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Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Churches and the F-Word

The Other Side of Spiritual Disciplines

There's a certain picture that enters my mind when I think about people who profess an interest in practicing "spiritual disciplines." Even though I know this picture is incorrect, or at least wildly incomplete, it enters my mind all the same. Actually, you could think of it more as a series of snapshots: someone engaged in a solitary walk through the woods, marveling at the beauty of creation; or relaxing in comfy chair with a prayer journal, cup of coffee or tea within reach; or even, at one extreme, striking various yoga poses or experimenting with different "mindfulness" techniques.

What all these snapshots have in common is their individualized nature: You have the "spiritual" person, alone with God, communing with the divine. And there's something true about this. Spiritual disciplines, rightly understood, really do help us grow closer to God. But as Kyle David Bennett explains in Practices of Love: Spiritual Disciplines for the Life of the World, that's not all they're meant to accomplish. Kristen Deede Johnson, reviewing the book for the September issue of CT, discusses the horizontal dimension of spiritual disciplines that Bennett wants his readers to remember.

"For most of us," she writes, "spiritual disciplines are primarily about our vertical relationship with God. As we do them, according to Bennett, we are often driven most fundamentally by a desire to feel his presence more closely. And we usually practice them first and foremost as individuals, wanting to help our personal relationships with God.

"At least that's how Bennett approached his practice of spiritual disciplines until he read Isaiah 58. In this passage, God tells the Israelites that they are being selfish: While they are fasting to demonstrate their love of God, they are neglecting to love those around them. In the face of a passage so clearly emphasizing the horizontal dimensions of practices like prayer and fasting, Bennett found himself questioning his vertical approach to spiritual disciplines. Likewise, he invites us to consider our own approach—are we, like the Israelites, unwittingly being selfish as we pray, fast, and read Scripture? Have we ignored the horizontal dimensions of these practices?"

Churches and the F-Word

No, not the one you're thinking of. (Tsk, tsk.) I'm alluding, instead, to "forbearance," the theme of a new book by James Calvin Davis, aptly titled Forbearance: A Theological Ethic for a Disagreeable Church. Davis, a professor of religion at Middlebury College, argues that this concept holds the key to a more constructive handling of conflict in the church. Moreover, when practiced well, forbearance helps the church model a spirit of healthy disagreement that our roiling civic culture desperately needs. CT recently published an excerpt from the book.

"Admittedly," writes Davis, "the term 'forbearance' sounds a little antiquated. Most of us do not go around asking for or extending forbearance, unless we are talking about a bank loan. But I confess that the unusualness of the word is part of my attraction to it, because in its very utterance it represents the distinctiveness of Christian practice in the divisiveness of contemporary American culture. And while the word is not part of our normal vocabulary, it does have biblical significance that we might exploit to capture a healthier approach to disagreement."

Matt Reynolds,
Associate Editor, Books
Christianity Today
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