The Trouble With Spirituality

Every once in a while you run across one of those article that makes you feel like Kurtz – “The Horror, The Horror”. Or on a more modest scale simply say, “how in the world did this person allow this to be published in their own names?!?”

The Atlantic (The Atlantic?!?) published this one in the health(?!?) section. The headline and most of the article are about just how much it costs “to find God” recounting from the author’s life experience of everything from yoga to spirituality retreats. The last paragraph captures the horror for me…

But in the end, shouldn’t the cost of finding God be priceless? As in, free? Of course. But I’m not paying to find God. I’m paying to remove the obstacles to finding God, or universal energy, or however you define the thing we’re all seeking. I know I don’t need my Mastercard to find it, but it sure can open the doors to places and things that help me explore myself and the meaning of my existence.

It is hard to know where to start, but I’ll go to that last line – “…open doors…that help me explore myself and the meaning of my existence.” That right there is the trouble with spirituality as currently defined by the culture at large. It is a code word for narcissism. The gospel would say to such a person – “you must deny yourself and take up your cross daily (Luke 9:23).” It would also say, “whoever seeks to preserve his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will keep it (Luke 17:33).” Down at the bedrock of the gospel is the negation of the author’s private quest. She wants to find the meaning in her existence. The truth is that our existence is meaningless, unless built on the foundation of Christ. Only what is built on Christ will last.

And you could hear that for free every Sunday and sometimes the days in between. If you have ears to hear. But to those who have, more will be given, to those who have not, even what they have will be taken away. (Luke 8:18, 19:26).

Kids and Ears

Sometimes you stumble across that perfect piece of cultural flotsam. This is one of those pieces. When the history of 1960-20×5 is written this piece will be part of the social history. And it would be easy, and meaningless, to point out the narcissistic and self-indulgent presuppositions about life and marriage that support such a piece and how they got there. Meaningless because they couldn’t bear it, because lack of ears to hear. Instead I’m going to write not criticism but personal experience.

The one piece of criticism I’ll embed at the start, having kids, contra the article’s father, is not a selfish endeavor. Having kids is in the natural order of things if we don’t get in the way with our own egos, and having kids is the penultimate expression of sacrifice not selfishness. The Psalmist prays to be taught to number our days (Psalm 90:12), and to rightly know that our span is but 70 years, 80 if we have the strength (Psalm 90:10). Kids are part of that teaching. And they are rightly given to the young when you still think you will live forever. Having kids becomes an acknowledgement that I came from dust and to dust I will return.

We have three beautiful annoying full of energy kids. David caused many sleepless nights rocking. Ethan still 2 nights out of 5 runs in the middle of the night to climb into bed with mom & dad. And then he progresses to play “the little one” as he spreads out horizontally and digs the feet into Dad’s kidney saying “roll over, I’m squished”. Anna, the first, is perfect. (Oldest kids always are.)

With three money is always tight. With probably 90% of people out there, day care just wouldn’t make sense. You’d spend the second income after tax paying someone else to raise your kids. So we get by on one income. The family vacation is usually a stay-cation, or if we can swing it a trip to family that we can impose the 5 of us on. And the truth of that is staying at home is a relief. Everything is already there. No one whines three miles down the road, “where is my blankie” and if you don’t feel like picking up the toys at dusk, you can leave them overnight. The only frowns are the neighbors who by now are used to it. I try not to think about the college funds, because that just isn’t going to happen in any serious way. (So Anna, Valedictorian or bust). Also while praying for the $10,000 BA revolution to speed up. The 10 year old car I inherited from my brother better last another 5 years. But you do it gladly as part of the sacrifice. And they will do it eventually also. You have a vocation, a calling.

Being on the not too far side of 40 we figured we were done. As the columnist mentions, getting pregnant in the usual way after 40 is akin to “blowing up the death star”. But somehow we had been so blessed. We saw the sonogram at 7 weeks and it was real. A couple of weeks went by. That hope that usually starts building as the baby growth came around. Negotiations for bedroom space were entered into. Do we get a bunk bed set? Yes. Who gets it? The boys. Who gets the top? David, maybe he’ll be too heavy and crash through and take care of a couple of college payments for us went he joke. Followed quickly by a cross and a hug. And then that little child was lost. That child that the three previous ones had taught us well what sacrifices would have to be made. That child that would have been born on the far side of the half-way point of the 80 if we have the strength.

And unlike article father’s final question (what about our health?), I’d have given mine to welcome that child. No child is the “free one”. They all take parts of you. Which is as it should be. The one who loves his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for the gospel’s sake will save it. For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and lose his soul (Mark 8:35-36)? We learn to give it over gladly.

Lord have mercy on this self-indulgent narcissistic lot, including your poor servant.

Ministerial Purpose

I found this article interesting for the quotes which were highly revealing of what I’ll call the narcissistic tendency within the ministry that can’t but shipwreck the faith of a bunch of people. Here is what I mean.

1 Timothy, 2 Timothy and Titus are called the pastoral epistles. Critical scholars debate if the are truly written by Paul, but tradition holds that they were written by Paul to Timothy and Titus his traveling companions who were often left to build churches after their missionary start. These short letters are called the pastorals because they are short instruction manuals for what a pastor does. All in all they are rather pragmatic documents. You might sum up their message as – “don’t be stupid”. But, there is an over-riding message first: 1) 1 Tim 1:3, the first words of the letter – “charge certain persons not to teach any different doctrine…” 2) 2 Tim 4:1-5, “preach the Word, in season and out” and 3) Titus 2:1, “as for you, teach what accords with sound doctrine”. The doctrine, the Word, comes first in the office. Everything else is secondary. There is a phrase that could lead to a bunch of mischief but it also captures a truth at its core – “A layman can be a heretic, the pastor can’t be”. That is because the chief ministerial purpose is according to 1 Tim 4:12-14, “devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture, to exhortation, to teaching”. The preacher and teacher needs to watch closely what he/she is preaching and teaching such that it is in accordance with the Scripture, and that accordance is “in season and out”. Seeing that the Word is often offensive being out of season is part of the job. Saying hard things is part of the job.

Compare that with this quote from the lady who just stepped down from the Vice Moderator of the PC-USA.

“I am a pastor,” McCabe stated in her speech Wednesday. “That is who God has called me to be.

“As I reflect on what’s happening now, I think I am embodying the reality of a growing number of pastors who find ourselves caught. We are caught between being pastors – being with couples in those sacred moments when they make their vows to one another – and having a polity that restricts us from living out our pastoral calling, especially in states where it is legal for everyone to be married.”

What is the key thought of being a Pastor to the former Vice Moderator McCabe? Is it teaching the meaning of marriage? Is it preaching how marriage is a symbol of Christ and the church? Is it encouraging those marriages to reflect the truths of Scripture? No. Her definition of a Pastor is – “being with couple in those sacred moments”. That is a deeply narcissistic thought. Leaving aside the “sacredness” of a moment, seeming to think that the role of pastor is to stick themselves into such moments, that their own personal presence makes it more special, is something creepy. The office places you there. The purpose of the office is to teach and preach. A simple question should be asked. Would I have been invited to this moment – i.e. to be part of the gathered friends and family – outside of the office? If the answer is no (which it almost always would be), then being with that couple is not your primary job.

And it is exactly those narcissistic tendencies that get in the way of doing the job. Vice Moderator McCabe officiated/signed the papers for a homosexual union. While the PC-USA seems to be going the way of the ELCA, they hadn’t yet. At a minor level she did that going against her own judicial body. The major level would be looking at Scripture. What she did is the definition of lawlessness – not recognizing scripture, nor her brothers and sisters, but forging ahead of her own authority. But the point here is more from her quote – “the polity restricts us from living our pastoral calling.” The narcissistic tendency is to want whoever is before you to “like” you. There is no way that homosexual couple would have liked what the job required. (Eph 4:17-24, Eph 5:3-14 and those would not exhaust Ephesians – chastity is the calling of all Christians, marriage is the vocation of some men and women). But if you want to be liked, and if it is your personal presence instead of your teaching presence that is there at those “sacred moments”, then the job of the pastor and the truth suffers.