A Note on Spiritual Disciplines & getting back on track/practice, A God who opens himself to weakness and opposition
A Note on Spiritual Disciplines & getting back on track/practice, A God who opens himself to weakness and opposition
This articles owes a debt to an article in Touchstone – Dylan Pahman’s The Yeast We Can Do. Unfortunately right now it is behind the paywall. You could always subscribe.
He told them another parable. “The kingdom of heaven is like leaven that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour, till it was all leavened.” – Matthew 13:33
Jesus said to them, “Watch and beware of the leaven of the Pharisees and Sadducees.” – Matthew 16:6
Yeast or leaven must be one of the most powerful metaphors in the bible. It is used both as a parable for the Kingdom itself, and for the forces that oppose the kingdom. If I were the disciples I might have asked Jesus to stop and tell us which. You can’t have it both ways. Nevertheless, I think there is a common thread in both cases that Jesus was calling to the disciples’ attention. It only takes a small amount of something compared to yeast to make or ruin the entire creation.
Passover, the Jewish festival that Holy Week fulfilled, contains an interesting additional law and practice. The Jews were commanded to eat unleavened bread. We know this from Exodus with the comment that it is bread made in haste. But the standing law given for Passover for succeeding generations was that for seven days they should eat unleavened bread, and on the first remove all leaven from the house. Anyone caught eating leavened bread would not just be ceremonially unclean for the Passover, but would be “cut off from Israel”. (Exodus 12:15) The old housewives’ tale is that this is the origin of “spring cleaning”. The Rabbis, thinking like Eve in the garden and observing the severity of the penalty, have erected even higher walls. To avoid even the slightest possibility of owning leaven under their roof, some Jews will sell their household for a day to a trusted agent buying it back after the Passover. The law always encourages following the letter and not the spirit.
Coming into Christianity, the ritual laws were no longer binding. The Passover week became Holy Week. The Christian’s preparation became the 40 days of lent. And the historic practices of lent were: prayer, fasting and almsgiving. One of the Desert Fathers, Evagrios, made the connection between good leaven and bad leaven. Reflecting on 1 John 2:16 – “For all that is in the world– the desires of the flesh and the desires of the eyes and pride of life– is not from the Father but is from the world” – he called out gluttony, avarice and pride as the “frontline demons”. These were the bad yeast to watch for. When simple gluttony held sway, it would not be long before lust would follow. The person given to greed is easily swayed by wrath and envy. Whatever you might think of Evagrios’ progression of sin built around the seven deadly sins, the metaphor of leaven makes sense. It is certainly easier to laugh off a small indulgence. It is a lifetime of laughing off small indulgences that builds to greater sins and ruin of the entire life. A lifetime of disrespecting the Word is built upon that Sunday where sleeping in just felt better. A deathbed of terror and not knowing what to say is constructed from a lifetime of neglecting even our bedtime prayers.
Looking at the Sermon on the Mount and specifically Matthew 6, Evagrious countered that bad leaven with what he put forward as the good. Jesus there recommends direct almsgiving in private where the Father issues the reward. He follows that with the teaching of the Lord’s Prayer which in Matthew he precedes with “go into you private closet”. Like yeast, you don’t see this working publically. And following that prayer, Jesus issues the expectation to fast. Also in secret, adding “when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face”. The Lenten practices of almsgiving, prayer and fasting are connected as the small things that counteract those frontline demons of avarice, pride and gluttony. The greedy are called to give it away, the prideful to bend the knee in prayer, the gluttonous to fast for a time.
The Church Fathers were much more comfortable than most Lutheran ministers with directing works. But truth be told, so was Jesus. And there is definitely a way that these things can be made into a new law. When almsgiving, prayer and fasting would become the outward magic that we never let touch our hearts, we are being as pharisaical as selling our possessions for a day. These things become the metaphor for the Kingdom when we allow them to work on us, when that Spirit kneads into our heart the message of the gospel. Because we have received mercy, we are able to be merciful. Because Christ is our mediator, we can call God our Father. Because we have the promise of the Kingdom and the New Jerusalem, this world and its kingdoms’ glory can be turned away. Our abundance and our food comes not from mere bread.
Our faith, our families, our congregations, and our society might seem very brittle because we have not kneaded that lump of dough. We’ve let the leaven of the Kingdom sit on the surface. We’ve foresworn the spiritual practices in our lives. As James says, “be doers of the Word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in the mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like.” (James 1:22-24) Jesus might put it somewhat differently, “some seed fell on hard packed ground where it was quickly devoured”. (Luke 8:5) Working the leaven through the dough, preparing the soil, changing the hard heart is not magic. It is like leaven. It starts small, and then works throughout the dough.
Ok, last time we looked at different ways that people might talk about spiritual practices, and then we honed in on the Lenten triptych of Prayer, Fasting and Almsgiving. Using the sermon on the mount we looked at Almsgiving and generalized it to acts of mercy. This time we are going to look at prayer through the lens of Matt 6:5-14 when Jesus teaches what we know as the Lord’s Prayer. Here are the past entries: Background, #1, #2, #3
First, whole books have been written about the Lord’s Prayer. I would not be surprised to find that whole books have been written about individual petitions. So, 500 words, you do the math.
Jesus prefaces the prayer itself with another warning similar to that about almsgiving which I labeled getting your heart right. If you are performing a spiritual practice, but the intention is in the horizontal dimension, that is you have an audience in your neighbor, it is not really a spiritual practice. The giving of alms to be seen giving alms might still be a good thing, but it is not a spiritual practice. Jesus says you’ve already received your reward. Likewise he says before prayer, don’t do it like the hypocrites. It might be harder today to imagine a reward attached to being seen praying which might actually help with the intent. The hypocritical part is not public prayer or praying with others. Too many Lutherans especially are uncomfortable with this. And I have heard these verses as the excuse. (We are also given to more formal prayer or collective prayer, so our evangelical friends bubbling prayer lives seem, well, so extroverted.) The hypocritical part is when the emphasis in prayer is not on communion with the Father, but upon some effect here. The reward of a spiritual practice for the practitioner is seeing God. If your eyes or your heart is looking elsewhere, that just isn’t going to happen.
Jesus then attaches a second warning about prayer – empty phrases and many words. He also attaches a note of pure gospel. Just thinking off the top of my head I’ve heard a Lutheran use this as a whip against “ramble-on-prayers”. I’ve also heard a Baptist use it as a scourge against “dry-as-dust” written prayers. Empty phrases and many words can be in the eye of the beholder. I was once a parishioner in a congregation where the prayers of the church took no less than 15 minutes. Every hangnail, birthday party and brother’s-sister’s-uncle’s-college-roomate’s passing wish was brought to the congregation in prayer. And each was prayed from the heart complete with “ahs”, “ohs”, “please Lord’s” and flowery phrases. Parson’s wife could tell you how that was just so not me. I was raised in a family where if you weren’t on your death bed, there is no reason to be bothering the whole congregation with your troubles. But a great Christian lady who I got to know at that congregation, without knowing my thoughts, once shared that the prayers were just so overwhelming to her. So what does this mean?
Look at the note of pure gospel. Your Father knows what you need before you ask. Prayer is not a quid-pro-quo. If I put in 10 mins of prayer, then I will get what I need. No! You are not looking for the perfect words that will sway God to give you what you desire. The outcome of prayer does not depend upon you at all. Prayer comes from the Gospel. You Father knows what you need and is not going to deny you that because you used a contraction or said too many “ahs” or mumbled on like an idiot. Instead, be at peace. You are entering the presence of the one who wishes you Shalom. You can be at peace recognizing like Moses you are standing on holy ground or Solomon at the Temple. You can be at peace with very formal planned prayer. You can be at peace wrestling or arguing with God, think Jacob and Abraham. You can be at peace being very expressive like David dancing. The warning is about prayer as a work. Prayer is not a work. It grows out of the core of the gospel. Prayer is one of the ways Christ promises his presence with us. It is that presence that we are seeking. Everything else our Father already knows and daily and richly provides.
I’ll continue next time with the Lord’s prayer itself.
The posts on the law and on the spiritual practices in some odd ways merge at this point. What we’ve developed out of our look at the law is the recognition that the moral law is the best representation of the sanctified life. It can’t save. After the cross it doesn’t condemn either. But the law has not been done away with. It has been fulfilled in Christ. The life we life in Christ is one of fulfilling the law. And Christ’s summary of the law is: You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt 22:37-39)
This sanctified life retains its cruciform shape. Because God first loved us we are able to love our neighbor. And it is the love of God in our life that continues to form us and enable us to live lives of service. If all you are doing is attempting to love the neighbor, without a strong basis in the love of God to renew yourself, that love will grow cold. I’m convinced that is what we see today in many neighborhoods. How many neighborhoods today actually are neighborly? We work and we get home and dig in. We erect fences and hedges. We screen in porches. We insulate ourselves. We do that because we know that coming into contact places burdens…burdens of love. And when you are not rooted in the vertical dimension of love for God who is the very source of love, those burdens of love for our neighbor become too great.
The very basic spiritual practices are to make diligent use of the means of grace – word and sacrament, i.e. make it to church. The devil will try all kinds of things to separate you from this most basic lifeline because this is where God’s grace is abundantly present. This is where God himself is present. If our adversary can get you to make less diligent use – the seed just might fall on thorny ground. The cares and worries of this world will look very great compared to something as unnatural as getting out of our carefully constructed and comfortable bubbles. Yes, I’m a minister, of course I’m going to say that. Discount the heck out of it. It still stands – go to church intentionally and with a good mind. Remember the Sabbath Day and keep it holy. Which Luther explains simply as not despising preaching and the word, but holding it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.
The next post – I promise – will start to look at Matt 6, Lenten spiritual practices and the ways we can grow or sustain a gentle piety or loving the Lord with all our heart, soul and mind.
I want to link to a couple of posts, Dr. Frederick Schmidt (Director of Spiritual Formation at SMU) and Dr. Zemke (a friends mom).
And then pick out a couple of paragraphs, first from Dr. Schmidt…
Doing theology can also be jeopardized by the absence of an encounter with God. After all, those who live theology are the ones who do the best theology. The one question that seminaries and churches don’t ask often enough is, “What is your experience of God?”
From Dr. Zemke…
Evangelicals, as a group, have a rich experience of praying for daily needs, devotional Bible reading, a relational approach to God, and a high level of lay participation. As a group, they tend to score higher on passionate spirituality tests. So, it seems like a good idea to bring those practices into mainline congregations to leverage transformation.
Lutherans often have serious troubles with spiritual practices. For a few reasons: 1) Luther himself was always hesitant to write anything because he was afraid it would become a law, 2) lingering worries about works-righteousness, 3) a heavy emphasis on sacramental life and 4) we often are just more structured personalities and anything that seems too pentecostal gives us the shakes. Those are a few, I’m sure there are more. The problem is that this is killing us…really. I’ve put Luther’s letter to his barber in this link. Here is an example of a spiritual practice that Luther assumed every lay person should have: A Simple Way to Pray.
It is in your Spiritual practices that you are able to answer or talk about Dr. Schmidts question – “What is you experience of God?” The mission of the church is to create disciples, not just to inspire belief. And here is the thing, you can’t be a disciple without belief, but the modern world creates plenty of people who confess belief, but who never seem to walk the discipleship road.
All of spirituality starts with the encounter with the living God. Abram living happily in UR being called out. Moses herding sheep when he saw a bush burning. Paul chasing the church on a road to Damascus. Peter casting a net by a lake. Luther in the forest or later his Anfechtung. Wesley’s Aldersgate experience. We are not all called to such dramatic encounters. But we are called to followed…sometimes to wrestle. The spiritual life cannot be sustained without that connection with the living God. The sacramental life of the church is God coming to us. Prayer and other spiritual practice – like the practices of lent of fasting and almsgiving – are our invited response.