Privatized Spirituality as a Retreat from Gospel Imperatives*

By The Right Rev. Robert W. Ihloff, D.Min., D.D.
Bishop of Maryland

A few weeks ago while listening in my car to Public Radio, the commentator declared that the 21st Century will be a century of spirituality.  I immediately picked up my ears.   What will it mean to be living in an age of spirituality?  As a lifelong student of history with a strong background in medieval studies, I am aware that the high Middle Ages are often called 'An Age of Spirituality.'  Certainly the 13th Century was one of exciting spiritual developments.  In it both Francis of Assisi and Dominic lived and worked and established their orders of friars committed to preach, teach, and work among the poor and marginalized.  Like our present day, the 13th Century was a time of extreme materialism, high anxiety, despair, and of excess.   The radio commentator was vague about how he saw the 21st being a century of spirituality, but my worst fears were realized as he continued.  He defined spirituality almost entirely in personal terms.  Individual quests for enlightenment, personal experiences of the Divine, and a growing fascination with the mystical were hallmarks of the coming age.  I felt intrigued but disconcerted.

An obvious mark of our times is spiritual hunger.  Everywhere people are searching for something to give their lives greater meaning, a peg to hang a life on, a center, something with greater reality than most of what passes for success.  Spirituality is in!  On face value, this may seem like a very positive thing for conscientious Christians.  We have found many of the things for which others are hungering:  purpose and meaning in life, and a community in which to participate, find and give comfort. If the 21st Century is a spiritual age, this will undoubtedly cause great celebration among the spiritually smug who tend to define spirituality in individualistic ways:  those who worship the Jesus of their own intimate relationship, those who privatize religion and so personalize it that it loses any connection with others or any commitment to transform this world.  Such persons will rejoice that, in the words of our Lord:  "The fields are ripe for harvesting."  To them harvesting means creating converts to their own precious and deceptively self-centered brand of spirituality.

A sense of personal relationship with our Lord is for some the essence of Christianity, and it leads to the worship of Jesus.  Therein is a subtle and very dangerous trap.  For most of its centuries, the Church has fostered the worship of Jesus and made secondary his admonition to follow.  Never once in the Gospels does Jesus suggest that we should worship him; everywhere he invites us to follow.  At the mount of Transfiguration, Jesus chides the disciples for suggesting that it might be appropriate to build shrines for him, Moses, and Elijah.  Instead, he urges them to follow him to Jerusalem.  In John, when the resurrected Lord meets Mary Magdalene in the garden, he warns her not to try to hold on to him, in a sense to worship him.  She and all the other disciples have an important task of communicating his mission in the world.   When men and women want to express their gratitude to Jesus for this healing and help, he discourages them from personal devotion and invites them into discipleship.  The appropriate way to worship Jesus is to emulate his behavior and to truly follow him.

This is not immediately obvious in the lives of many Christians, even wonderful people caught up in renewal.  In the Diocese of Maryland, we have identified evangelism as our primary priority.  Evangelism is sharing the Good News.  In that process, moments of transfiguration, where we become overpowered by a new or renewed send of God's love, are wonderfully empowering.  Yet, we do precisely what Peter, James, and John were forbidden from doing -- we take time out, build shrines, and live in them.  Too many renewed Christians have become preoccupied in savoring the joys of their transfigured moments, and even though they work to help others have such moments, they have fallen into the trap of assuming that such moments are the end of the journey.  Actually, they are food for the journey, something to empower us to persevere.  The journey continues toward Jerusalem.  Our churches are to be filling stations, places were we come when we're empty to be filled up and then move out to empty ourselves again.  Sadly, some of them are more like  tanning salons; they make us feel good, but the feeling fades rapidly and we need to return often; they provide something  -- surface, shallow and self-serving.  We too often make our churches into shrines where it is easy to get bogged down in  spiritual self-interest, preoccupied with nurturing our own spirits.

Following or Lord is necessarily a community enterprise.  "I send you to reap that for which you  did not labor; others have labored, and you have entered into their labor."  Jesus calls us into a community necessary for carrying out his ministry in the world.  We have been commissioned in Baptism and united to our Lord and to one another.  Likewise, we are nourished with the Eucharist as a community to strengthen us in the corporate work we do.  Any spirituality that forgets about the central place of community can hardly be called Christian.  Any person whose spirituality isolates him or herself from their neighbors has ceased to follow Jesus.   This sense of God relating to a community goes far back into Hebrew religion.  In Numbers we hear about the help given to Moses through the community of seventy elders, and Moses comments, "Would that all the Lord's people were prophets."  That is a prayer as timely today as it was in the time of the Exodus.  In First Corinthians, Paul reminds us that  we are all fellow workers for God, dependent on one anther's labors.  Basic to ministry and Christian faith and life is the centrality in God's design for the community of faith.

At the heart of Christian spirituality is a commitment to live in community following Jesus as lord.  Jesus has much to say about how we are to live; in fact, he seems to be far more interested in how we live than in what we believe.  This is another great sin of the church:  the primacy of belief over behavior.  To hear some people talk even in the Episcopal Church, it is clear that what is primary for them is right belief, orthodoxy, and creedal statements.  While I wouldn't want to discredit the usefulness of our intellectual debates, in the final analysis, it is what we do and don't do that determine the depth and legitimacy of our faith.  The Greeks were wrong:  to know the truth does not necessarily mean we will live by it, as any cursory glance at Christian history makes sadly apparent.

Far more shocking than his teachings about belief are our Lord's admonitions about behavior.  Many are so shocking, we tend to dismiss them out of hand.  For example, Jesus calls us to radical love of our neighbor.  We are to love others and respect them as much as we  love and respect ourselves.  We are even to love our enemies and do good to those who misuse us.  Few people have taken to heart this radical call to love others.  One who did in our own time was Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  Dr. King's commitment to non-violent social changes was rooted in the Gospel of love.  Most of us assume that force and a show of power can change people and societies.  This is the way of the world, and it has even been the way of the Churches.  Few have understood what Jesus practices and Dr. King emulated, a radical love of neighbor as a way to change hearts.  Force can bring about changed behavior for a time, but force never changes hearts.  As a result, force cannot change society.  Sooner or later a spirit of rebellion breaks out.  Love and nothing short of it changes hearts, lives, and in time societies.

I was reminded of this at what for me was a high point of the Lambeth Conference.  On the 6th of August, the Nipon Sei Ko Kai, the Church of Japan was responsible for the morning Eucharist.  The 6th is both the Feast of the Transfiguration and the anniversary of the dropping of the bomb on Hiroshima.  The Japanese bishops decided to make this a special service of mutual confession and penance for waging wars.  They invited the international community to share in owning our complicity in making war, in imperialistic policies, and in not loving our enemies or our neighbors.  They modeled the theme in remarkable ways.  Korean hymns were chosen because Japan and Korea have been enemies for centuries.  The Japanese asked forgiveness for the bombing of Pearl Harbor, for their imperialism throughout Asia, for making Asian women sex slaves, and for the atrocities committed in Japanese war camps.  How difficult these admissions must have been for a proud people.  My diocese has enjoyed a thirteen-year companion relationship with the Diocese of Tokyo, and I have  learned a thing or two about Japanese people and their culture.

Unlike other Lambeth Eucharists, the preacher for this service was not the primate or any other Japanese bishop.  A priest, the daughter of the Bishop of Singapore in the 1940's, was the preacher.  Her father had been taken prisoner by the Japanese in 1941, and was tortured in the camps.  He survived and in the process practiced such kindness toward his torturers that two of them converted to Christianity.  One was confirmed by this bishop after the war.  The preacher spoke of her father's faith and his commitment to meet violence with kindness and of the radical demands of the Gospel of love.  This service modeled in an extraordinary way the power of forgiveness.  The Japanese bishops had even made some last minute changes, having stayed up late the night before.  You see, the 6th of August was the  day after the dreadful debate and vote on human sexuality.  These bishops knew that the morning Eucharist would need to call us as a Communion to healing, forgiveness, and reconciliation.  In a sense, they did this by sacrificing this one opportunity to express their own traditions in order to accentuate what we all needed.  It was a beautiful example of putting the community and not the individual first.  What a wonderful way to celebrate the Transfiguration of our Lord by modeling transformation for the community and letting changed hearts glow with astounding radiance.

What would it take for the 21st Century to be a truly spiritual one?  Certainly modeling the kind of love Jesus modeled would be central.  To have a transforming influence, we who call ourselves Christian are going to have to give far more attention to our behavior.  This is not an admonition to greater prudishness but to love genuinely and sacrificially expressed in all aspects of our lives, including economics.  Loving neighbor as ourselves calls us to share our resources and talents with abandon.  Very few Christians seem to understand this.  We are called to travel lightly, to give generously, and to put the needs of our neighbor on the same plane as our own aspirations and needs.  Everywhere, we are tempted to acquire more and more, to hoard or squander our abundance.  If Christian spirituality is to gain any credibility and exercise the divine power at its disposal, we will need to readdress most of our economic assumptions as middle class Americans.  We will need to be pointed as we move politically -- making it clear that we do not support tax cuts, although we do support economy in government.  What we need is a government responsive to the educational, health, housing, employment, and basic human needs of all our people, a government responsive to actively helping many throughout the world to enjoy a  fairer portion of this world's goods.  A Christian approach to economics must be based on a deep spirituality, which calls for equity and justice.  Perennial talk of tax cuts and relief for the middle class is nothing more than an appeal to old-fashioned selfishness.  That such a  stance is popular among those on the religious right only demonstrates how bereft of a proper understanding of spirituality exists in the religious right.  Our deficient spirituality has been incapable of "preaching good news to the poor," an essential component of the kingdom Jesus has ushered in.  We have been incorporated into this kingdom but we haven't truly bought into its demands or its opportunities.  Is it any wonder that  so many people inside the churches as well as those outside feel a gnawing discontent and shallow happiness?

I long for the day when we will let God's power be fully incarnate in us.  We give a lot of lip service to the Spirit's presence.  I want to see the Spirit's transforming work and not just in token ways.  It is au courant to give a tip of the hat to good works among the poor, to volunteer and donate to causes, which begin to alleviate suffering.  Many of these gestures are steps in the right direction, and they help to some extent.  We might all ask ourselves:  "Is what I'm doing or giving transforming my life in some measurable way?  Is it sacrificial?"  We idolize and sentimentalize Francis of Assisi, the spiritual giant of the 13th Century.  How little we truly understand his radical love of the environment, or his radical love of the poor.  Because Francis could feel at one with all creation, he understood that in possessing nothing he possessed all things.  Many of us, on the other hand, in attempting to possess all things end up possessing nothing.  This has everything to do with Jesus' admonition about losing life and thereby gaining it.  We cannot all find sufficient strength to emulate a Francis or a Mother Teresa, but we do need to let their kind of witness create deeper dedication and more meaningful sacrifices in our own lives.  Then our loving actions will communicate the Gospel in ways all of our best sounding words have failed to do.  Our deepest spirituality will be embodied and God's love will be communicated.  God's Word made flesh is an apt description of the life of Jesus, and it can describe your life and mine to the degree that we let the Spirit of God transform us.

The major work at Lambeth was in the area of economic justice:  specifically, world debt.  We in America are just beginning to get on board with this, and there is much resistance to grappling with the issue.  We have countless excuses why we cannot adequately address economic injustice at home, let alone abroad.  Our selfish resistance is based in a deficient spirituality.  Perhaps in the 21st Century we can make the spiritual progress necessary to address issues of justice with greater integrity.  But it will cost us!  Unless we make this a priority, I fear we will make little spiritual progress.

It is beyond my scope here to imagine all the ways in which our spirituality needs to be reformed, but I would like to raise one final implication, which seems increasingly clear to me.  The Church has made an inappropriate association between "the fields are ripe for harvesting" and a need for more ordained persons.  It is a great sin that we have for centuries equated office and ministry with ordination.  Through Baptism we are each called to ministries, and some of us are called to offices, although not all of these imply ordination.  The spirit of prophecy is unleashed on the seventy who will assist Moses in leadership, and Moses decries attempts to limit this spirit.  Instead, he wishes that all the  people  might inherit this gift.

We are on an exciting threshold of a new millennium.  Many Christian writers are addressing the power of the ministry of the baptized.  So long as the ordained are seen as the professionals, lay people will be unable or unwilling to exercise their appropriate authority.  Not only have we created an unhealthy elitism, we have given the vast majority of Christians an excuse for not exercising ministry with power.  Our present situation has developed over centuries wherein the institutional Church has tended to pay more attention to its own structure than to mission.  Is it any wonder that many if not most of our parishes are consumed with maintenance rather than mission?  We maintain buildings, programs, and employ clergy and other professionals to minister primarily to those who are already among the faithful.  We attempt to maintain a high degree of comfort for those already included.  What of those outside the Church?  How much effort and money do we spend on mission, on proclamation and evangelism?  We even misuse the word "mission."  We equate it with our attempts to maintain the churches as institutions.  Mission is what we do in the world as a result of the great commission!  Mission is our response to the fact that "the fields are ripe for harvesting."  All of us are called to labor to bring in that harvest.

I sincerely hope and pray that the spirituality of the 21st Century will enable us to redefine ministry in ways which will return us to the ancient understanding of the community of the baptized.  I see many positive signs in  this direction.  My diocese is only one of many which is more pointedly defining mission and making it clear that mission is very different from maintenance, which at best supports mission and at the worst drains all energy and resources from it.  An increasing number of dioceses are in dialogue about how to make mission central and how to communicate the Christian faith in the world.  Ten of us from Maryland recently participated with the representatives from about fifty dioceses in a conference in Texas to share and coordinate this concept of mission.  Crucial for much of this thinking is the expanding role of lay leadership.  There are many ways in which lay authority and ministry can be enhanced  In Maryland we are even looking into the possibilities of training lay vicars, local Christian leaders to minister to the basic needs of their small communities.  The forecasts for the next century include a dramatic reduction in the number of clergy.  This may be in part the hand of God helping us to rethink the proper role of the ordained, since in the present too many clergy carry out ministries that at least should be shared with the laity and perhaps assumed by them.

Well, these are just some of my ruminations about the future of Christian spirituality.  What do you think?  What will you do?  How will you prepare yourselves to minister with renewed spirit?  "Look around you, and see how the fields are ripe for harvesting."


*This essay was initially prepared for and delivered to the Convention of the  Diocese of Newark, on January 29, 1999.

PROPERS:  #15 for Ministry 1
Numbers 11: 16-17, 24-29
1 Corinthians 3:5-11
John 4:31-38
Psalm 99
 
 
 


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