Last week, I had coffee with another professor on my campus and he shared that his dad had mental and emotional health issues which compelled him to “evangelize” with a megaphone. He was embarrassed as a child, he said, because his father “would use religion as manipulation. We would go to churches, you know, because we’d be asked to leave from the one before it because he kept making these scenes and stuff, and the [new] church would be singing, you know, just getting the service started, and my dad would just pray really, really loudly. It was like he wanted people to look at him. ‘Look at that guy. He must be really holy.’ He was the kind of guy who would stand on the porch with a megaphone and speakers and just yell into the microphone, drunk, like people on the freeway gave a shit what he had to say.” If God was real, he said, he didn’t want to believe in the one his father talked about.
I told him I understood, that I had seen my share of that working with churches and it was the main reason why I believed in private prayer as well. “Because people can so easily use these outward things to make people admire them.” There will be always be abuse of spiritual practices, just like there will always be abuse of spiritual people. The spiritually hungry are always vulnerable. Proverbs 27:7 says that “to the hungry heart, even the bitter things are sweet.”
This is not a uniquely Christian dilemma. Bikram Choudhury, founder of Bikram Yoga, abused many of his followers through the pursuit of daily quasi-religious yoga practices. As Kate Fagan writes,
In many yoga practices, the sequence varies from day to day, depending on the teacher, on their whims. But not Bikram. Every class was identical: 26 postures performed twice, always in the same order, always inside a heated and carpeted room, and always in front of a mirror. The strict rules came from founder Bikram Choudhury himself, no variations allowed. The one part that could change from class to class, however, was how you executed each posture. In Bikram, when focusing on your reflection in the mirror, you’re encouraged to compare yourself to just one person: the previous version of yourself.
While many, especially the newly religious, are enthusiastic and eager to learn about spirituality, there is a need to develop discernment and discretion alongside spiritual disciplines. Some may use spiritual practices for self-gratitude or abuse, and such individuals are – to be clear – predators, abusers, or simply perverted and should be avoided by those seeking a real connection with something beyond their own experience. Like I told my professor friend, “Those kinds of people are walking jerk-offs. Their ideas are masturbatory. Yeah, it’s nice for you, sure. But it doesn’t do much for the rest of us.” Said in a more affirming way, if spiritual disciplines mean anything, shouldn’t they be about God or at least about our local faith community, not exclusively for personal enrichment?
I like something that Watchman Nee wrote in his short pamphlet, Ministering to the House or to God?
We must see clearly that outwardly there may not be much difference between ministering to the house and ministering to the Lord. You may try your best to render help to the brothers, to diligently save the sinners, and to labor much in the service to manage the church. On top of these, you may do your best to admonish others to read the Bible and pray. You may have suffered much and have been persecuted. You may do everything. But there is a basic question: What is your motivation for doing this? The question hinges on whether or not the Lord occupies the first place in your heart. When you rise up early in the morning to minister to the brothers and sisters, do you say, “O Lord, today I am doing this once again for Your sake”? Or do you first remember that this is your duty, and you do it because this is what you should do? If this is the case, it is altogether out of necessity, and it is not for the Lord. You only saw your brothers; you did not see the Lord. Your motive tells everything about your situation…
Oh, may we see that much of the labor and ministering before God is not ministering to Him. The Bible tells us that there was a group of Levites who were busily ministering in the house, but they were only ministering to the house, not to God. Ministering to the house is very similar to ministering to the Lord. Outwardly, there is almost no difference. Those Levites were in the house preparing the peace offerings and burnt offerings. This was a wonderful work. Suppose an Israelite wanted to worship God and offer up a peace offering and burnt offering, but he could not drag in the cattle or sheep. The Levites would help him drag in the animals and slay them. How good this was! They helped someone else be close to the Lord and know the Lord! Even today, it is a wonderful work to lead a sinner to turn or help a believer advance. While the Levites worked, they were very busy and their whole body was sweating. They helped others to carry out the offering of the cattle and sheep. Both the peace offering and burnt offering typify Christ. This means that they exerted their energy to bring others to the Lord. It is so wonderful that some could be brought to know the Lord. We know that the peace offering concerns the relationship between a sinner and the Lord, and the burnt offering concerns the relationship between a believer and the Lord. The peace offering speaks of a sinner’s drawing near to the Lord, while the burnt offering speaks of the consecration of a believer. In the Levites’ work, not only were sinners brought to believe in the Lord, but believers were also brought to consecrate themselves. How wonderful this work was. This was not a false work; it was altogether genuine. God knew their work. They were truly rendering help to others in offering up the peace offerings and burnt offerings. They were truly saving and helping men; they labored very hard. Nevertheless, God said they were not ministering to Him…
Many like to exercise their muscles outside because by killing cattle and sheep, they can exercise their strength and fleshly energy. However, if you ask them to go to a quiet, solitary place where no one can see them, they are not able to do this. The sanctuary is an extremely dim place. Within there are only seven olive oil lamps which may not be as bright as seven candles! Many consider that ministering to the Lord in the sanctuary is not that interesting. But this is the place where the Lord wants us to be. Here it is calm and dark, and there are no crowds or great multitudes of people. Yet here one finds the genuine ministry to the Lord. Brothers, we cannot find a genuine servant of God or true minister to the Lord who does not minister in this way.
Now let us consider what the Levites were doing. They were killing cattle and sheep outside the house. Men can see you in such a place; the work is very apparent. Others will praise you, saying that you are wonderful and strong because you have killed many cattle and sheep and tied them to the altar. Many people are thrilled at the outward achievements of the work.
But what is involved in ministering to the Lord? Verse 15 says very clearly, “But the priests the Levites, the sons of Zadok, that kept the charge of my sanctuary when the children of Israel went astray from me, they shall come near to me to minister unto me, and they shall stand before me to offer unto me the fat and the blood, saith the Lord God.”
The basis for the ministry to the Lord, the basic requirement for ministering to the Lord, is to draw near to the Lord.
While Nee emphasizes ministry to God initially, he goes on in the pamphlet to prioritize all services and disciplines toward God. All of life, he asserts, can be a kind of worship of the God or the divine. Not that we erase our own interests or desires, but that – individually – every act within the human experience can, itself, be cultivated to become an act of worship. Which reminds me of the Jewish prayer for bowel movements: “Thank You, Creator, for making the innards perform their function regularly.” No matter how inconsequential or laughable, we can find a way to enjoy the activity and worship God. Some practices, however, must be approached with more sobriety than others and it is to these that we now turn.
I appreciate the distinction Nee makes between ministry to God and ministry toward/for others. There’s nothing wrong with taking a healthy measure of pride in our work and ministry, Nee suggests. Like exercise and physical fitness, there’s nothing shameful about being proud of our growth and development. It’s only when this pride becomes selfish, demeaning of others, and exclusively self-congratulatory that things are out of balance.
It’s been almost five decades since Nee’s death and we might rightly expand his definition of ministry to include things like social justice and teaching. Nee died after years of imprisonment for his refusal to comply with an unjust political leadership. While his verbiage and vernacular may seem conventional today, Nee was rather progressive for his time and was seeking ways to encourage churches to expand their understanding of the Kingdom of God that Jesus talked about in the Gospels.
As it relates to spiritual practices, we might start by asking what motivates those practices and what we even mean by “spiritual disciplines.” Each practice requires discipline, just as every physical exercise requires consistency and intention to keep us committed to physical progress. Richard Foster’s classic work, Celebration of Discipline (1978), for example outlines several disciplines. Foster divides his list into two groupings which may be a helpful place to begin.
- Corporate Disciplines
Just like what we do when we go to the gym, whether we are seeking weight management and fitness or muscle development and strength, our spiritual disciplines produce different “body types” of spiritual growth. Failing to recognize the goals we are prioritizing, or failing to recognize that another individual may have different goals, can lead to shades of disagreement. A pastor who was very influential in New Orleans during the 1970’s and 80’s, Marvin Gorman, emphasized fasting as one of the most important disciplines. While I benefited greatly from knowing Reverend Gorman, I never felt the need to emphasize that particular discipline as strongly as he did.
Here is a range of spiritual disciplines that Christians often discuss.
The Lord’s Prayer, recalled in Matthew 6 and Luke 11, begins a request or petition of God with praise of the Godself. “God in Heaven, holy, respected, and awed is your Name among us…”
There is certainly something to be mindful of here. One of the things I teach my students as they begin professional behavior is the “sandwich” of communication. When there is something challenging, nuanced, or detailed that we need to communicate, we should be mindful to praise our listeners and encourage them, challenge them, and remind them we are still friends even as we press the need for professionalism and higher thinking. There’s nothing wrong with praising someone to help wake them up and keep them encouraged.
As with all the spiritual practices, this can be used to manipulate and control, but as a general rule there is nothing wrong with honoring someone. I don’t think we are “working God over” or lying by starting a conversation (whether that be a prayer of request, or a prayer of “just talking”) with the reminder that God is (supposedly) far beyond the reach of humankind. If God is truly God, such a being would deserve praise and worship. Such an entity, by virtue of exceeding humanity to the extent we have claimed, would be deserving of respect and awe.
We might object to this for personal reasons, but our natural instinct is to regard another human being with dignity. Which is to say, there are a handful of people who I am sincerely put off by, but I would still offer them a cookie and find something to compliment before I “laid into them.” It is only those individuals who have hard hearts, who have discarded their humanity, who would greet a stranger with racial epithets. Which is to say, we compliment and praise because we know the value of honoring someone.
More, we would do well when we challenge or confront such a God to remember our place in the system. An omnipotent being may certainly make mistakes, and the God of the Bible certainly welcomes the challenge, so worship is more than flattery and compliments. Rather, worship is a recognition of both parties statuses. It took me many years to understand that praising another human, or worshiping God, did not diminish me. I was not reduced by recognizing myself in comparison to someone else.
The sexual act is, for example, quite literally one of worship. We are thrilled by their body and, particularly when we are aroused, “can’t help ourselves” from touching them and adoring them with our hands, thighs, and words. Worshiping a partner does not mean we lose our own status before them, nor does it entirely set aside the everyday challenges we face both inside and outside of the sexual act. Rather, worship recognizes all parties and still chooses to proceed – if only momentarily, and even if all we want from our partner is a temporary joy – with kindness, respect, and holy awe.
My grandfather was a pastor and the last church that he ministered in was a rural church in the middle of long stretches of farmland. The membership was on a gradual decline when he took the pastorate since most of the members were elderly. Each year saw another member die due to complications with age and sickness. In the annual shift of responsibility after one of those deaths, two of the members – a mother and son – “stepped up” and for a short time, it was believed that new blood would help membership.
It was not to be. It became clear almost immediately that neither the mother nor son had read the Bible and had no interest in doing so. They wanted the position, but not the responsibility. They were entirely unprepared for the task, as they were entirely unfamiliar with the central text of their faith. Worse, they felt reading the Bible was no longer needed, “since it [had] been 2,000 years since the Bible was written and everyone already kinda gets it. People are bad. Jesus died. People are good again.”
Reading the Bible is, unquestionably, one of the most challenging spiritual disciplines of a Christian because it requires so much time, attention, and reflection. The Bible, like many other ancient masterpieces, feels simultaneously familiar and foreign. The opening stories of Genesis, for example, play out like a Shakespearean melodrama. Sons disobey fathers. Important people die. Stop and think about that; some of the most recognizable names in the Bible are dead before we finish the first 50 pages. But the story continues. Families betray one another. The “black sheep” of the family is excommunicated and proves everyone they left behind to be wrong. It’s a phenomenal story. But just a few pages later, the story “gets weird.” God shows up – not in the physical form we were originally introduced to, but (get this!) as a bush on fire. Weird twist – is that a wardrobe change or a character change? Just when we become accustomed to this weirdness, the story makes another shift and records hundreds of dead people who died in the desert. A construction blueprint and directions for butchering animals. The narrative is gone, and then it returns again with short stories of politically relevant figures. So is the Bible a political chronology now? A manifesto? What’s happening here?
As someone who teaches literature, I’ll be the first to say the Bible lags in places. It’s not always interesting. Then again, as Watchman Nee points out, the dull places can take on new layers of meaning when we read the story to the end. The Levites, a religious group within the Israelite nation, are quite literally butchers. The details of their work are concerned with how best to slaughter birds, bulls, and other animals. Tedious work, to be sure. But relevant to vegetarian or vegan readers? Hardly. Let’s be forward about this, the Bible is not always interesting reading. Some readers understand the butchery notes as a metaphysical commentary on the human “need” for sacrifice and bloodshed. Other readers see the butcher notes as prophetic – first, humans slaughter animals and then we slaughter other humans. Still other readers, approaching the text as meta-commentary, suggest that the Biblical writers are trying to tell a really long joke with really dry humor. “Look at these nutjobs, trying to make the most boring shit seem significant. They’ll talk about anything!”
Personally, I accept all of these approaches as valid and true. Each brings a methodological and systematic tool set to interpretation. But each also values the text to enough to actually read it.
Said another way, if an individual believes God has written a book (or even a grocery list of ten simple things!) and is trying to communicate across time and space… shouldn’t that individual make the effort to find out what the book says? Isn’t it entirely disrespectful and shortsighted to dismiss the Bible as unimportant “since it has been 2,000 years since the Bible was written and everyone already kinda gets it. People are bad. Jesus died. People are good again”?
Even where the Biblical narrative lags, I find that each time I read the stories, I approach them differently. I inevitably am going through different circumstances and have a different level of maturity. The stories, poems, political treatises, even (yes) the butcher notes make for a constellation of meaning that is unparalleled. The Genesis story isn’t good because it’s fantasy, it’s good because it does such a phenomenal job of tucking jokes on humanity. The family lineages of the Pentateuch aren’t good because they are relevant, they’re good because the monotony demands readers to understands that lives matter – even when the lives being recorded are those of slaves and migrants in the desert, rejected by inhospitable nations when all they want is to have a place to sit down, work hard, and have children.
Reading Theology (Theological writings and Commentaries)
But I would go even further than this. For many people, it’s not enough to read the Bible. It’s not enough to read the Bible in the original languages or differentiate between the novellas, political commentaries, and personal letters contained there. No, many people go further by reading commentaries or “books about the books” to help expand their understanding.
Education has, for me, been a spiritual experience. I didn’t think of it that way as a child, but the older I became, the more I began to appreciate the world I find myself in, the history of what came before, the nuances of our language choices (after the fall of Babel), the spectrum of diversity in the human experience of this world, and especially the ways that we interact with scripture.
In Judaism, the Talmud is a religious text that records rabbis across time and space arguing with one another. A rabbi will make a comment and a century later, another rabbi will call him an idiot. In another place, one rabbi will share a story and another rabbi will affirm it with a story of his own. The generosity, the arguments, are what make the Talmud amusing, deeply sobering, and always thought-provoking. The same is true of Christian commentaries, except that most of the arguments are removed. Christian commentaries tend to be singular in author and keep a consistent line of thought or way of observation. But at all times, what the author is doing is engaging in theology – the study of God and religious experience.
Theology can be the study of a particular topic, or a decades-long way of reading. It takes focus and intentionality to keep oneself committed to reading and experiencing what one is reading in new ways.
When I was younger, I was frustrated by the shifts in understanding that I felt within myself. I thought these shifts meant that I was foolish and inconsistent. Perhaps I was! I’ll admit as much. But I also think that these shifts are what happen when we encounter good theology. The shifts that take place are like the furnishings of the mind. Some pieces of furniture, no matter how out of style, will stay with us. They are heirlooms, if not built-in and structurally significant. Other pieces are traded out for something more contemporary, if they last at all. Observably, our “style” of theology may undergo change, but the atmosphere will remain more or less consistent.
While I am more introverted and object to public prayer, I recognize its importance. Communities are bound together by the shared experience of prayer and, in a very real way, it was public prayer that helped me navigate a rather frightful time of transition almost a decade prior. But whether one prays publicly or privately seems secondary to the necessity for a regular discipline of prayer.
Prayer is not an “open line to God” in the sense that we can have a constant thread of gossip running with The O.G. Upstairs. Rather, prayer is leaving the door open for the divine – in conversation, in meals, in traffic, in the routine and monotonous.
At night, I find myself praying regularly over the events of the day or the coming morning. Sometimes, I find myself “talking to no one” about my depression or past trauma. Anyone who has survived a health crisis knows too well that prayer, even half-hearted and faithless, knows the healing benefits of allowing the essence of who we are to dwell in the pain with God. But prayer is a discipline, not the idle chatter of an unoccupied mind. There are a great many people, I have observed, who speak of an active prayer life that is vapid and self-interested.
Once, a friend of mine half-jokingly insisted that he was able to find good parking spots “because I pray for it as soon as I leave the house.” I would always fire back that he should try praying for the homeless and hungry in our city just as fervently. These examples, should rightly be challenged for the merit and the “discipline” required to be so inwardly focused one can pray for a parking spot and believe it is divine providence that grants it.
It’s also interesting to note how often Jesus prayed in the Gospel records. For someone as close to God as Jesus was, he had a very active prayer life and intentionally made time to get away from his daily schedule, his friends, to exercise this discipline. It seems clear that, for Jesus, prayer was not like playing a slot machine – prayer in, loss or prayer in, jackpot. It wasn’t about flattering or begging God and getting something in return. It was a constant communication, an intentional choice, a practice of priority to keep the conversation going. Which is what makes one of the scenes recalled of Jesus’ death all the more heartbreaking. In his final hours, Jesus is caught praying. There is a mock trial and Jesus is executed. During his death, Jesus prays again but stops and begins yelling to God, “Why have you forsaken me?”, indicating that the conversation (and on this, great theologians hold differing opinions of why and how) had come to an end. It was a discipline that Jesus maintained to his final moments and was never about getting what he wanted.
Hebrews 10 encourages members of the universal Church to “forsake not the assembling of yourselves together.” Regular community is a necessity of human and spiritual life. While some, like myself, naturally gravitate to the periphery of the circle – and at times take an “Irish exit” – making an effort to be in community is important and often challenging enough to be considered a discipline. Like all habits, it takes effort and commitment. In shared space, we become annoyed or have our faults exposed. We cannot live in excess here, our shortcomings are named there, and we find in short space that the behavior of others makes us short with them.
Today, I visited a new church with someone and took note of the idiosyncrasies that make up a local church. One person seems annoyingly happy while the baby behind me cried off and on for an hour. I wanted to change things. I wanted to leave. I wanted to stay and find out what made people tick. And then the guitarist riffed, making me want to leave again. Remaining present requires a great deal of patience, especially when we want to remain perfectly impatient, convinced that we have everything figured out and don’t need anyone.
Howard Schultz, the Chief Executive of Starbucks for many years, writes in his book Pour Your Heart Into It (1997) that people require a “third place” beyond work and home to feel like they matter. For some of my friends, it is the bar. My friend Sara has enjoyed working and writing from local bars for over a decade. For other friends, it is a local gaming store where they play board and tabletop games. Church, for many people, is that third place where they are able to find community.
At the church I attended today, I noticed at least four women who appeared full of joy to be there. They danced. They smiled. Their entire body language telegraphed that they were among friends and felt safe. This was their “third place.” And while it may not be that way for you, “church” is neither a building, a thought or concept, nor a denomination. Church has always been the practice of being with others – serving them, laughing and crying with them, and eating with them. Church is, in the most practical way, the experience of life with others.
While this seems so casually obvious that it is easily dismissed, being present with another human being still requires discipline and effort. Relationships, especially emotionally vulnerable ones like the kind we experience in our third places, require a commitment that is out of fashion with the increasingly compartmentalized culture of the West.
Attending a service requires that we get up, dress ourselves, and socialize even if we don’t want to. It requires us to sit next to people we might disagree with politically. We might raise our kids differently or have different diets, but attending a church makes us commit to making that time, those people, and the circulation of fresh ideas a priority anyway.
Sharing one’s faith requires persistence and, again, a degree of emotional availability that is discouraged to protect ourselves. Discussing what we believe and why puts us on our heels – do we really believe that bit about Muhammad’s flight to Mecca on the flying horse? And when Jesus came back, was it three days or maybe more like two sets of moonlight and a debatable amount of afternoon? Why are we so concerned with this or that social issue if the founders of the faith said nothing about it? And do we really think everyone who doesn’t believe like us will go to eternal damnation in the lake of fire that has no end?
But here we are, asked to do that very thing. To continually be open and upfront about it. To answer and defend these half-baked cookies and that entirely singed biscuit. We’re asked to explain, as best we can, why our faith is credible and ask someone else (my god, the audacity!) to come and see for themselves why they should reorient their lives around the central ideas and beliefs that guide our lives.
Said another way, we are asked to go tell others to look at how we are living our lives, ask them to examine us and how we are living our lives, then judge whether our life is something worth emulating. How terribly vulnerable!
No wonder so many “evangelists” scream and yell. Or use megaphones. It’s all bluster to – ironically – make other people unable to see and hear who they really are. “It’s not about me!” they shout. “It’s not about how I look or who I am on the inside, how I live my life! It’s about the message!”
To which all of us roll our eyes.
Evangelism then is more than sharing. It is, in a very sobering way, about showing our lives and knowing immediately whether there is anything worthwhile there. It is about laying it all on the line to someone else, sometimes a stranger and sometimes someone we have known for years, and asking them to recognize whether there is anything salvageable.
For the first Christians, service was so important that within the first decade of their community, the whole effort almost fell apart because widows, orphans, and the poor were being neglected. Serving one another was so important that there were members who wanted to scrap the whole thing. What was the point of even trying if the effort wasn’t helping others?
When I met my girlfriend, the desire to serve others was one of the first things she shared to explain who she was. Serving others is one of the columns of who she is and how she understands her role in the world. In no way is she diminished or feels “less than” anyone. Rather, service is about bringing joy into the world and helping others feel worthy of dignity, respect, and attention. In previous posts as a maitre’d, an executive assistant, and hotelerie, she’s found significance and a wellspring of renewal from serving others. As should be obvious, this takes a healthy knowledge of the self. We can so easily feel put upon or diminished in the social currency of “service.” Servants are seen as secondary to their “betters.”
Yet Jesus made a point of emphasizing a life lived for others, lived in service to others, and communities of active service both for and with one another.
Paul, Peter, James, and John continue to affirm this message throughout the Christian scriptures.
Historical records of the Early Church affirm this message.
Historical records throughout the Middle Ages affirm this, as Christians migrate individually and collectively from city to small town to city to small town, serving their communities.
In fact, service remains a consistent spiritual discipline of the Church until the 20th Century, when Christians become enamored with industry and political power in America. At the turn of the century, Christians in America begin to attend to fundamentalism, a term originated by Baptist editor Curtis Lee Laws in 1920 to designate Protestants who were ready “to do battle royal for the fundamentals.” Laws borrowed it from the title of a series of essays published between 1910 and 1915 called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth. The term was quickly adopted by liberal and conservative Christians who were beginning to stake out the familiar divisions in America we see today between Christians who prioritize faithfulness to love, justice, and mercy and Evangelicals who emphasize individualism, capitalism, and nationalism – ironically, all very modern concepts from a group that denounces modernity.
Christians who frame service as a “lesser” role in spiritual practice do so entirely outside of the teachings of scripture, both Hebrew and Christian, as well as the long historical practice of both faiths and those of Islam, Hinduism, even Scientology.
Anyone informed on the theology of their faith would affirm the belief that humans are responsible for the world and should take care of it. The Genesis narrative opens with God granting “dominion” to the first humans, compelling them to nurture and care for it. Later, the writers of the Bible affirm that while humans have “dominion” over the land and seas, the Earth entire is God’s possession, hence the role of “stewardship” or care in the absence of a royal entity.
People who believe in any kind of higher power usually believe that said power(s) created the universe and all that is within it. With this comes the belief that they must take care of creation and look after it, including animals, the environment, natural resources like water, air, and land until such time as the deity to reclaim dominion.
Admittedly, many religions and denominations have various degrees of support for environmental stewardship since stewardship comes with political implications. This is, it should be noted, where the Fundamentalists (precursor to Evangelicals at the turn of the century) broke from Christian witness, history, theology, practice, and scripture itself. Fundamentalists maintain that God has given them entire rule and mastery for their personal use while many moderate and progressive Roman Catholics, Orthodox Christians, and mainline denominations view stewardship as a service to God and thus do not claim ownership.
In a very real way, Evangelicals (as the inheritors of Fundamentalism) interpret the parable of the talents, as told by Jesus in Matthew 25 and Luke 19, as a promise of reward. If they use all of the Earth (which they own, as it was given to them by God) and exhaust all resources to the point of global extinction, they will have been “good servants.” Overwhelmingly, Christians do not interpret the parables this way.
In Jewish, Christian and Muslim traditions, stewardship refers to the way time, talents, material possessions, or wealth are used or given for and toward the service of God. For example, the Jewish holiday of Tu Bishvat, or “the New Year of the Trees,” (Rosh Hashanah La-Ilanot) is known as Jewish Arbor Day and some Jewish people want to expand it to a more global environmental focus, continually renewing the Earth and sustaining it (tikkun olam), while Pagan, New Age, and both the secular and Humanist views regard the Earth as inherently sacred, a holy being or even a goddess.
Stewardship, then, begins and ends with the understanding of God’s ownership of all:
- “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.” (Revelation 22:13)
- “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” (Psalm 24:1)
- “To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it.” (Deuteronomy 10:14)
- “The land must not be sold permanently, because the land is mine and you are but aliens and my tenants.” (Leviticus 25:23)
- “Who has a claim against me that I must pay? Everything under heaven belongs to me.” (Job 41:11)
Stewardship is further supported and sustained theologically on the understanding of God’s holiness as found in such verse as: Genesis 1:2[1:2], Psalm 104, Psalm 113, 1 Chronicles 29:10-20, Colossians 1:16, and Revelation 1:8. As a result, there is a strong link between stewardship and environmentalism and environmental stewardship includes the reduction of human impact on the natural world. Philosopher Neil Paul Cummins claims that humans even have a special role on the planet because through their technology, humans are able to save life from otherwise certain elimination and care for others through their stewarding of resources in a parallel of Noah’s Ark. Through our efforts, we can save the inhabitants of a world destroyed by humans.
Caring for Others
Meanwhile, in Islam, stewardship is not only the care of the Earth but also the inhabitants. Charity toward another human life is considered so sacred it is one of the Five Pillars of the faith, Zakat, which is second only to prayer – or communion with Allah. According to Islamic doctrine, the collected amount should be paid to the poor, the needy, zakat collectors, or those sympathetic to Islam to free humans from slavery, to assist in their debt relief, in the cause of Allah, or to benefit the stranded traveler. Today, in most Muslim-majority countries, zakat contributions are voluntary, while in Libya, Malaysia, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, and Yemen, zakat is mandated and collected by the state.
Shias, unlike Sunnis, traditionally regard zakat as a private and voluntary decision and give zakat to imam-sponsored rather than state-sponsored collectors. In parallel, at their best, this is similar to the belief of Fundamentalists and Evangelicals – if one helps another, it is voluntary and more often an emotional gift rather than a sacred duty. This discipline is one that needs to be renewed as Evangelicals reorient themselves to Christian witness.
Mother Teresa is perhaps one of the greatest examples of Christian witness in the last century. Her countercultural dedication to serving others was unparalleled. The book A Simple Path collects many of her insights and recalls a speech where she shared her motivation. “The greatest disease in the West today,” she said, “Is not [tuberculosis] or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for. We can cure physical diseases with medicine, but the only cure for loneliness, despair, and hopelessness is love. There are many in the world who are dying for a piece of bread but there are many more dying for a little love.” Her life was devoted to giving care and dignity to the dying in their final hours, of settling unwanted babies with families who desperately wanted them, and finding the means to feed and clothe the impoverished. While these circumstances may seem, quite literally, a distant experience, Mother Teresa maintained that caring for others could be done in every circumstance. Assisting the elderly, seeing the unseen, and speaking to those who feel ignored are ways in which we can begin caring for others each day.
In societies of excess, where food is readily available at all hours with the touch of an application on our phones, fasting is arguably one of the most challenging disciplines because it is entirely about disciplining the desires of our own bodies.
Not all fasting is food related. For many, it means setting aside alcohol, drugs, even sex. In I Corinthians 7, the apostle Paul encourages couples to have sex on a regular basis unless they have agreed to abstain and commit themselves to prayer. In Acts 13, Paul’s close friend Luke recalls that members of the early church fasted as they sought direction and guidance. The prophet Daniel (Daniel 7) fasted as a form of sorrow for the state of politics, and the queen of Persia, Esther, fasted as a form of political protest (see Esther 4). Psalm 35 records someone in deep sorrow who speaks of fasting as something that one does for others as a form of commiseration during a time of solidarity. All of this to say that many people of faith find sobriety, clarity, and purpose when they fast.
Former President Barack Obama shared in his memoir, Dreams of My Father (1995) that a roommate at Columbia University once chided him, “You’re becoming a bore,” because he concentrated on his studies, ran 3 miles a day, fasted on Sundays, and began abstaining from smoking marijuana. getting high. All in all, his was becoming a rather predictable, disciplined life. Biographers noted that he fasted throughout his tenure as President of the United States and continues the practice to the present. During Gandhi’s protest of the British government, he regularly fasted and went on hunger strikes that brought him almost to the point of death. Gandhi used his fame to protest their oppressive rule of the Indian people. After all, he reasoned, Britain would kill him one way or another, whether through excess of laws or taxation to the point of starvation. Years later, Martin Luther King also fasted, using his fame to bring attention to racial injustice in America.
My routine allows me to feed my emotions, drink as much as I want, and entertain my desires however I wish. Food is both a celebration when I am on a high tide and a comfort when I am at low tide. I can watch whatever I wish, play whatever I wish, and permit myself whatever liberties the moment allows. My contrast, when I restrict myself and fast – whether I fast food, television, or any other satisfaction – I am confronted with the unpleasant reality of who I really am. Without the comfort of food, I feel things in their full measure. When I do not allow myself to “veg out” in front of a television, I must do the hard work of confronting who I am. In short, when I fast, I see that I must change my behaviors, my ways of living life, and grow past the immaturities I have allowed myself to cultivate and mature.
For someone like my mother, fasting is a clarifying experience. She feels healthier, less encumbered, and sharper in her thinking. When she fasts, she is certainly my inclined toward spiritual thinking, acknowledges the limitations of humanity more quickly and is more forgiving, and calmer in general. For her, fasting is a discipline for spiritual depth and sharpness.
Whatever the impetus for fasting, the important thing is that it is not a diet program. While there are benefits, the smart believer recognizes their limits and never jeopardizes their physical or mental safety in pursuit of the mystical. In Luke 4, Jesus is tempted by the devil and one of the challenges Satan puts to Jesus has to do with “testing” God by pushing the body to its extremes. Jesus maintains that fasting requires discipline, but it also requires wisdom. Fasting for the thrill of what might happen, or pushing our limits is not the kind of discipline God asks of us. It’s never about proving a point, but instead about an awareness of the emptiness of life and the fullness of God. In one conversation, Jesus tells his followers “I have food to eat that you don’t seem to comprehend” (see John 4).
Again, Mother Teresa offers insight. The Joy in Loving (1997) also recalls some of the speeches Mother Teresa offered to world leaders and charities around the world. There, it is recalled that she names the ways in which we can lower the sense of entitlement and authority our insecurities insist we demand from the world. “These are the few ways we can practice humility:
To speak as little as possible of one’s self.
To mind one’s own business.
Not to want to manage other people’s affairs.
To avoid curiosity.
To accept contradictions and correction cheerfully.
To pass over the mistakes of others.
To accept insults and injuries.
To accept being slighted, forgotten and disliked.
To be kind and gentle even under provocation.
Never to stand on one’s dignity.
To choose always the hardest.”
Silence and Solitude
My first experience with retreats was when I was in fifth grade. My class took a field trip to a Catholic monastery which allowed fun and recreation on one side of the center. The other side was for contemplation. There was a small library that overlooked a wooded nature trail and complex labyrinth. There were several benches along the trail to pause and reflect as well as a small area for sitting, laying out, and resting. On that side of the center, silence and solitude were encouraged.
When I attended grad school, I went to a retreat center in California which was entirely silent. We were discouraged from grouping up with anyone else and no part of the center was forbidden to us. Monks patrolled the grounds to ensure, even in solitude, everyone was safe.
In both of these experiences, for an introvert such as myself, it was a relief to be away from the expectation of talking. I have always been terrible at chit-chat and superficial conversations. At parties, I can be quite intimidating with a litany of questions but whenever I meet someone, I want to know how they think and feel. I want the deep things from them first to have some sort of context before we make small talk on last night’s episode of reality television. As something of an odd social duck, I prefer the quiet. I prefer solitude. And it is in solitude that I am best able to reorient myself to the world, apart from the pulls and pushes of culture (which, I admit, I greatly enjoy!). I am able, in solitude, to allow myself to get first ansty and needy and then to begin revisiting old conversations, arguments, events, and iron them out, come to new stages of awareness and understanding.
I imagine this is why we see figures like Jesus withdrawing so regularly (see Luke 5:15-16; Mark 1:35; 1:45; 3:7; 3:13;6:31-32; Luke 6:12-13; Matthew 14:13). Removing ourselves from the routine exposes us to new vantages, new degrees of awareness, and different perspectives.
But I also think that in some profound way, it is in solitude that we are best able to identify the loneliness and existential dread within. Dimly, we become aware of our mortality and how brief life really is. The shock, or awe, at this realization compels us to silence. We are here and then, at some point yet unknown to us, no longer. We cannot help but grieve for all that has happened, all that we have done, and everything still left undone. While we may attempt to rouse ourselves against the futility – “I know what I’ll do! I’ll go write a book or start a company or make a phone call to a loved one!” – there is an abiding awareness of how temporary life is and how unsuited to the challenge we really are. For the spiritually inclined, this produces even newer levels and broadness in the heart and mind. And while arriving and abiding in that existential terrain may be frightening, the discipline of staying there without the accouterments of modernity and technology begins to change our fears and anxieties. We begin to accept this life for what it is and, perhaps, do something with it.
Even as a writer, I find journaling to be challenging. Just this past weekend, a friend and I were discussing a rather unsettling part of my life. “Have you ever thought about writing it all down?” she probed. I had, I said, but what would be the point? I had already lived through the trauma “and there’s no point in seeing it on the page and revisiting it.”
However, that was a defensive and even dismissive way of shrugging her off.
The truth is, journaling allows us to form the words for our traumas, awes, joys, and other life experiences. It allows us to revisit recent events or, with the passage of time, memories almost forgotten. It allows us to see growth or even the lack of it. And, with the passage of time, allows us to formally commit to print the things we are reluctant to tell anyone else.
Therapy has been helpful for me over the last decade, but one of the things that prevented me from finding a new therapist or counselor after they left or were promoted, married, had children, was that I didn’t want to “start all over. I don’t want to have to start at the beginning again and work through All That Happened. Once the box is closed, it’s best to leave it that way.” With journaling, the book is never closed. You’ve already started and can see it there, revisiting and revising, but once the most difficult parts are said, they can remain there.
Spiritually, we have context for those experiences when we journal. We, as it were, bring God into the matter and correspond. Whether we journal to and for ourselves, or journal as a way of writing letters to the divine presence around us, we become co-creators in a long form narrative. We slip in clippings of the news, poems, or quotes. My mother would press flowers from the nations she visited as a missionary between the pages of her journal. Photographs of candid moments. And all of this, I think, begins to matter – if only to ourselves – as we flip through the pages of the past and recognize those old selves. Seeing how far we have come, and seeing the presence of God over the years, revisiting those old love letters, is one of the more challenging disciplines but perhaps also one of the most enriching. What is the ability to commit ourselves to text, flip through time like a book, and mix poetry and sagacious advice with chronicles of experience if not actions of the divine?
When I attended Fuller Seminary from 2011 to 2014, those were the last days of scholarship at the school. With the appointment of Mark Labberton to oversee the school, things immediately fell off. What had become the “Princeton of the West Coast” for theological studies has become an impoverished byword of failed leadership and loss of direction, purpose, and most importantly, scholarship. Dozens of my classmates, now graduated and either in ministry or doctoral programs, lament that we were the last helicopter out of Saigon. The loss of scholarship was a death knell for Fuller.
Learning has, oddly enough, been a spiritual experience for me. It’s why I am now an educator in my own right. Surrounded by thousands of voices, I thrive and flourish because it is one of the few places where I clearly “hear God.” This is not limited to theological study. It took me years to understand that my father’s fascination with history is a spiritual experience for him. Woodworking, craftsmanship, and physical labor are places where he feels tuned into something greater than the world around him. For other “men of a certain age,” it can be fishing or their garden. But for me, it has always been studying and learning more. In studying history or social customs or religion, even sexual history and cultural development, I feel a connection to other places and times. I feel fulfilled, gleaning from shared wisdom, as though in the cacophony of nuance there is a truth which resides outside of opinion and preference. This, to me, is a spiritual experience.