Sunday, November 26, 2006
Now to many, the idea of neo-monasticism which I’ve set forth might sound more than a little odd. The reason for this, besides a general reticence to try something so innovative (and, at the same time, so archaic), is that not everyone is cut out for monastic living. Though I think we’re often too comfortable in our American Christianity, for some people monasticism might bring an unhealthy level of discomfort to their spiritual lives. It’s not wise to try to revolutionize a deeply-ingrained culture of individualism in leaps and bounds. Or it might be the case that some Christians are more effective in their discipline and witness under current models of the church than they would be in a monastic community.
I would certainly like to suggest that neo-monasticism could be a spiritually healthy and powerful new way of doing church for most Western Christians, and it’s heartening to have heavyweight Christian thinkers like John Stott and Stanley Hauerwas backing me up in that assertion. But beyond any hopes of transforming the Western church, the real reason that drives my desire for neo-monasticism is that I need it. I said in one of my first posts on this subject that to join a neo-monastic community would in itself be a confession of weakness. And in my case, that would be wholly true.
I’m not very good at being consistent in the classic disciplines of the spiritual life. The power of a focused Christian community would help make up what I lack in accountability and drive. To have a communal schedule for entering the disciplines of prayer, worship, and study would be a powerful motivator. It would no longer rest solely on my own anemic self-discipline to pursue moments of intimate connection with God.
It’s too easy for me to get sucked away into temptations and sinful patterns of living, and the structure of the church as it is now, compounded with my own pride, keeps me from living out any genuine and consistent confessional repentance. I need a Christian community that allows for, expects, and encourages open and honest confession, as well as a community that rigorously and compassionately holds me accountable. Small groups are a step in the right direction for most churches, but even these fail to bring me to the heart of the matter. They often don’t address directly the deep brokenness and sin I bear in my heart. In most cases, the confessional accountability I have in mind would be out-of-place and uncomfortable in a small group setting, and the only place suitable would be a one-on-one friendship with a spiritual counselor. Unfortunately, in American churches we leave the prerogative for arranging such a relationship with the individual himself, and actively entering into such a relationship is so foreign and terrifying to my personality that I wouldn’t do it unless it’s forced on me. A monastic community would do just that—force me into one-on-one relationships with mentors who will expect me to be a broken and sinful man, and to walk with me in rearranging my actions and my heart. Denver Seminary does have a program which forces me into mentoring relationships, and though I have high hopes for the program, I get the sense that it’s often more of a practical mentoring, focusing on building up ministry skills and personal devotional habits, but not necessarily an open venue for heartfelt confession and spiritual direction. And unless my mentor directly guides me down that path of confession, I doubt I’ll have the courage to breach that level of relationship on my own initiative. I wish I did have that courage, though, and perhaps God in his mercy will provide me with it.
Further, I find myself largely unable to escape cultural influences that shape the use of my time. For many people, our culture generates a hectic and frenzied productivity in the chase to do and accomplish more. For me, though, I often find that the culture of individualism, consumerism, and constant entertainment makes me lazy and a poor steward of my time. Now everyone, including me, needs some ‘down time’ in the day, but given the choice, I often take far too much and spend it all on rather frivolous and unenlightening activities. I’m sure a lot of people consider me to be a fairly productive individual, especially when it comes to writing, but in all honesty, if I were to be even remotely conscientious in the use of my time, I could at least double that productivity. The schedule of a monastic community, which would regulate access to entertainment and hold members somewhat accountable for the use of their time, would be an incredible boon to me.
Though I’m passionate about evangelism and outreach, I’m miserable at it. I love to pray and speak about it, but I don’t very much like to do it. A large part of that is the natural tendency of my personality, and so I must continue to seek out ways to minister within the gifts and abilities God has given me. But my apathy and cowardice play a large part, too, and I’ve found from experience that when I have a community that consistently fosters a missionary mindset, I become a much better missionary. My fears, though still present and immense, are not nearly as crippling as they would normally be. I actually come to enjoy outreach. This power, for me at least, comes from the motivating influence of a community that has set its heart on reaching others for the sake of the Gospel. Moreover, a communal focus on evangelism allows us to work together, harnessing one another’s gifts and talents, so that the whole dreadful onus of being an outreaching witness doesn’t rest wholly on my shoulders alone, but on our shoulders together. As someone who both loves and fears outreach, that’s a blessing beyond measure.
Some of the richest times in my spiritual life have come in times of close, accountable community. This was especially true with my work in
This stark assessment of my own failings probably isn’t the best motive for advocating a new way of doing church, but at least it’s an honest one. Perhaps, though, it’s good for me in a way to learn some self-discipline on my own first. It’s not an easy battle, but I’m learning, and, by the grace of God, slowly getting better. In any case, I know that I for one would benefit greatly from deep, accountable Christian community, and I believe that it’s a model of the church that has great potential for our culture. I don’t know if I’ll ever really get the opportunity to be a part of an authentic neo-monastic community, but if I do, I’ll probably jump at the chance.
Sunday, November 19, 2006
The world is dark and gray and cold,
And I am backward and I am old.
The sun has set, it seems to me;
The bleak dusk mutes our misery
Against the twilight of our souls.
We are wasted, we are gone,
We are lost amid the throng.
We sigh with weariness and care
For the freedoms we now bear,
The delights we sought so long.
Daring we! who tore the veil,
Who noble ways of old assail;
We loosed the joy of liberty
With unrestrained ferocity
And opened paradise’s vale.
No more need and no more fear,
No more shame will be felt here.
Morality is of the past;
We are free and we will last
Beyond the universe’s years.
Virtue judged repressively
And vice is much more fun, you see.
Just glance around the painted smiles,
The joy of all our fads and styles,
This carnival of ecstasy.
We need no shame, we laugh and taunt
Our fathers, now that they are gone,
And we congratulate ourselves
On all our happiness and wealth,
For all our rights which once were wrong.
Who needs beauty? Who needs truth?
We are contentedly aloof.
A little lust, a little lie,
And we can surely get on by,
Secure in undeclining youth.
Honor was a pleasant thought,
By fanciful delusions wrought,
But no one’s evil and no one good;
We are all misunderstood,
And scarred from wars our fathers fought.
The world is filled with happiness
From our intrepid selfishness.
We’re free to laugh and sing aloud,
To hide our heartache from the crowd,
To revel in our aimlessness.
But now I wonder oftentimes
Why birds still sing and words still rhyme.
Beauty hasn’t fled away,
And sunsets crown each passing day;
This world is breathlessly alive.
Unfettered lust is fun, it’s true,
But romance can be wild too.
Perhaps honor isn’t meaningless,
Perhaps there’s mystery in a kiss,
A wonder too intense to lose.
Lust will wither, pride will fade;
These visions vanish from my gaze.
Pale they danced before my eyes
In lilting steps and tempting guise,
But now they end their loathsome days.
I dream again, and what a dream!
A dream that silences the screams.
A new world dawns with brilliant hue,
A world that beckons me and you,
Where virtue recklessly redeems.
Saturday, November 11, 2006
In a brilliant display of procrastination from my seminary homework, I’m presenting you with yet another neo-monastic discourse. Now we move from some of the cultural connections of evangelical neo-monasticism to discuss its practical application and historical precedents.
One questions demands our attention above all else: Is this sort of Christian community possible in this day and age? The answer is, of course, yes. Neo-monastic communities are already popping up all over
We need now to turn our attention to historical precedents. The very first comes in Acts 2, in the initial form of the early church: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer….All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (vv. 42, 44-47).
A number of things need to be noted in conjunction with this. First, there is no evidence that any of the other New Testament churches operated on such a communitarian basis. In fact, there is no evidence that even the
Now that I’ve rushed through the relevant Scriptural connections much too quickly, let’s get on to the really exciting stuff: church history. Though there are numerous groups throughout history that have exemplified in one way or another the model I’m attempting to resurrect, I’ll only highlight four here: early Celtic missional monasticism, especially the form used by Columbanus; the Franciscan and Dominican movements; the Jesuits; and Zinzendorf’s Moravians. All four of these groups share some combination of a communal lifestyle, a devotional emphasis, and a missional passion.
In the latter years of the sixth century, as the western Roman Empire continued to become more and more of a memory, the territories of Frankish Gaul, originally evangelized by intrepid missionaries such as Martin of Tours, Samson, and Aredius, fell into a spiritual languor. The ruling warrior aristocracies were largely rural-based, and felt no deep connection to the urban Christianity of the old Roman provincial cities. The spark that re-lit the evangelization of Gaul came from an odd source—not
Our second example is more familiar—many have, at one time or another, run across the delightfully enigmatic St. Francis of Assisi, who is well known for a number of things, including stripping down before a bishop, chatting with birds, fish, and wolves, and joining a crusade in order to preach to a Muslim sultan. St. Francis appeared on the scene in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, but even before his advent monasticism had sparked an incredible revival of devotional fervor across
In the turbulent years of the Protestant Reformation and Counter-Reformation of the sixteenth century, yet another order arose in the Catholic Church—the Jesuits. The Jesuits were inspired by
The final example, and perhaps the best, comes from a Protestant group popularly known as the Moravians—Protestant refugees who had fled from persecutions in
These are just a few examples, but they illustrate the neo-monastic vision well. There can be a wild and beautiful power in intentional Christian community, a power that we have largely lost here in American evangelicalism. In a generation where more young people are going more often around the world but at the same time speaking less about Jesus, neo-monasticism could be the spark for a new evangelistic missions movement. It’s worth a try.
Friday, November 03, 2006
When no one else is around
I feel laughter welling up inside
Like a fountain of crystal joy
It spills over in a clarion shout
And I rush to the window
And embrace the brilliant sky
Where the bright sun shines
In a field of azure joy
Where wild falcons
Wing their way
Into the blue horizon
And my spirit flies ahead
To meet them there
My feet begin to move
To rhythms all their own
The primal pounding
Of some ancient dance
Of pure delight
The mirth of heaven overtakes me
And for just one moment
I dance with all the angels
And the saints
Caught up in the splendor
Of the God we all adore
Here I taste the exuberance
Of the incomparable Christ
Here I discover again
The wild, secret joys
Of this beautiful adventure