The Spirit of the Disciplines

Christians say, “Jesus is Lord.” But how do we become the kind of people who live as if this is true? Willard addresses this and related questions in chapter 2 as he explains the logical force of Christian disciplines.

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Thinking about Doctrine

I have been thinking deeply about doctrine since the 1980s. I wrote my PhD dissertation (revised and published in 2002) on doctrine, specifically with the United Methodist Church in mind. From what I saw then (and now), our official doctrine – if by such we mean “published statements and propositional content” – has not changed and is very difficult to change. I don’t anticipate the official doctrine of the United Methodist Church changing any time in the near future even if a majority of “traditionalists” leave the denomination. What I have seen all these years is a variety of ways that official doctrine is understood.

One common way to understand doctrine is as a set of propositions or truth claims about God, God’s activity, humans, the church, the world, etc. The first of our Articles of Religion says, “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body or parts, of infinite power, wisdom, and goodness; the maker and preserver of all things, both visible and invisible. And in unity of this Godhead there are three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity—the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.” When we understand doctrine in this first way, we take this claim to be a claim about God. We’re saying, “These are true things about God.” When we hold or adhere to doctrine in this understanding, we are believing that these truth claims are accurate. Because doctrine in this understanding is primarily about reality external to ourselves, there are ways in which doctrinal claims and statements can be wrong: they can fail to correspond to or cohere with divine reality.

A couple hundred years ago, another way of understanding arose. This view takes doctrinal statements to be drawn from our human experience. The Bible is a record of human religious experience (and reflection on that religious experience), and as we consider our own religious experience in light of that record of human religious experience, we find ways to put our relationship with God into words. We express our religious experience. With this understanding of the nature of doctrine, it is less common to think of doctrinal claims or statements as being wrong. Though they use the language of assertion about reality external to us, they are always significantly shaped by human experience. Since we only have direct access to our own experience, not to the experience of others, we have no grounds to say that others are wrong in their statements or interpretations. This approach to doctrine can accompany preaching and teaching that is orthodox in form and content, but it need not.

My own understanding of doctrine is different than both of these, though there is probably more overlap with the first. When it comes to the nature of truth, I believe that some things are the way they are whether I like it or not, whether I believe it or not, and whether I have any perception of it or not. But before the claim that Christian doctrine is true, I am committed to substantive Christian claims. God is the Creator. God has acted in history, calling Abraham and his family and covenanting with them to be a blessing to all people on earth. The Incarnation of the Son of God, Jesus, his life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension was the climax of that covenant. At Pentecost Jesus poured out the promised Holy Spirit on the church. The work of God that flowed out of that continues to this day. When we hear the call to “repent and believe,” we hear God calling us to set aside the other claims on our lives (the claims exercised by the world, the flesh, and the devil), inviting us to become willing participants in what He is doing. Given this background, I understand doctrine as that which equips and enables us to do this. Like some others, I use the metaphor of a play. Doctrine tells us who the characters are in the play (God, Father, Son, and Spirit; humans; the devil; the world), the plotline to this point, and the setting (God’s good creation, marred by sin, but on a trajectory toward glory through the grace and power of God).

Given this understanding of doctrine, doctrines are things we believe, but, more importantly, they are things that shape our action. If we assent to the truth of all the right assertions, if we say all the right words, but that assent and that saying doesn’t bring us to the point of joining God in what he’s doing, then we are not “doing” doctrine rightly.

Maybe you’re noticing in my account some elements of the second understanding of doctrine that I mentioned above. If we are “doing” doctrine rightly, it will shape our experience: our actions and perceptions and feelings.

Our acts of believing (orthodoxy) are shaped by and shape our actions (orthopraxy) so that we may rightly love God and our neighbor (orthopathy). Doing doctrine rightly is not just a matter of orthodoxy, but brings together both orthopathy and orthopathy.

It’s in this context that I find myself feeling uneasy with the claims of those defending the “Stay UMC” position. Yes, it’s true, the official doctrine won’t change. I appreciate the rejection of a wooden propositionalism. But how will that official doctrine function in the church? What is the relationship between our doctrine and the way we read and interpret the Bible? Will a rejection of a propositionalist account of doctrine make doctrinal accountability unimaginable?

I’m also uneasy with the claims of those saying, “Go GMC!” I appreciate the impetus toward accountability in the area of doctrine and the express desire to take it seriously. But again, how will doctrine function within the church? I’m uncomfortable with an approach that levels all doctrines into the category of “essential” – that’s the way of fundamentalism, and I’m not a fundamentalist. As they react against the poisonous normative doctrinal pluralism of the UMC, will they go the opposite direction into poisonous doctrinal rigidity? Again, how will doctrine function in the church?

In a future post I’ll make comments about the problem of reaction. It’s normal for humans and human institutions to react against things and happenings in their environment. I’ll be exploring better and words ways to do that. In the meantime, I continue to pray for our discernment efforts, here in our congregation and across the connection.

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The Spirit of the Disciplines – Chapter 1

Dallas Willard begins his account of how to become the kind of person who can consistently live as a disciple of Jesus. In a key sentence he says, “A successful performance at a moment of crisis rests largely and essentially upon the depths of a self wisely and rigorously prepared in the totality of its being – mind and body.” Here’s my teaching through this chapter.

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Spirit of the Disciplines – Introduction

Many years ago Dallas Willard wrote The Spirit of the Disciplines, a helpful and influential book examining spiritual disciplines in the Christian tradition. He explored what they were and how they worked. A couple years ago I worked my way though the book, finding much of value.

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The Absolute Basics of the Wesleyan Way

The United Methodist Church is, after years of inner dissension, at the beginning of formally breaking up. In some places (like my own Texas Annual Conference), the monetary cost of disaffiliation is low. At the other extreme conferences like Baltimore Washington have very high monetary costs. From the arguments I see on social media we are very far from what Bill Hinson called “amicable separation.”

From what I see, one of the most beneficial things we can do in this season is to gain/regain clarity about our identity as Methodist Christians. One of the helpful studies that’s come out in recent years is The Absolute Basics of the Wesleyan Way by Phil Tallon and Justus Hunter. I created a study guide for each chapter when we did it in our Sunday school classes a couple years ago. I thought these might be of use to others doing the study, so here they are for your benefit:

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

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An Illustration of Why Latin Can Be Useful

Christian theology has often affirmed Si comprehendis, non est Deus. In English one might translate it as “If you understand it, it’s not God.” This statement gets at the basic idea of apophaticism: God is beyond us, not just quantitatively but qualitatively. Because God is the creator and we are created, there is an infinite gap between us.

We make efforts to know and understand God. Sometimes we have great confidence in thinking we understand God. That’s when we need to remember, Si comprehendis, non est Deus.

So why prefer the Latin rendering? It’s not just to be pedantic or prideful. It’s not to show off one’s learning. For the advantage is in the non-use of pronouns. If you haven’t studied Latin, take my word for it: there are no pronouns in this sentence. What about the English? Do you see the pronouns in “If you understand it, it’s not God?” They’re right there in the middle, first as an object, then as a subject: “It.”

The antecedent of “it” in both cases is “whatever it is you think you’re understanding.” But it’s easy to think we’re using the pronoun for God. I have a problem with using pronouns for God (and also not using pronouns for God). The first problem is theological, the second is literary.

In English we have three normal 3rd person singular pronouns: he, she, and it. “He” is a masculine pronoun and is usually a stand in for males. “She” is a feminine pronoun and is usually a stand in for females. “It” is a neuter pronoun, usually a stand in for objects, for things that are not alive.

So what is God? God’s not an object. Biblically God is alive and active. What about male or female? Some of us are more used to using masculine pronouns for God; some even think of God as masculine. Some, especially those influenced by feminist theology, may use feminine pronouns for God.

Masculine and feminine (and neuter, as well as any other genders that might exist) are aspects within the created order. Things can have gender; God is not a thing, and as Creator is beyond gender. Our challenges are that although God (Father, Son, and Spirit, whom we see active in scripture) does not have gender, Jesus, as a fully human Jewish male does have gender; even more, our words have gender. When we use scriptural language and call God “Father,” it seems natural to use the pronoun “He” for “Father.” Also, though we don’t see it in English, the word “god” is gendered in many languages. All this gives us reason to associate God with a particular gender.

But again, since gender is an aspect of creation, not the Creator, we should think carefully and circumspectly about our use of pronouns for God. For me, that’s a reason to use Latin in this case, since we can get by merely implying pronouns rather than using them.

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Wesley’s Sermon on The Catholic Spirit

I’m working through some of Wesley’s works to help United Methodist churches in the discernment process many are in now. Throughout the document, I provide analysis of what Wesley is saying and questions for consideration. My intention is that these would benefit churches regardless of their theology, ideology, or current stance toward contentious issues. They ought also to be of value to churches at any time in their life.

When we deal with issues of disagreement and conflict, this sermon is probably Wesley’s work that is most frequently cited. I’m not sure it’s read and studied as much as it’s cited, however. It’s worth our spending some time with.

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Thoughts upon John Wesley’s Thoughts Upon Methodism

At the current season of division and denominational chaos, many churches in the United Methodist Church are entering an official period of discernment. I think getting back to Wesley is a good thing, so I’m going back to some of his writings and creating study guides for them. So far I’ve finished one on his Thoughts Upon Methodism and am nearing completion of one on his sermon The Catholic Spirit. You can follow the link if you’re interested in checking it out.

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Living in Anxious Times

We live in highly anxious times. We might hear more about young people being anxious and the role social media plays in creating and exacerbating their anxiety, but increased anxiety is a reality for all groups. Here are a few of the causes I see:

  • The Pandemic: Even though the pandemic is, apparently, winding down, its effects are still with us. We’ve heard of increased cases in various parts of the country but are happy to hear that increased cases haven’t led to severe increases in hospitalizations and deaths. I know people that are still very anxious about going out in public. Being around crowds terrifies them. Some of our people who haven’t yet returned to church are people who are uncomfortable being out and about in enclosed spaces.
  • Politics: It is to the advantage of both our major parties to speak apocalyptically about the possibility of the Other Team taking control and bringing irreversible disaster upon the country. Adherents of both major parties are told repeatedly that the Other Team is winning. When the future of the country and the well-being of our families is felt to be on the line, anxiety is to be expected.
  • The Economy: Some places are booming. Small towns like ours, frequently not so much. Our tax base has been changing over the years. Jobs have been going away. Now we have inflation at the highest level in decades and the Fed is raising interest rates. Some tell us that rising interest rates will crush the stock market, slow the economy, and send the country into recession. Can you imagine why some people would be anxious?
  • The Church: If you pay attention to demography (the study of populations), you’re aware that the church is going through a rough time these past few years. We have scandals on top of increasing secularization. We have kids raised in church growing up and not coming back. We have conflict within churches. In our own denomination it looks like the 1968 synthesis of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren (that resulted in the United Methodist Church) is falling apart. We can look at our own congregation and the conflicts over the past couple of years. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve felt the anxiety.

When there’s increasing anxiety, other things start happening. It doesn’t matter whether it’s anxiety within society, an organization, or a family – there are consequences that hurt us. Here are a few I see:

  • Anxiety decreases our intelligence. When we’re anxious we feel like we need to respond to things immediately. We must respond, we cannot wait and take time to think things through. We grab ahold of the stories anxiety tells us – stories of guilt, shame, failure, and blame. Anxiety blinds us to other stories, other possible explanations. When we become aware of this feature of anxiety, we can do the work (it is work) of intentionally slowing down and becoming aware of our reasoning processes. It can help us to begin each day with a prayer asking God to heighten our awareness to what happens around us during the day. Instead of rushing to judgment, we can ask God to slow us down so we can make every thought captive to Christ.
  • Anxiety leads to conflict. Yes, I did say above that conflict leads to anxiety. It’s a feedback loop. More conflict leads to more anxiety which leads to more conflict – and so on. This is especially true when we don’t recognize our anxiety for what it is. It’s at those times that we tend to lash out or even explode at the people around us. Next time you’re around someone who is exploding at you, pause for a moment and consider: “Could this explosion be caused by anxiety?” Whatever the cause, we’re responsible for how we act toward others, but when we recognize that the explosion is caused by anxiety (whether theirs, ours, or both), we can maybe turn down the volume a bit. Perhaps we could say something like, “Considering what you’re saying/doing, I’m feeling anxious. Maybe some of what you’re saying is being fueled by your anxiety. Whatever the role anxiety might be playing, how about we sop for a moment and offer ourselves, our situation, and our anxieties to God in prayer. We can invite God to share his insights and be quiet before him as we wait on him.”
  • Anxiety leads to withdrawal. When we’re anxious, whether we recognize what we’re feeling as anxiety or not, we tend to withdraw. Being around people amps up our feelings of anxiety, especially if we feel like they are somehow part of the problem. It doesn’t matter if we’re thinking about family, business, church, or other groups. We want to decrease anxiety and we think withdrawing from a possible source of anxiety is the way to go. Sometimes withdrawal, at least for a time, is necessary. We need time to breathe, time to calm down, time to seek and hear from God. As one who values healthy families and healthy churches, however, I wouldn’t want withdrawal to be a permanent strategy. Because we’re human and live in a fallen world, anxiety and conflict are unavoidable. Sometimes just when we think we’ve escaped it, it taps us on the shoulder from behind. We don’t have and shouldn’t expect perfect, unendingly happy churches and families. God gives us each other to encourage and support us in our times of need. As we learn to love each other through trying times, we gain the strength to do better next time. It’s like physical exercise. We grow our muscles of forgiveness, love, and restoration through use.

Here’s a prayer I pray for myself today. Maybe some of you could find value in praying it for yourself today:

Lord, you have searched me and known me. You know my thoughts from afar. You know my heart, all my feelings, ideas, fears, anxieties, and discomforts, even when I am blind to them myself. Open my eyes so I can see the things in me that are dragging me down – or dragging down the people around me. As I become aware of my anxieties give me the strength to name them as such and to lay them at your feet. Deliver me from the lie of the enemy that those anxieties define me and get the last word in my life. Deliver me to the truth of your word, that my identity is in Christ, and that because he has bought me with his blood, there is no condemnation. Help me live out of the reality that being “in Christ” is not something I do as an individual, but something we do together through the presence and work of your Spirit. Bind us together in love. I know, Lord, that the world doesn’t think this way. The world insists on my performance. The world insists I withdraw when I’m anxious. The world insists that there is no hope for recovery. Help me – help us – find our hope and security in you, knowing that whatever changes come, your grace is sufficient. You have promised to never leave us or forsake us – to be with us always. I lean on that promise now.

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A Problem of Truth

You’ve probably heard the claim, “You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” You may not have heard that claim in its context. In John 8:31-32 Jesus is speaking to some people who “had believed him” and said, “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

The people in Jesus’ audience that day, the people who “had believed him” weren’t too keen on the truth. Well, they might have liked the idea of truth, but they had major issues with what Jesus said about it. Their main issue was with the “set you free” line. Those people who “had believed Jesus” didn’t take themselves to have any need to be set free. They were good Jews, part of the Chosen People of Israel. Gentile sinners might need to be set free, but not people like them.

How would we do if Jesus said those words to us today? Do we feel a need for the freedom he offers? I’m not asking if we have a theory about it but if we feel the need. When we feel a need we’re inclined to act on that need. In this case Jesus was very clear. Notice his language: “IF you hold to my teaching, THEN you are really my disciples.” In generalized form, IF X, THEN Y.

Do we really want to be Jesus’ disciples? Maybe, maybe not. It depends on what he means by “disciple.” A disciple is a “student,” an “apprentice.” When we are someone’s apprentice, we attach ourselves to them to learn how to do what they’ve mastered. We listen to them, we learn from them, we put what they teach us into practice. “Put into the practice” is what Jesus meant by “hold to my teaching.” “Put into practice” goes beyond just “believing Jesus.” When we put his teaching into practice, we learn to see ourselves, people, and the world around us from his point of view. We act in ways that are in alignment with his kingdom purposes.

Let’s make this personal. Do you want to be this kind of person? Are you willing to live in a “disciple” relationship with Jesus – to take his word as truth? Having taken his word as truth, are you learning to see your deep need for him and for the freedom he offers?

I understand that there are reasons to just take Jesus as a religious figure who offers eternal fire insurance, a way out of the inevitability of death. I get my ticket, I’m good to go, I can get on with my life. When we listen to Jesus, however, we hear things like, “If anyone wants to follow me, let him take up his cross.” Or we could listen to Paul who listened to Jesus and found the freedom of which he spoke: “I am crucified with Christ; nevertheless, I live. Yet not I, but Christ lives in me. And the life I now live, I live by faith in the Son of God who loved me and gave himself for me.”

Our culture has trained us to think of Jesus and the salvation he offers as the ultimate consumer product. As long as we think that way, we’ll miss him every time. When we’re “really his disciples” we’ll be living as if he’s bought us with his blood and we belong to him. We’ll freely give him “absolute sway” over our lives. When I pray for my people, I pray that that’s how their lives will go – but only after praying it for myself.

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