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Monthly Archives: December 2010

It’s that time of year again:  Fitness centers are offering discounted memberships. Advertisements abound for diet products. People making conversation ask one another if they’ve made any New Year’s resolutions.  And months (if not weeks or mere days) from now, most of us will have fallen off the wagon with whatever resolutions we made.  On at least one of my resolutions from last year, I made meager progress, reading only three of the twelve books .  It wasn’t that I failed to read – I read a lot of books in 2010. I just chose other books which were more immediately interesting (the monastic literature kick I’ve been on) or that were more pressing for work or school. 

Why is it that we find it so hard to follow through on our New Year’s resolutions?  I think it’s because we lack self-control, or self-discipline.  Beyond our natural lack of self-control, our society works against us. Advertisements erode what little discipline we have with invitations to follow every impulse we have.  Self-centered though we may be, self-disciplined we are not. 

Psychiatrist Scott Peck argues that “Discipline is the basic set of tools we require to solve life’s problems.  Without discipline we can solve nothing.  With only some discipline we can solve only some problems.  With total discipline we can solve all problems” (The Road Less Travelled [New York: Touchstone 2003] pp. 15-16). Peck goes on to say that there are four basic disciplines that are necessary for our mental health: delaying gratification, accepting responsibility, dedication to truth, and balancing (meaning recognizing what is and is not our responsibility, what is and is not in our control). 

The monks who wrote The Philokalia knew that the same truths applied to our spiritual health.  Consider these quotes from the fifth and sixth centuries:

“Someone else wise in the things of God has said that as the fruit begins with the flower, so the practice of the ascetic life begins with self-control.” – St. Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness, no. 66

“The fruit starts in the flower; and the guarding of the intellect begins with self-control in food and drink, the rejection of all evil thoughts and abstention from them, and stillness of heart.” – St. Hesychios the Priest, On Watchfulness and Holiness, no. 165

“Those engaged in spiritual warfare practise self-control in everything, and do not desist until the Lord destroys all ‘seed from Babylon’ (Jer. 27:16. LXX).” – St. Mark the Ascetic, On the Spiritual Law, no. 134

Mark and Hesychios saw the practice of self-control as the beginning of growth in our spiritual lives.  And it functions holistically for them; self-control is to be practiced in all things.  Discipline with regard to the intake of food and drink enables us to control other bodily appetites.  That in turn gives us more control over our thoughts. This is what Mark means by destroying the seed of Babylon – he’s using a metaphor for evil and impure thoughts, which are brought under control through the practice of other forms of self-discipline.  The physical, mental, and spiritual aspects of a person are all interrelated, and practicing discipline in one aspect yields fruit in all parts of the person. 

Perhaps we all fall off the wagon with our New Year’s resolutions because we come to them after a season of excess.  Christmas is rightly a time of celebration and feasting, but our unrestrained appetites and undisciplined spending at this time of year do not prepare us to exercise self-control.  Perhaps we also ignore the holistic character of self-control. No resolution which seeks to exercise control in one aspect of life will succeed if all other appetites are indulged freely.

But there is hope.  Though cultivating self-discipline requires work, it is not unaided work.  Scripture speaks of self-control or self-discipline as a gift from God. It’s a fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23).  We can’t will ourselves completely into self-control; we receive it.  Or, to use the fruit imagery again, it grows naturally and over time. Yet we still have work to do.  The Apostle Paul writes

“Do you not know that those who run in a race all run, but only one receives the prize? Run in such a way that you may win.  Everyone who competes in the games exercises self-control in all things.  They then do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable.  Therefore I run in such a way as not without aim; I box in such a way as not beating the air; but I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified.” (1 Corinthians 9:24-27).

May God grant us such self-discipline in the coming year.

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A video of the PC(USA) stated clerk Gradye Parsons interviewing Brian McLaren has been making the rounds among some of my church-planting friends this week. I watched it this morning and was greatly encouraged by three things Brian says in the video.

See the video at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kvtpZEXA2dM&feature=player_profilepage.

(1) A minute and thirty seconds into the video, Brian contrasts two paths Christianity could take regarding social issues like war, poverty, and environmental stewardship.  Rather than being complacent about these, he says, “If there’s a vibrant, dynamic Christian identity and community in the United States that is sending people into the world with love for their neighbors, with a desire to be peacemakers, with a desire to care about poverty and care about the planet, we’ll have a very different future.”  Near the end of the video he returns to this theme, not just in terms of what issues should be priorities for the church, but in terms of our basic identity as Christians: “To be a follower of Christ, to be a true Christian, is to be someone who is joining God in God’s love and healing work in this world.  And so we’ll realize that being a Christian, every time we show up on Sunday we’re being equipped and deepened in our identity as God’s co-laborers, God’s co-conspirators for the healing and transformation of the world”  And Brian points to care for the environment, the justice for the poor, and peacemaking as three key places where we’re called to work with God for the transformation of the world.  Amen.  Following Christ means participating in his work of transforming the whole world.

(2) Church-planting: Midway through the video, Brian says he believes “one of the most important behaviors and practices for mainline denominations is going to be to encourage the development of new congregations that are different.  Creative, new congregations and congregations that are focused not on competing with existing churches for a share of the religious market but that are focused on helping people in the fastest-growing religious sector in America, the spiritual-but-not-religious, the ‘Nones’.  How do we help those people rediscover a vibrant faith in Christ and a life transforming community of faith?  Those new communities to me are where the future really is.”  Again I say enthusiastically, Amen.  I find this very encouraging because this is exactly what we’re trying to do at The Upper Room.  And we should give credit to Pittsburgh Presbytery and the PC(USA) for encouraging and supporting our admittedly different way of being church. 

(3) Two minutes and fifteen seconds into the video, Brian starts to talk about the need for creative new ministries. As mentioned above, denominations should give “permission and, in fact, encouragement for creative innovation and creative exploration”.  But Brian says that requires us to “go back and rediscover what is it about the Gospel that’s precious? What does it really mean to be a Christian?  What is our identity and mission in the world?” I added the italics here because I think we really need to think deeply about these questions.  What is the Gospel?  I think McLaren is headed in the right direction by saying we have to “go back”. How has the church answered those questions throughout history, and what would the early church have said?  Reviving ancient traditions of the church is helpful (as McLaren’s contributions to the Ancient Practices series of books suggest). Knowing what it really meant to be Christian in the early centuries of the church will help us rediscover what it means to follow Christ today. For us at Upper Room, this has translated into discovering our identity as a sacramental community.  Baptism is the mark of Christian identity which unites us to Christ in his mission through death and resurrection.  Celebrating the mystery of the Lord’s Supper each week enables us to c0-labor with God.