Is our faith a blessing or a burden? Are the practices of prayer, worship, fasting, giving, serving and studying gifts or obligations? The way a person answers these questions is very telling as to the role and value of faith in her or his life. It is continuously fascinating to me to talk to people about prayer, and to find out that the majority of Christians I know view prayer as a task rather than a joy. I know for myself that there are times that I can’t wait to get to pray — I look forward to quiet, reflective time with God (usually the first thing after I get to my office in the morning). What I experience is relief and calm, and many days it is the absolute high point. I’m not sure I could cope with much of the minutiae of the morning were I not centered and focused. I don’t feel like I “have” to spend time in prayer, but that I “get” to spend time in prayer. Too many of my colleagues feel burdened by a need to pray, and prayer time is the first thing to go when their schedules get a little hectic (which, for some, is all the time).
Now, I have to be careful when it comes to worship. I’m not talking about attending services (which often does feel more like an obligation than a blessing to me), but I’m talking about those wonderful times of spiritual fellowship where attention shifts to God — giving God thanks and praise and basking in the wonderful sense of God’s presence. This comes to me most often in smaller, more intimate circles where true community defines the gathering and the sense of unity and oneness is strong. Retreats and ongoing small group experiences offer this kind of worship more than once-a-week congregational gathering. I am not exactly sure why I don’t seek this experience more, other than the fact that I’m too lazy.
Christian service to others falls into this category as well (the too lazy category). I love mission trips and prison ministry and working in soup kitchens and shelters, but the number of times I have done it in the past couple years can be counted on the fingers of both hands. It is fascinating to me how “church work” gets in the way of “Christian service,” in my own life. I am working 70+ hours for the “church” most weeks, yet I am all-too-rarely giving aid to the poor and marginalized of our society. What’s up with that?
Fasting. What can an overweight, middle-aged, white American male say about fasting that isn’t disingenuous and defensive. I don’t do it on a regular basis, though I have experienced wonderful spiritual and physical benefits from those times in my life where I was much more disciplined and committed. Times of retreat for fasting, prayer, meditation, reading and walking have been glorious experiences. I think of them fondly and wish for them frequently, but then I don’t make them happen. Like Paul, “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” (Romans 7:15) Or maybe I’m just a big fat liar. Maybe what I really want is to do what I want when I want without having to feel guilty about it…
Giving is another tough spot. I am a soft touch. I will give to just about anything. But it has been year’s since my wife and I have had an established church home, and our giving is sporadic and all over the map. We don’t have a something to commit to. I give to literacy programs and to hunger relief and to crisis shelters. My wife is a generous giver to charities as well. We give to every church we visit, and man, do we visit a lot of churches, but our giving isn’t focused or vision-driven. We like giving, we would love to conquer our debts with an eye toward giving even more, and we are not selfish people (at least financially), but we both would like to be more mindful in our giving.
Ah, study, here is where there is no hint of duty, obligation, sacrifice or hardship. I read almost 400 books each year, and I am constantly seeking and digesting new information. I read everything — even things I know I will disagree with. I try to sample all that culture reveres, including a bunch of junk. I also spend a great deal of time with the classics, with great literature, with science, with philosophy, and with Spider-Man comics. My mind churns constantly with new ideas, old ideas, good ideas, and bad ideas. I am a study junkie, and proud of it. And this extends to the Bible as well. I dig into — and get lost in — scripture almost daily, and I love to look up original word meanings and historical and cultural contexts and think about how these things translate across time, place, and worldview to today. This is where I feel most unequivocally blessed.
How can we as congregational leaders bring joy, excitement, enthusiasm, and voracious hunger to the pursuit of spiritual disciplines in our communities of faith? How can we till the soil to help people embrace spiritual practices with passion and vitality? What might we do to transform a sense of burden into blessing? This will be one of my regular pursuits in the new year — not only for myself, but for those with which I lead and serve.