual leaders want us to lower our expectations for spiritual growth?

    how can you believe that Jesus was raised from the dead or that God parted the Red Sea but not think that God could produce “significant growth” in a person in as “short” a time as one year?

    wasn’t Saul changed on the road to Damascus? didn’t the disciples quickly change from cowardly hiding in a house to boldly preaching on the streets?

    isn’t the very CORE of the good news that God changes lives?

  9. I don’t think so, personally. Not if the two weren’t talking about “lowering expectations,” but were instead trying to caution against a naive idea that we become super-saints in a moment and encouraging people not to despair and abandon the whole enterprise if they struggle in their advancement.

    Mustard seeds and all of that.

    Wyman

  10. Amen and all that, Wyman. Exactly. Quick change in people is unusual, not because of God but because of us. It’s the nature of real spiritual growth that it takes a long time. Yeah, weeds and all that too. Peace.

  11. +Alan I am guessing you are a deacon, if that is correct I have a couple of questions seeing as the topic is the liturgy.

    1. Have you heard of the changes to the Novus Ordo?
    2. Have you celebrated a Tridentine Mass yet?

  12. Hey Giovanni. I am not a Permanent Deacon, just a lowly layman. 🙂 Anyway, as to No. 1) I have heard of the changes – they are still undergoing some degree of revision and will not be implemented until 2012 (that is the hope). We’ll see. I have no problem with the Novus Ordo Mass is it is. Some of the proposed changes for the sake of being “more literal” in their translation from the Latin, are to me, a bit awkward. It’ll be fine, I’m sure.

    No. 2) I’m going ahead and answering these even though I’m not a Deacon – I hope that’s OK. “Celebrated” – no on the Tridentine Mass. I’ve only been to one in my life, as a teenager in Denver. It was likely “illegal” at the time. I think it was good for the Pope to open things up for that – the freedom to do it. I’m not really a fan of the fervor that surrounds it, as if “thanks be to GOD, now the reeeaall Mass is back!” This is unfortunate. I guess that’s it. Pardon the off-topic-ness of our Q&A here Michael. Peace to you Giovanni, and Happy Thanksgiving to all in this house.

  13. Great idea for a post. There is a lot of overlap in what advice is offered, which is promising. This looks like the WebMD for spiritual growth through the liturgy. Nothing too unusual. No promises of shortcuts. Just healthy practices that do their job over time.

    Scott’s question about change seems to cite catastrophic conversion as evidence that dramatic change is possible. He’s right. But I think that is a different kind of subject from the kind of growth envisioned here. One is like seeing a rose grow where only weeds once grew. The other is tending to an apple tree year after year. I wouldn’t want to disparage either. And while long term growth needs to be in view because for most in our times and where we live it is possible, in many times and places, it has not been possible.

    The Bible seems to push us toward both a crisis view where this could be the world’s last night (Parable of the man who enlarged his barns), and a view of long term faithfulness (e.g. Parable of the Talents) which we can never resolve by dumping one picture or the other.

  14. Well the question wasn’t how do I become a spiritual superstar overnight – it was how do i achieve “significant” growth in a year.

    Now personally I read “significant” as the opposite of “insignificant”. IE measurable, real, growth or change.

    Wherein, I became concerned when given any possible methods for a full year – spiritual leaders are hesitant to promise too much.

    In defending my position, however, I decided to look at the actual definition and I found it illuminating:

    – of a noticeably or measurably large amount (basically my earlier def)
    – probably caused by something other than mere chance (as in statistically significant)

    This second definition opens up what I consider the heart of the matter – is not significant spiritual growth evidence of the divine? Proof that christianity works? If all we can promise is small growth – how are we sure that isn’t just chance or human efforts?

    Without SIGNIFICANT growth – can Christianity claim to be more than a support group? Or a 12 step program? Those both can do SOME good but they are really only man’s efforts and will at work. Wherein is the God that changes people? Are we afraid to set the bar too high lest God’s reputation be tarnished? Is not God able to deliver on his promises to make someone a new creation?

    While I understand the whole instant gratification culture, I feel that a year is a reasonable time frame. Consider that the Human lifespan is 40-80 yrs depending on where in the world you live. 1/40th of your life is not a small commitment. Jesus only trained his disciples for 3 years. Most grad schools consider 3 years enough time to significantly train students. Are college professors better teachers than the Spirit?

    Here are some more examples of quick significant growth/change:
    – In the span of an hour a naked, possessed, crazy man living in the cemetery was sent as a clothed, sane, missionary alone to Decapolis (“ten cities”)
    – In a few hours, an Ethiopian court official was converted, baptized, and left to go back to his country.
    Slower change happens too: today Mission USA is working with Chicago gangs. Over time, Gang members are putting down guns and taking up bibles. Still “significant”

    Quick changes are COMMON in the bible. And in desperate parts of the world. Here in comfy cultures and comfy churches – comfortable christians struggle to standout from nonchristians.

    As for mustard seeds: they start out the smallest of seeds but become the large plant in a matter of months.
    As for weedy soil: there is also GOOD soil that yields a 3,000-10,000% return.
    I would say both of those are significant growth!

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