If you want to grow spiritually, start small
I had a transformative spiritual experience this morning. After taking one kid to the bus stop and the other to preschool, I hung out our family’s wet laundry. And as I pegged each piece of dripping clothing to the line, my heart rate slowed. My mind grew still. I found myself noticing the humidity in the air, the sounds of the city around—a distant garbage truck and the odd way a siren changes key as it moves away from you—and the chatter of neighbors talking across the fence. My mind and senses moved into the moment. To borrow a term that is perhaps on the cups of cliché, I became present to the moment.
Like many of you during the course of a week my mind goes in many directions and body stays all but still. I prepare the liturgy for this weeks’ communion service, I think through the congregational meeting I will moderate, I outline some thoughts on an up-coming study of Ephesians. I prepare budget scenarios for the upcoming budget process. Email. Texts. Calls. Office pop-ins. Sometimes these things feel like death by a thousand cuts. No one thing pushes me over the edge and into mental hyperactivity, but together my mind seems to run the marathon my body should be running.
We all know that our world is moving fast. Some Christians seem to believe that if the world moves fast, the kingdom should move faster. In truth, the kingdom keeps its own speed and it’s generally rather slower than we’d like. However, we often get confused and believe that the Christian spiritual life should follow the pattern of, say, a Tony Robbins motivational seminar. Be a peak performer! Shatter your mental barriers and negative self-talk! Live your best life now.
I don’t see much of that in the gospels or in the rest of Holy Scripture for that matter.
In reality, the Christian life is very ordinary. For the most part, we grow incrementally rather than in leaps and bounds. What is true in the world of exercise is largely true in the life of discipleship: you have to run a mile before you can run a marathon. In other words, holiness comes by training, which opens the door for the Spirit’s transformation of the heart.
If you want to grow as a saint don’t quest after high intensity, impactful (I hate that word) events that will catapult you into the company of the holy apostles. Instead, look soberly at your life. God has given you very ordinary ways to be transformed into the image and likeness of Jesus. In the reformed tradition we call them the ordinary means of grace. The Westminster Shorter Catechism Q/A 88 explains them this way:
Q: What are the outward means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption?
A: The outward and ordinary means whereby Christ communicates to us the benefits of redemption are his ordinances, especially the word, sacraments, and prayer; all of which are made effectual to the elect for salvation.
The church needs to recover ordinary means ministry. That is, before we start talking about missional practice or the five-fold model of ministry, we need to establish that the foundation of Christian faithfulness is no less than following the pattern established by the apostles—gathering for word, sacrament, and prayer.
Our congregational gathering for common prayer, for the proclamation of Scripture, and for the celebration of the sacraments provides the corporate foundation for our private and family lives of devotion. It also provides the base from which we are sent into the world as part of God’s mission to the world.
The one thing that ties together the great works of God across the centuries is the resurgence of the means of grace as the heart of life in Christ. For the church to stand firm in its new cultural exile, we must once more embrace word, sacrament, and prayer. The reality of the Christian life is that a thousand whispered prayers while hanging laundry on the line is of more value than a handful of celebrity pastor conferences.