Monday, March 21, 2011

The rhythm and rule of Christian life

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Photo by Ferran Jordà (CC lic.)
A bittersweet season of university life is drawing near: Graduation. Last year was the first time I felt this sting at EMU, as I watched my friends in the class of 2010 graduate from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding with their MA's in Conflict Transformation, a two-year program which we'd started together in 2008. This year, many of my friends in the Seminary are graduating with their Mdiv's, a three-year program. Meanwhile, I'll be hanging around for another full year to complete my work for both degrees.

One of my fellow seminarians, Adam, was conducting a short-answer survey for his senior capstone project on the "rhythm and rule" of Christian life, a cute seminary phrase for "spiritual disciplines" or the virtuous, worshipful habits that shape our faith.  "Rhythm and rule" always makes me think of drum circles, which seems like a decent metaphor. A drum circle group that's really keyed into the rhythm is transcendant while an arhythmic circle sounds like a car crash. What do we want our lives to sound like?

Anyway, my answers to Adam's questions seemed like good material to adapt and post here, so read on for a bit of my reflections on the spiritual disciplines that have developed for this busy grad student...

At this point in my life, rhythm and rule are largely timed to the beat of the academic calendar. My work schedule has to fit my class schedule. My family life has to adapt to the amount of homework that I'm doing (in conjunction with my wife, who is also working and studying). While I certainly conduct my academic work in spiritually disciplined ways, here are the other practices that have developed around that work, together constituting the rhythm and rule of my life in the body of Christ:
  • Worship: Going to church on Sunday and twice-weekly seminary chapel services
  • Sunday school each week after worship services
  • Monthly meeting with a spiritual director
  • Table prayers at evening meal with family
  • Reading Scripture and praying with my daughter when I put her to bed
  • Regular physical exercise
On that last point, Lester Zook, the P.E. professor at EMU, preached an excellent seminary chapel sermon a few weeks ago which theologized on taking care of our physical bodies as a spiritual discipline. Our bodies, after all, are part of God's creation so being good stewards of all that creation entails taking care of ourselves. And if we're ministers in the church, the excuse that taking care of our bodies takes a back seat to taking care of people in our congregations is deeply flawed. It is by becoming  healthy in a holistic sense that we're able to more deeply minister to others. This is similar to a concept called "self differentiation" from Bowen Family Systems Theory. In that framework, one of the first goals is to develop a strong sense of self in differentiation from others in your various relational networks (family, work, congregation, etc.). This seems counterintuitive at first, sounding almost like self-centeredness. But in being able to know yourself in contrast to others, you are able to see more clearly in how you in turn serve others. This resonates with Jesus' teaching from Luke 6:42:
"How can you say to your brother, 'Brother, let me take the speck out of your eye,' when you yourself fail to see the plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye."
Another thing I like about physical exercise as spiritual discipline is that the line between "physical" and "spiritual" should necessarily be fuzzy to guard against unhelpful dualistic tendencies. Indeed, our bodies are spiritual vehicles for concrete Christian discipleship.

Disciplines that have never quite taken root in me are the various forms of personal devotion: private prayer, silent meditation, lectio divina, etc. For the most part, I'm a "pray on the go" or" pray with others" kind of person and my Scripture reading gets scattered across a number of other areas. Plus, my mind is often abuzz to such a degree that getting serious about quieting it down has never crystalized into habit. Thankfully, Ben Myers offers a beautiful and welcome challenge to my lack of disciplined prayer: On prayer: fourteen theses on his Faith and Theology blog.

The disciplines which I list above are by no means a complete list even for me, nor are they prescriptive for others. Establishing and practicing spiritual disciplines is a highly contextual and spiritual discernment task in and of itself. Indeed, the list above looks different than it did even last year, and when I graduate next year it will get scrapped and a new one slowly and carefully mapped out. Even now I feel like mine could use some work most days, and that's fine.

So how does your rhythm and rule sound right now: transcendant or cacophonous? If it sounds pretty noisy, don't lost heart. We all fall short and need God's grace. If you're currently feeling undisciplined, the first step is to stop and prayerfully ask: "What's going on?" before you jump to "What should I do?" First get the plank out of your eye and allow God's Spirit to guide you into the life-giving practices that can bring a transcendant rhythm and rule to your faith journey, sojourning on the way to God's kingdom.

[Udpate, 3/29/11: This has been cross-posted to the edited blog my seminary puts out, Work and Hope.]

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