catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 4, Num 16 :: 2005.09.09 — 2005.09.22


The inexpert practitioners

“Why do authors always pretend it’s so easy?” a friend of mine asked recently. She’d been studying a book on spiritual disciplines, and had been experiencing more setbacks along the way than the simplicity of the book would imply. The answer, of course, is that authors get paid to pretend to be experts. It just wouldn’t sell to say: “Maybe this will work, maybe it won’t.” It wouldn’t sell to ask people to suffer, struggle, and bleed through the growth process. No one would buy a book promising “20,000 days to a better spiritual life.”

The Bible is one of the few books that can be wholly honest and still sell, and I wonder if that isn’t because we don’t often listen to what it really has to say. There are times, certainly, when we glimpse the enormity of what Jesus asks of us in the Sermon on the Mount, and are filled with the conviction that we will do right by the law of love. But there are other times we are content to rationalize away the difficult parts, to live only by the yardstick of the American Christian lifestyle. The Bible is honest about this as well. The history of the Israelites reveals an ebb and flow in human beings’ relationship with God, from utter devotion to rejection and back again. The Bible never implies that our mountaintop moments will stretch on forever; it more honestly depicts the human heart as a regenerating organ: at one moment raw, tender, receptive, but soon growing tougher, numb, hardened. Eventually something—a tragedy, a burden, a prophetic voice, a miracle—cracks the calcified shell and it falls away, making us once again sensitive to the things of God. We move two steps forward and one step back. This is just the way of things on this side of paradise.

The question, then, is not how to stay vulnerable forever—because we will cease to function if we remain in a state of awareness of the majesty of every flower we walk by, every mouthful of food we eat, every human being we meet. The question is: How do we encounter those shattering moments often enough that we don’t forget to notice those things more than once a year? Do we have to wait around for life’s circumstances to break us open—or can we actively pursue these moments that prick our awareness and allow more of God’s light to penetrate our hearts? Can we find the courage to lay ourselves down under God’s knife? Where do we go to find these opportunities?

There is no shortage of people trying to sell you these awakening experiences. Buy this book, go to this retreat, attend this seminar, listen to this song, visit this church, enroll in this program—but whatever you do, go to the experts. Go to the people who have it down to a science, who have name recognition, who have a devoted following, who can get the job done. There was a time when this kind of consumption worked for me. I had (well, still have) all my favorite authors and singers and moviemakers lined up on a shelf, artists who revealed to me a truth about the human condition that nudged me closer to God. I could reference a list of great retreats, great sermons, and great programs that were instrumental in my spiritual development. But in nearly all these experiences, I was the passive agent. There was no give and take, no dialogue, no relationship. Although it seemed like these experts were speaking directly into my life, they really had no idea what was going on with me. They didn’t even know I existed.

Chances are, the pastor at your church is not famous. He doesn’t have millions of people hanging on his next word. But he does know you exist. He does know your name. And if you have invested yourself into the church community, she does know some of the challenges you face. If you have spent time talking with her about your spiritual life, she does know what areas to encourage you in. He knows what your spiritual goals are, and knows when you need to be shaken into awareness of them again. She knows in what areas her congregation is faltering and discouraged, and she knows to call them to repentance and regeneration. The local church is God’s answer to spiritual atrophy. Mass media might be more comfortable, where you can pick and choose the gurus who suit you, but it will always work in a random fashion. The pastor who knows you knows where to make the incision, and has the responsibility to do so. He will cut you open, slice through the toughened shell and return you to a raw and vulnerable state with God.

That’s what a church is, after all. It is people ministering to one another, whether that’s through a Sunday sermon or a small group meeting or chatting over coffee. Each of us is mentor or shepherd, inexpert as we might be. Each of us has the chance to be the voice of accountability within the community. Without a product to sell, or an incentive to pretend that growth is easy, we can invest in the real work of stirring our stagnant awareness. We can weather watching a tender and open heart grow cold once more. We can struggle to find the right words of encouragement and renewal. We can promise to be there for the long haul. The Bible is honest about this as well, as God again and again chooses the ordinary and untrained to speak his prophetic words to the people. May each of us fail to be experts to such a significant degree.

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