I’ve been editing a superb book recently by Lynne Baab on spiritual practices. (Called Joy Together, it’ll be out in the fall.) After exploring what congregations and churches can do to grow with God together by trying contemplative prayer, Sabbath-keeping, fasting and the like, she poses an important question: why do we do spiritual practices at all?
She mentions a sort of backlash against spiritual practices that has been occurring as some recent writers worry aloud about the legalism that can result when people try to accomplish certain things for God. Here is Methodist bishop Will Willimon on the subject:
My worry is that attention to practices deflects our attention from the living God. With the focus on practices, Christianity quietly morphs into a species of unbelief; we take revelation into our own hands. . . . The idea that we must do something for God before God will do anything for us, the concept that my relationship with God is sustained by my actions or feelings or inclinations, the notion that “religion” is something I do rather than God’s effect on me—all these ideas appear to be lurking behind the contemporary discussions of practice.[i]
Although I can respect Willimon’s concern that some people will try to seize hold of spiritual practice as a form of control, I don’t agree at all that these practices deflect attention from God. On the contrary, they offer the possibility — some more than others, obviously — of focusing our attention on God more precisely and intentionally.
I don’t keep the Sabbath fully, but when I do carve out that time and space to have a weekly time for rest and worship I feel that I’m open to God in a way that I’m simply not on the other days of the week. I don’t keep the Sabbath to “take revelation into [my] own hands,” but to set aside a space so that maybe, just maybe, I will be able to hear God’s revelation if and when it comes.
Baab quotes Henry Nouwen about this: “In the spiritual life, discipline means to create that space in which something can happen that you hadn’t planned or counted on.” I don’t have the most disciplined spiritual life, but Nouwen’s idea rings true to my experience. Discipline, ironically, leads to spontaneity. Here’s to more of that in 2012.
[i] William H. Willimon, “Too Much Practice.” The Christian Century, March 9, 2010, 24.