On the Inherent (and Therefore Necessary) Weaknesses of Education

Don’t know why this post popped into my head this morning – but I rarely understand anything that goes on inside my head.

On the one hand, there is an inherent weakness to education. That weakness was succinctly identified by our Lord, “A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a  servant above his master.” (Matthew 10:24, RSV) In the Paul Smith paraphrase, that means no matter how hard you try, you will never be smarter than your teacher – in any subject, whether it be theology, farming, or flying airplanes.

But, we cannot live without education. A father teaches his son how to drive a tractor, cultivate the soil, plant the seeds, administer pesticides and fertilizer, and then when and how to harvest. Certified flight instructors are necessary to teach the next generation of pilots, otherwise there would be an awful lot of empty airplanes parked at airports. And, love ’em or hate ’em, there are professors of theology that continue the art and skill of interpreting and teaching the Bible.

Now, if I understand Jesus right, what he is saying is that a student will never rise above the skill and knowledge of a single teacher. Having been both a student and a teacher, I can see this on so many different levels. I will never be able to achieve the heights of my instructors – either in aviation or theology. I could never teach everything that I know – not because I have such a vast repertoire of knowledge, its just that there are things that a person cannot teach.

So, how does mankind continue to grow in knowledge? How is it that we can fly spaceships now when Orville and Wilbur only flew a few feet?

We multiply our teachers! We build, layer upon layer, on the accumulated knowledge of the ages.

When I was in flight school I had several different instructors. At first this bothered me, because I really, really liked my instructor for my basic flight certificate. When I became an instructor, we never allowed one student to stay with one instructor for two successive certificates or ratings. Why? Because an instructor can never teach everything he/she knows, and a student can never rise above his/her instructor. But, if you multiply instructors, the learning curve never really flattens out. There is always something a different instructor knows, or a different trick, or a different way of approaching a problem. Multiple instructors provide a solid foundation for future learning.

A truism that is becoming a mantra for my life is this: If you only read what you have always read, and if you only hear what you have always heard, you will never learn. You may be reminded, you may be edified, you may be encouraged, you may be blessed in a number of ways. But you will never learn. If you want to learn, you have to be challenged by thoughts and ideas that you have never considered before.

Buy a book from an author you probably disagree with. Listen to a lecture by a teacher from a background different from yours. Challenge yourself with a concept that grates against your sensibilities. One possible result is that you learn why you disagree with that author or concept (I am only too familiar with that result).

On the other hand, you might just learn something!

Changing Strategies for a Changeless Church

Read no further unless you consider the following texts: Isaiah 1:11, 16-17; Hosea 6:6 (and therefore Matthew 9:13, 12:7); Amos 5:14-15, 21-24; Micah 6:6-8; Matthew 25:31-46; Luke 4:18-19; James 1:27.

As is so often the case, I write one post thinking it will be a stand-alone, one-off post, and then all of a sudden I think (or am reminded by someone) of a tangential point, and then a rabbit pops up that needs to be chased, and all of a sudden I’m up to my armpits in blog posts. So, here is the third in an un-planned series that started with me stating unequivocally that the church does not have to change. I am adamant about that point. The core doctrines and practices of the church do not have to change, and in fact, if we do change them, we cease to be the church. I will not give an inch on that belief.

But that got me to thinking about all the ways in which individual congregations are dying, and what little changes they could make in order to reverse some of the decline. So, yesterday I started with the easiest, and most visible, changes that a congregation can consider – those of the physical building in which they meet. I am just astounded by the the fact that so many people are oblivious to the state of their building, and how much that disrepair communicates an unwillingness to change, or an outright statement of indifference.

In all honesty, I have to say that in today’s culture the building probably accounts for only 10-20% of a guest’s opinion of the church – although it is a critical 10 – 20%. That figure varies depending on region of the country and size of the community. In some locations the physical state of the building may rate higher, in some places it might barely matter. Regardless, there is no excuse for a shoddy building. If you are going to meet in one, make it a priority to have that building as visitor friendly as you can possibly make it.

Today I venture into the 80 – 90% of what our culture views as important, and that is the philosophy or philosophies that drive the work of the congregation. It is popular today to say that the “attraction” model of the church is dead – that the only churches that are growing have moved past an “attraction” model to one of involvement or of being “missional” (whatever that means – all I’ve learned is that it is “insider” lingo that if you use it you are cool, and if you don’t use it you are just so 20th century gauche). I have come to believe that thinking is wrong. Every model of church growth is attraction – the difference is how you are doing the attracting. Are you attracting by saying, “Come to our building and join our little band of Christians because we have everything right” or are you saying, “Come join our assembly; we are trying to change both ourselves and our world and we invite you to join us by changing your life and by helping us in our journey.” Both are attractions models, it is just the methodology that has changed.

So, what drives your congregation? If you cannot say off the top of your head, I have one simple test: how big is your bank account, and by looking at the line items of expenditures, where does most of your money go? That, my friends, will identify whether you are tied to your building, or whether you are actually attempting to move outside the walls and impact your community.

I have a couple of “fer real” stories to illustrate my point. In one congregation where my wife and I attended, the elders had a simple strategy regarding their bank account. Every December they looked at how much money was in the congregational bank account, and they looked at their various ministries. Then, based on the nature of the ministry, they divided that money up and sent it off – to preachers, missionaries, community charities – whatever they supported. They started every January with a $0.00 balance in their account. Silly, you say? Irrational, you argue? Reckless, you harrumph? But what about emergencies, what about crises?

The elders were brilliant men, of that I have no doubt. But beyond that they were men of great faith. They did not trust in the church bank account. If there was an emergency – a flood, a tornado, a fire – they knew that the Smith family had a bank account, and the Joneses had a bank account, and widow Brown had a bank account, and so did every other family in the congregation. They knew that on a moments notice those bank accounts would fly open and every need and every crisis would be overcome. They did not worry about what was in the “church” bank account, because (1) they trusted in the power and love of God and (2) they knew and trusted the hearts of their members. There was no question about the vision of the church. It was present each and every Sunday for everyone to witness and to share.

Second, one of our neighbor families could be described as one of the “nones” that everyone is so worried about. They would attend a church, but they were not really looking for correct doctrine or whether the service was done “decently and in order.” They looked at the bulletin to see what the members were up to. They were especially concerned to note whether the church was open about its finances. They wanted to know if the church was active in the community – feeding the hungry, clothing the cold, housing the homeless. Once those questions were met, then they would consider what most of us would consider the more important issues of doctrine and practice.

You see, many congregations are going to have to change their model of attraction. I still believe in the theory of being an attractional church. Jesus said in John 12:32 that, when he was raised up, he would draw all people unto him. I believe that was both prediction and promise. If we raise Christ, HE will draw people to his church. The question is, are we going to attempt to raise Christ up with philosophies that died decades ago – or are we going to get out into the community, roll up our sleeves, and get our fingers dirty?

Years ago many Churches of Christ shied away from community outreach because they believed (erroneously, I might add) that to do so was to participate in the “social gospel.” I believe that fear has to be firmly and finally eradicated from the mindset of many congregations if they are to stem the exodus of young families, and if they are to ever attract non-Christians to their worship services. Stated bluntly, but to borrow an old adage, people today do not care what you believe, unless and until they see you living what you believe. If we believe in the gospel of Jesus Christ, we are going to have to learn how to live that gospel. I am not saying we have to change our view of the roles of men and women, that we have to turn our worship services into three-ring (or three screen!) circuses, that we have to become “open and affirming” of sinful practices, that we have to change our view of salvation, church leadership, or our worship practices such as the Lord’s Supper. I repeat, the church cannot change certain immutable truths and practices.

But, returning to those texts I listed at the start of this post – can anyone seriously question that community outreach and care for those who cannot care for themselves is not a part of the gospel? That justice and mercy are any less important than baptism and the sanctity of marriage? That false (vain) worship is any less of a sin than homosexuality?

After one of my earlier posts, a good friend suggested that churches need to learn how to church. I know “church” is not a verb, but I like that thought. It’s brilliant, actually, even allowing for the grammatical imprecision. We need to learn how to church – beginning with personal discipleship (blog post #1) and moving through congregational re-alignment and re-dedication to serving their communities with the flesh and blood of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Let us never surrender an inch of what the church is, and should be. But let us always be alert to ways in which the church can be the body of Christ in the community of which it is a part.

Change – or Die!

Yesterday I was emphatic – apoplectic almost – in denying that the church had to change. What must occur, I said then and I say now, is that individual members must learn what true discipleship means. When the concept of individual discipleship is fully grasped, differences between generations (that is fueling so much of the demands that the church must change) will disappear. There will not be a “builder church” or a “boomer church” or a “Gen X church” or a “millennial church.” There is only one church – Christ’s church, and we don’t get to make the rules. That was yesterday’s post.

Today I want to argue that some congregations must change, or they will die. I am drawing a fine line between a congregation and the one church. What was true for Ephesus might, or might not, have been true for Jerusalem or Rome. What was true for Corinth might or might not have been true for Antioch. Each congregation of the Lord’s people is unique and different, and so each has a life span, and in that life span there are changes and adjustments that need to be made.

What needs to be fully understood is that I am not talking about doctrine – God’s word stands firm and I don’t need to or want to repeat yesterday’s post. We cannot add to or subtract from teaching that is as old as the apostles. Some things never change – and the church does not have permission to re-write holy Scripture.

What I am talking about is the aspects of a congregation that have nothing to do with God’s word. I am talking about meeting places and philosophies that drive a congregation. I am talking about things that might have been true one or even two generations ago, but are simply no longer valid (or, be as important as they once were). Congregations that meet in homes do not share as many of these issues. Congregations that rent space to meet have a few, but not as many. Congregations that own their meeting spaces have most, if not all, of these issues.

Just as a starter – walk around your building (if you rent or own) as if it was the first time you entered the building. Block out all previous experiences. Walk in with the wild eyed wonder of a child. Look with eyes that have not seen before. Get as many member as you can to join you.

How bright is the building? How many unlit or burned out light bulbs are there? How welcoming is the general entrance? Are there signs pointing to rest rooms? Are there signs pointing to the main auditorium? Are there signs pointing to classrooms? Is there someone posted near the front who can answer general questions (maybe not accosting people as they enter, but conveniently close enough to be helpful)? Is the carpet clean? When was the last time it was vacuumed, or deep cleaned? Is it worn or does it need to be re-stretched?

Walk into the auditorium. Does it have pews or chairs? Are the pews so long that no one (and I repeat, not even a long time member) will sit in the middle of the pew? Are the pews so close together that there is no room for diaper bags or walkers or walking canes? Are the pews upholstered or bare? If upholstered, are they clean or do they show the results of far too many communion service boo-boos? Do you still use song books? If so, in what state are they? Are they new and fresh, or “rode hard and put up wet”? Do you have a pulpit? If so, how “separate” and apart from the people does it present the preacher? Is the preacher glued to one microphone or do you have a wireless microphone system? How well does the sound system project? Are there dead spots in the auditorium? If you use an over-head projector, is the screen blocked at any point? Do members sitting on the extreme edges have a clear view of the screen, or is it distorted? How fresh is the projector bulb, or lighting arrangement? Do you have the ability to dim the lights in the auditorium, or is it “all on or all off”?

Walk down a hallway. Are the bulletin boards bright and cheerful, updated frequently? Are class rooms bright and inviting? Are teachers present EARLY enough to greet every student? Is the furniture in each room age appropriate? Do you have available technology for each classroom (TV or video monitors, overhead projectors, etc.) In classrooms for small children, is there enough staff so that a child (or children) are not left with one single adult at any time? Do you have a system so that only a parent (or designated other) can claim a child after class? If doors close and lock, do you have a glass window so parents (and others) can view the room?

Visit the restrooms for both males and females. Are they clean, bright, and fresh? Are there appropriate supplies (toilet paper, soap, paper towels or hand dryers, hand lotion, tissues)? Do you have adequate space for the handicapped? Do you have adequate accommodations for the little ones – step stools or smaller facilities? And, sad to even ask the question, are the facilities clearly marked and do you have a policy clearly stating that the restrooms are for the  gender of biological birth and not some whimsical choice?

What about the outside? Is the parking lot clearly striped? Are there spaces reserved for handicapped? Are there spaces reserved specifically for guests and visitors? Do you have members outside to meet and greet visitors? If you have a lawn and landscaping, is it cared for weekly? Is there signage directing guests to the main entrance? Is there adequate assistance for those in wheelchairs, walkers, or with small children? If there is a playground for children, is it monitored? Is there a place for the littlest ones to play free from harassment from the older ones? Do you have a video surveillance system? If so, is that fact clearly identified? If your meeting space is in an area that is prone to theft, do you have regular patrols protecting the vehicles of your members and guests?

I could probably go on, but I think you get the idea. Every single one of these questions will be answered by your guests. Your members may not even notice, and that’s the rub. When most members of a congregation walk into the building they don’t even see those things. They see weddings, and funerals, and special VBS days, and they see the faces of the saints that used to sit on the left hand side five pews back. A visiter will notice if he or she has to ask for directions to the restroom, if there is no toilet paper in the stall they use, if the carpet is dirty, ripped, or worn, if they have to sit on a cramped, bare pew, if it is so dark they cannot read their Bible, if they cannot hear the preacher, if they have to wait past the start of class time for their child’s teacher to show up, if their song book does not have the page the song leader calls out. Visitors will notice – and judge. And, rightfully so! Nothing says “We do not care about growing, in fact, we would rather die” more than a building that is a poster child for neglect and carelessness.

Most buildings were built during the age, or at the very least, with the philosophy of “build it and they will come.” That theory no longer holds true. The outreach of a congregation now is more important than the building (next blog post!), but at some point a guest is going to want to visit the worship assembly of the congregation. What I wanted to point out in this post is that, except in very rare cases where there is a member (or a group of members) who are really sharp about these issues, a congregation can actually communicate that it is NOT interested in outsiders and visitors by the condition of its building. If that is the case, no preacher, no teacher, no new program, no latest and greatest church growth model, will change the guest’s opinion of the congregation.

And, if said congregation is unwilling to change, it will die. It will take time, obviously, but the last one out the door will turn off the lights and they won’t come on again.

For some congregations all that is needed is a wake-up call and a general work day. For others it may mean spending several thousands of dollars refurbishing and re-newing their worship and education space.

The church of Christ cannot change – but look at your meeting place carefully. Your congregation might have to!

No! The Church Does Not!

If you are even remotely connected to any religious media (Facebook, Twitter, books, magazines, etc.) you are bombarded with messages such as, “If the church is going to survive, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to keep (or attract) millennials, it must . . .” or “If the church is going to be seen as relevant, it must . . .” followed by some brilliant insight observed by some church growth guru. I’m sure I have even been guilty of using those words myself. If I have, (or I guess I should say, when I did) I was wrong. Mea culpa. I am now here to say, “No.” The church does not have to do (a) or (b) or (c). In fact, all the talk about what the church is going to have to “do” is part of the problem. Understanding why this is such a critical issue takes some serious thinking, so let me explain my position.

First, the church was not created by Jesus to be some crutch, some plaything for those who comprise its membership. The church IS Christ on this earth. The church is his body, as Paul makes explicitly clear – 1 Corinthians 12:27; Ephesians 1:23, 5:30; Colossians 1:18, 2:19 to name a few passages. Therefore, and this is the nub of the issue, to say that the church “must” do something or the other in order to keep or to attract any sub-group of people is to say that JESUS must do that something or the other.

Are you really willing to tell Jesus what he has to do? Does Jesus really have to bend to every whim and fancy of every coming generation? Is there a set of rules for the builder generation, the boomer generation, the “X” generation and now the millennial generation? Or, is there one body, the church, to which every generation must submit its personal preferences and demands for the good of the whole?

If there is any one single “must” that the church is bound to obey, it is that the church must be the body of Christ. That’s it – there is no other “must.” We learn about that body by studying the gospels, and we learn about how the church either successfully, or unsuccessfully, fulfilled that commission by studying the books of Acts-Revelation.

The body of Christ obeys what the head of the body commands it to obey. The body of Christ is the physical extension of the exalted and reigning Lord now ascended to the heavens. The body of Christ does not get to vote, does not get to add to or subtract from, the commands that its owner and head gave to it.

It strikes me as ignorance bordering on absurdity for someone not even out of his third decade of life to lecture the church – which has existed for almost 2,000 years – about what it “must” do to survive. But, that is just part and parcel of our narcissistic world. Everything revolves around “me,” so obviously the church must revolve around my wants, my wishes, my demands, my understanding of what “ought” to be. When the church has succumbed to that siren song it has floundered. When the church has resisted that temptation it has flourished. The church is the body of Christ on the earth – and the only imperative that body has is to remain faithful to its head – Jesus the Messiah.

There is a word for what I am describing – it is “discipleship.” It is described beautifully in those aforementioned gospels, and it is taught in the aforementioned subsequent books of the New Testament. There is another book that talks about this topic, and interestingly enough, it has that simple title, Discipleship*. When it was published it stood the prevailing cultural church on its head. If it was read, I mean really read, today it would have the same result. I believe its author would be aghast at how so many people claim to follow its principles when those very same people are so busy telling the church what it must do.

If, and more likely when, I have been guilty of that sin I repent. I never want to be guilty of telling Jesus what HE has to do in order to attract some selfish little pedant to attend some church assembly. Members of the church of Christ are disciples of Christ, and to that end we either transform our will to become what is the will of Christ, or we cease to be members of the body of Christ (ref. Revelation 1-3).

The church is the body of Christ – let us never lose sight of that reality!

*Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Discipleship (also published as The Cost of Discipleship).

A House With No Foundation

I am simultaneously amazed and saddened as I observe what seems to be an inexorable decline in civility and in productivity in both the American political system and in the American church. Although I am not a specialist in either field, I do have my own observations, and for the most part what I see happening in the secular world is being duplicated in the church. I’ve tried to put words to my thoughts, and although the following is preliminary, I sincerely believe my observations to be valid.

In summary, what I see happening is that in both our secular world and in the church we have ceased to be thoughtful and creative, and instead have become perpetually reactive. We do not respond to any issue with reason and deliberation. We view every movement as a threat to our existence and react in both fear and anger. Our response then prompts an equal, or perhaps even exaggerated response from our opponents, and the cycle not only continues, but descends into further chaos.

Part of this condition revolves around our technology. Not only do we have the ability to see and hear everything that occurs the instant it happens, but we also have the ability to comment just as quickly. There was a blessing in only being able to see the nightly news at 6 and 10, and having to wait for the morning paper. There is no buffer time now. It is instant see, instant hear, instant react. We have ceased to be a rational people – reason is quickly becoming extinct.

This development has deeply infected the church as well. A sermon or quote is posted on-line, and within minutes, not even hours, the reaction becomes “viral.” We do not pause to digest lessons or messages – we simply regurgitate what we agree with (or more likely, the musings of the one with whom we agree) or we counter-attack with vitriol. In one of the greatest, and most damning, ironies of our time, we quote Acts 17:11 with the zeal of an evangelist and at the same time we crucify anyone who dares to make us think.

During what had to be one of his most emotionally draining times, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, and preached, and argued with both the German church and the world-wide ecumenical movement that before anything could be done about the deteriorating political situation in Germany, a firm theological foundation had to be built that could withstand what he knew would be a furious Nazi response. In his usual clear and precise thought, he knew the church had to make up its mind whether it was going to be the church or the handmaid of any and every political regime. He resisted making meaningless declarations and mere postulations. He knew that if a conference only resulted in some formal resolution, the conscience of the attendees would be salved but the underlying issues would not be solved, or sometimes barely even addressed.

I fear that so much activity that I see in the church today can only be described as “a blind man searching in a dark room for a black cat that does not exist.” We are wasting valuable time and energy, tilting at every windmill that we see, imagining that they are fire-breathing dragons. What was gallant for Don Quixote is a fools errand for the church. We must do better.

A house with no foundation cannot stand. It will eventually crumble, no matter how impressive it might appear from the outside. If we are to continue to exist as a church we are going to have to stop chasing phantoms and start laying a solid, biblical and theological foundation on which to build a house that cannot be shaken.

Our ultimate foundation, of course, is Jesus the Messiah. I am not suggesting we can lay another, or a better, foundation than that which is already given to us. I am saying, as clearly as I can, that Jesus speaks to this world, this culture, as clearly as he spoke to Jerusalem in the first century. If we do not firmly establish his life and teaching as both the primary and the ultimate meaning for our generation, then the house that we call the “church” will crumble.

Brothers and sisters, let us cease and desist from this mindless and meaningless habit of reacting with knee-jerk responses and shallow epithets. The world has enough of that. What the world does not see are people who are deeply rooted, firmly anchored in both thoughts and actions that are healthy and restorative. We must be that people, or we have no right to tell the world that it is sick.

For my part, I am trying to identify and root out this reactionary tendency in my own life. Looking back I see it only too clearly – and I also see where that tendency has left so much of my work inconsequential. You must know that I am attempting to confront the man in the mirror first before addressing anyone else. I make no claim to perfection here, only what I believe to be an increasing clarity of vision. I pray I am right, and surrender these words to him who judges righteously.

Let us ascend by climbing lower.

Jesus Contradicted Jesus

I love that title. And, no, it is not necessarily created  as “click-bait,” although, if it got you here, so much the better. But, my title is absolutely correct. Jesus did contradict Jesus, and in the most emphatic way. Confused? Irritated? Wondering if I’ve lost the only two working synapses in my noggin? Let me explain.

Many Christians wonder what Jesus (son of Mary) was talking about in Matthew 5:43 when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.'” Up to v. 43 it appears that Jesus has been quoting mostly from the Torah, the book of the Jewish law. I have often heard this verse explained away (and have probably explained it away) by saying that Jesus is quoting oral teaching here – that nowhere is it specifically written that a Jew was to love a fellow Jew, but hate an enemy.

Except, it was written that Jews were to love their neighbor and hate their enemy. It was not written thus in the Torah, but it was written down. In case you were wondering, here is the passage:

Give to the devout, but do not help the sinner. Do good to the humble, but do not give to the ungodly; hold back their bread, and do not give it to them, for by means of it they might subdue you; then you will receive twice as much evil for all the good you have done to them. For the Most High also hates sinners and will inflict punishment on the ungodly. Give to the one who is good, but do not help the sinner. Sirach 12:4-7

Those words were written approximately 200 years before Jesus, son of Mary, was born in Bethlehem. They were written by a Jew by the name of Jesus ben Sirah. His book is entitled variously as Ecclesiasticus, or the Wisdom of Jesus ben Sirah, or simply as Sirach.

Now, the words of Jesus our Lord do not perfectly match the words of Jesus ben Sirah, but that is not the point. The point is that for approximately two centuries there had been a strain of Judaism that was promoting the very teaching that Jesus our Lord was seeking to destroy. There was a written document that promoted the active hatred of one’s enemies. Jesus our Lord was not making this up on the fly. His teaching had a specific audience – those Jews who were so distorting the Torah that they were actually teaching the opposite of what Moses taught. [For confirmation, see Leviticus 19:18, 33-34]

What is simultaneously fascinating, and deeply troubling, about this passage is not so much that it exists (although, that is troubling in itself), but, if the comments in the New Revised Standard Version of the Apocrypha are correct, the Jews came to reject the book from their canon, and it was certain Christians who accepted it into their canon of Scripture! This explains the title Ecclesiasticus, or “church book.” [See the introduction to Ecclesiasticus, in the Oxford edition of the NRSV, page AP 86.] That really bothers me – here we have a book that, on the whole, teaches some marvelous things about God and human nature – but that in this one instance alone is so clearly and unambiguously refuted by Jesus of Nazareth.

So, there you have it folks, I was not making this up, and I did not create a title in order to deceitfully bring you into this blog. Jesus did refute Jesus – Jesus of Nazareth our Lord clearly and with great power refuted the writings of Jesus ben Sirah. I would suggest that today we are all followers of Jesus – the question to answer is, which Jesus are we following?

Let’s ascend by climbing lower.

Book Review – Spiritual Disciplines Handbook (Adele Ahlberg Calhoun)

Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us,  revised and expanded, (Downers Grove: IVP Books, 2015), 332 pages.

It seems that there is a renewed interest in learning about and practicing “spiritual disciplines” today. That is a good thing – as a people we can never draw too close to God or have too strong of a spiritual appetite. How one goes about learning about the spiritual disciplines can possibly be problematic, however, and that is where a certain amount of discernment is critical in measuring this expanding field of Christian literature.

To be brief to the point of possible obscurity: spiritual disciplines are simply those practices which draw us closer to God. That’s it – there is no magic, no smoke and mirrors, no incantations or potions. Christians have been practicing these disciplines for millennia, most times probably not even thinking that what they were doing was a “spiritual discipline.” Practices such as prayer, fasting, Bible reading, meditation – all of these (and many, many more) are all spiritual disciplines. This is not rocket science, and no special amount of knowledge is required.

However, as with any discipline (music, painting, playing a sport, etc) it is always beneficial to learn from others who have progressed further in that discipline than we have. So, purchasing and reading books about the spiritual disciplines is not a bad thing – with one very important caveat: in evaluating books on the spiritual disciplines, it is critical to keep in mind whether the goal is to draw closer to God, or to have a better feeling about the attempt to draw closer to God!

I will illustrate that last sentence with a quote from my father. When I was a little boy I read just about everything I could about fishing for trout – especially fly fishing. Somewhat amused by my earnest endeavor, my father (who was an artist in the skill of understatement) wryly said to me one time, “Paul, I don’t think I have ever seen one trout that has read that book on how to catch trout.” His point was that there are a staggering number of books written about how to catch fish – most of which are written to catch the eye of the fisherman and to create income for the author.

Which brings me to this book on the spiritual disciplines by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun. Actually, this edition is a revised and updated edition, and I had previously owned her first edition, and enjoyed it quite a bit. I was curious how she could revise and expand it. To her credit the earlier work is largely unchanged, to her discredit she added some sections that, in my most humble opinion, have moved her book from “moving closer to God” to “feeling really good about acting super spiritual.”

Calhoun arranges her book (this one as well as the last) to follow the acronym W.O.R.S.H.I.P. That is she begins with a section on “Worship” proper, then moves on to “Open Myself to God,” “Relinquish the False Self,” “Share My Life With Others,” “Hear God’s Word,” “Incarnate the Love of Christ,” and finally “Pray.” Within each of these sections there are some instructions, observations, and practices that are real gems. And, within a number of the sections there are some practices that I believe are designed more to “catch the fisherman” than to catch the fish.

Whether she is self-conscious about the accusation of being “new agey” and that her practices might be considered more far-eastern than Christian, she repeats in a number of locations that what she is describing goes back to the earliest centuries of the church. This might be true – but just because a practice is old does not make it true or correct or a path to draw closer to God. Living in caves and sitting on poles are also ancient practices – but thankfully we have learned that sitting on poles was not necessarily a healthy practice for spiritual development. So, I genuinely question her emphasis on iconography for example, and her section of “labyrinth” prayer, which has the smell of manufacturing emotions rather than deepening the well of spirituality.

That is simply my reaction, however, and in this field of Christian literature there is a broad, almost indescribably broad, measure of what is healthy and what is not. I tend to be very conservative, and so as I read this literature my mind goes to the question, “is this practice taught or illustrated in Scripture” far more than “does this practice make me feel good.”

I do not want to cast too negative a pall on the book – her section on “Relinquishing the Self” is very good – and there are far more good sections and practices than questionable ones all throughout the book. From my own perspective, the original Handbook was much better, but that opinion and a couple of dollars will buy you a cup of coffee just about anywhere you go.

Bottom line, one qualified thumb up – but let the reader beware. I don’t think God has read many books on how to draw close to him either. After all, he wrote the best one on the market.