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Sacred PathwaysDiscover Your Soul's Path to God
By Gary Thomas
ZondervanCopyright © 1996 Gary L. Thomas
All right reserved.
Chapter OneLOVING GOD
Valuable lessons about spirituality can come at the strangest times. An ear-popping flight from Washington, D.C., to Seattle, Washington, taught me a lesson I'll not soon forget. Just before I was about to embark on the trip, I came down with a severe head cold. My sinuses act up when I fly even if I'm feeling well, so I knew I needed to get some help. Since I had just moved to Virginia, I hadn't bothered to find a doctor so a coworker recommended an outpatient care clinic.
The clinic turned out to be the medical equivalent of a 7-11. I didn't have time to go anywhere else, however, so I did my best to explain my dilemma to a doctor, waited for his prescription, and left.
When I got home my wife asked me, "What did the doctor say?"
"I don't know," I responded. "I couldn't understand him."
Her eyebrows shot up. "Well, what did he prescribe?"
"I don't know. I can't read the writing."
"What kind of clinic was this?"
"I don't want to know," I said. "I have to leave town tomorrow."
The flight the next day was one of the most miserable flights of my life. It takes between four and five hours to go from Washington, D.C., to Seattle, but I was certain that my then thirty-year-old body had turned forty-five by the time I landed. My head felt like it weighed about fifty pounds.
I dutifully took the medication asit was prescribed and expected my ears to clear some by the next day, but they didn't. I wouldn't even be able to speak clearly if I didn't get some help, so after a day or two I stopped in a Portland, Oregon, clinic, hoping to obtain more relief. The new doctor put me at ease. I could understand what he was talking about and he seemed to know what he was doing. When he learned what had been prescribed for me in Virginia, his jaw dropped. "I don't know what that doctor was thinking, but I can't imagine any doctor who graduated from a United States medical school in the past thirty years prescribing this medicine for your ailment. Apparently this doctor knows just one or two medicines and is prescribing the same one for virtually everything."
This experience taught me the folly of using one medicine to treat every malady. It took some time, however, for the spiritual analogy to become clear. Over and over again we give Christians the same spiritual prescription: "You want to grow as a Christian? All you have to do is develop a thirty- or sixty-minute quiet time and come to church every Sunday morning."
All too often, Christians who desire to be fed spiritually are given the same, generic, hopefully all-inclusive methods-usually some variation on a standardized quiet time. Why? Because it's simple, it's generic, and it's easy to hold people accountable to. But, for many Christians, it's just not enough.
A.W. Tozer warns, "The whole transaction of religious conversion has been made mechanical and spiritless. We have almost forgotten that God is a person and, as such, can be cultivated as any person can." The casualties of "mechanized religion" are many. It's one thing to witness spiritually empty people outside of church; what concerns me is meeting more and more Christians inside church who suffer this same spiritual emptiness.
Ultimately, it's a matter of spiritual nutrition. Many Christians have never been taught how to "feed" themselves spiritually. They live on a starvation diet and then are surprised that they always seem so "hungry."
Others have lapsed into routine-devotions. One of the most refreshing things that happened to my marriage was breaking my wrist. It was a serious break, requiring surgery, and thrust Lisa and me out of our routine. We did most everything together, in part because I needed so much help. Since my exercise was limited to walking, we took near-daily walks. We shopped together. We answered email together (initially, I couldn't type). For a while, Lisa even helped me get dressed. (Okay, you try tying your shoe with one hand!) Being out of our routine, Lisa and I discovered a deeper and newer love. The romance was always there; it had just been buried under the accretions of always doing the same thing.
I've found that many people face the same dilemma in their walk with God. Their love for God has not dimmed, they've just fallen into a soul-numbing rut. Their devotions seem like nothing more than shadows of what they've been doing for years. They've been involved in the same ministry for so long they could practically do it in their sleep. It seems as if nobody in their small groups has had an original thought for three years. They finally wake up one morning and ask, "Is this really all there is to knowing God?"
Quiet Time Collides with Reality
Several years after I graduated from college, I realized my spiritual life had to adapt to a new schedule. I was leaving the house between 5:00 and 5:30 A.M. and getting back home around 5:30 P.M. That left an hour to have dinner with my family, an hour to spend some time with my children, half an hour to get the kids in bed, and about another hour to pay the bills, take out the garbage, catch up on my wife's day, and take phone calls. If we had an evening meeting, everything was crunched even tighter.
To have a sixty-minute quiet time, which had been a cherished staple of my spiritual diet, I would have had to get up at 4:00 A.M.! I was able to fit in some daily Bible reading before I left the house and a time of prayer during my morning commute, but I felt I was cheating. Vacations and weekends offered the opportunity to resume this discipline, but the workweek demanded something else.
This struggle to find a new "spiritual prescription" became a great blessing because I began to find new ways to nurture my soul. Perhaps the primary lesson I learned was that certain parts of me are never touched by a standardized quiet time. My discipline of quiet times was (and is) helpful; however, I came to realize that it was not sufficient. Other parts of my spiritual being lay dormant.
I also began to realize other people shared my frustration. For some people, the formulaic quiet time seems too cerebral. Others simply grow bored sitting at a desk alone in a room just reading and thinking. And why should everybody be expected to love God the same way, anyway? We would think it absurd to insist that newly evangelized Christians in Moravia create an identical worship service to Presbyterians in Boston or Baptists in Georgia. Yet we prescribe the same type of spirituality for both the farmer in Iowa and the lawyer in Washington, D.C.
Beware of Narrowing Your Approach to God
Expecting all Christians to have a certain type of quiet time can wreak havoc in a church or small group. Excited about meaningful (to us) approaches to the Christian life, we sometimes assume that if others do not experience the same thing, something must be wrong with their faith. Please, don't be intimidated by others' expectations. God wants to know the real you, not a caricature of what somebody else wants you to be. He created you with a certain personality and a certain spiritual temperament. God wants your worship, according to the way he made you. That may differ somewhat from the worship of the person who brought you to Christ or the person who leads your Bible study or church.
I must admit, there is a limit to the individual approach to spirituality. It is neither wise nor scriptural to pursue God apart from the community of faith. Our individual expressions of faith must be joined to corporate worship with the body of Christ. Fortunately, over its two thousand years of history, the church has provided us with rich and varied traditions of loving God.
Jesus accepted the worship of Peter's mother-in-law as she served him, but refused to force Mary, the sister of Martha, to also worship in that way. Mary was allowed to express her worship in the silence of adoration, not the hustle and bustle of active service. Good spiritual directors understand that people have different spiritual temperaments, that what feeds one doesn't feed all. Giving the same spiritual prescription to every struggling Christian is no less irresponsible than a doctor prescribing penicillin to every patient.
As I read the classics of the Christian faith and shared my journey with others, I discovered various ways people find intimacy with God: by studying church history or theology, by singing or reading hymns, by dancing, by walking in the woods. Each practice awakened different people to a new sense of spiritual vitality, and something was touched in them that had never been touched before.
This discovery put me on the track of searching out various "spiritual temperaments" as a way to explain how we each love God differently. Our spiritual temperament should be distinguished from our personality temperament, about which so much has been written. Knowing our personal temperaments, whether we are sanguine or melancholy, for instance, will tell us how we relate to others or how we can choose a suitable spouse or vocation. But it doesn't necessarily tell us how we relate to God. The focus on spiritual temperaments is an attempt to help us understand how we best relate to God so we can develop new ways of drawing near to him. My search was most influenced by biblical figures, who lived out these temperaments on the pages of Scripture, and second by historical movements within the Christian church.
One God, Many Relationships
Scripture tells us that the same God is present from Genesis through Revelation-though people worshiped that one God in many ways: Abraham had a religious bent, building altars everywhere he went. Moses and Elijah revealed an activist's streak in their various confrontations with forces of evil and in their conversations with God. David celebrated God with an enthusiastic style of worship, while his son, Solomon, expressed his love for God by offering generous sacrifices. Ezekiel and John described loud and colorful images of God, stunning in sensuous brilliance. Mordecai demonstrated his love for God by caring for others, beginning with the orphaned Esther. Mary of Bethany is the classic contemplative, sitting at Jesus' feet.
These and other biblical figures of the Old and New Testaments confirmed to me that within the Christian faith there are many different and acceptable ways of demonstrating our love for God. Our temperaments will cause us to be more comfortable in some of these expressions than others-and that is perfectly acceptable to God. In fact, by worshiping God according to the way he made us, we are affirming his work as Creator.
Historic Movements Within the Church
The second area I researched as I sought to label these spiritual temperaments was the church's historical separation into groups that agree on many larger issues, but often vehemently disagree on smaller ones. I looked into several controversies in Christian history and found that a different way of relating to God-a way hinted at through a spiritual temperament-was behind many of them. It would be simplistic to suggest that such differences were the sole or even primary cause of many church splits and denominations, but they did have some effect.
Let's take just the last five hundred years of church history. In the Middle Ages, the western branch of the church, Roman Catholicism, was steeped in the mystery of sacramental rites; Roman Catholic worship focused on the altar. When Luther theologically broke with Rome, worship was altered considerably. Luther stressed "sola Scriptura" (the sufficiency of Scripture), so he elevated the pulpit to show the importance of preaching the Word. Thus in a Reformation church, your eye would be drawn to a majestic-looking pulpit, not to an ornate altar. This change created two different styles of worship: one emphasizing the sensuous aspects of faith and the mystery of the gospel, the other emphasizing intellectual discourse in knowing, understanding, and explaining the existence of God.
The reformers differed among themselves, however. Lutherans tended to keep many of Rome's elements of worship unless those elements were overtly rejected by Scripture. Calvinists tended to get rid of every element unless it was prescribed in Scripture.
The different ways of loving God extended even to how that love was expressed in the world. Calvinists rejected the monastic expression of loving God-a strict separation from society-and opted instead to express love for God by transforming society. The line between church and state began to blur. Calvin wanted Christians to hold the important offices of the state, and even went so far as to execute a heretic.
The Anabaptists, on the other hand, sought to express their love for God by stressing the inner reality of the gospel. They became separatists and pacifists, refusing to participate in the affairs of secular government. Instead, they attempted to create a model society that would witness to the unbelieving world by inviting them to come out of the secular society and join the community of faith.
All four players-Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Calvinists, and Anabaptists-were trying to love God, but with unique expressions of that love. Many differences had theological roots, but some were also related to worship preferences.
John Wesley, an eminent Anglican, was humbled on a transocean trip as he witnessed the faith of the Moravians, who bravely maintained their serenity in the face of death. In response, Wesley traded in a faith based on creeds and discipline for the inner faith displayed by the Moravians, and began preaching the necessity of relating to God through an inward transformation. Thus Methodism was born.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the Azusa street revival brought Pentecostal practices back into common church life. Today, virtually every congregation has been influenced by the charismatic renewal, whether they agree with Pentecostal theology or not. The singing of choruses and the clapping or raising of hands have spread to virtually every denomination.
At the same time inner experience was meeting with Pentecostal elements, another wing of the church began stressing the social obligations of the gospel-and the Social Gospel movement was born, with one wing promoting prohibition and the other wing, socialism. In this expression of Christianity, what counted was loving your neighbor and creating a just society, not having vague, inner experiences of spiritual delight.
Instead of learning from others, Christians have often chosen to segregate themselves by starting a new church whenever worship preferences diverge. This segregation has erected denominational walls and impoverished many Christians. Unless you happen to be born into just the right tradition, you're brought up to feed on somebody else's diet. Unfortunately, some Christians have a tendency to question the legitimacy of any experience that may not particularly interest them. Instead of saying, "That's not for me," they proclaim, "That shouldn't be for anybody."
This is not unlike an attitude expressed one time by my home schooled daughter who was struggling with a math problem that her mother had assigned her: Allison lamented, "This is too hard. It's not fair! In fact, I'm quite sure it's unbiblical!"
Of course, there is nothing "unbiblical" about math, but this same attack is often adopted when we question experiences that other Christians have-particularly experiences that strike us as "weird." I'm talking about "theologically neutral" practices here. For instance, one woman may discover that incense helps her to pray, while another woman thinks using incense is just plain weird. The two can agree to disagree without making a theological issue out of a doctrinally neutral worship preference.
God has given us different personalities and temperaments. It's only natural that these differences should be reflected in our worship.
Carl Jung developed four profiles to describe human nature. (These profiles have been formulated by Isabel Briggs Myers in the popular Myers Briggs test.) First, we approach reality either as an extrovert, who is most at home in the social world, or as an introvert, who prefers to dwell in the inner world. Second, we register input as either a sensing person, using the five senses, or an intuitive person, using the imagination. Third, we organize and arrange data either as a thinking person, who uses logic and the intellect, or as a feeling person who arranges data according to how it affects people and relates to human values. Finally, we arrange our outer reality as either a judging person, who is orderly, controlling, and managing, or a perceptive person, who is spontaneous and flexible. Combinations of these four profiles can create sixteen different personality types, and the Myers Briggs test is designed to separate these types.
Excerpted from Sacred Pathways by Gary Thomas Copyright © 1996 by Gary L. Thomas. Excerpted by permission.
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