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The Lectio Letter - Issue #69 - A Deeper Christian Maturity - Part 1 - Where does Wisdom about Christian Maturity come from?
'Think before you speak. Read before you think.'
— Fran Lebowitz
“Tradition means giving votes to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead. Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about.”
― G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy
“We may be sure that the characteristic blindness of the twentieth century - the blindness about which posterity will ask, "But how could they have thought that?" - lies where we have never suspected it... None of us can fully escape this blindness, but we shall certainly increase it, and weaken our guard against it, if we read only modern books. Where they are true they will give us truths which we half knew already. Where they are false they will aggravate the error with which we are already dangerously ill. The only palliative is to keep the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds, and this can be done only by reading old books.”
― C.S. Lewis, On the Incarnation
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C.S. Lewis wrote a, now famous, introduction to the early church father Athanasius’ work on the Incarnation. In it, he makes an argument for reading old books because if only read books written during our own lifetime we will end up with a kind of blindness.
“Every age has its own outlook. It is specially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books.”
Old books, although written in a time and often a place that is foreign to us helps us see some things clearly again. It helps us, especially within Christian writings, recognise the core of our faith which has been preserved over centuries. It also helps us see our own age with a kind of helpful distance. We see the petty things which make us anxious and we see the things our culture and age see as small but are actually deeply important.
I think Lewis’s argument can be transferred to reading books from other Christian traditions too. As I unpack in the article below, each of our Christian traditions has strengths and weaknesses. We each have adopted a certain language and perspective and that is good. But sometimes we can get stuck. The wonderful realities of faith can collapse into two dimensions and we start to wonder if this is all there really is.
But what Lewis recognises and what I am arguing for is that as we sort through the ‘meat and bones’ of resources from other ages and other traditions, there are deep truths which can enliven our Spiritual lives and our commitment to Christ.
Lewis himself recognised a deeper ‘formidable’ unity which can lurk beneath the tensions and division of Christian traditions.
We are all rightly distressed, and ashamed also, at the divisions of Christendom. But those who have always lived within the Christian fold may be too easily dispirited by them. They are bad, but such people do not know what it looks like from without. Seen from there, what is left intact despite all the divisions, still appears (as it truly is) an immensely formidable unity.
So, this is the beginning of a four-part series on seeking Christian maturity. It’s drawn from reflections I gained while reading a book written by someone outside of my own Christian tradition who gave language and perspective on maturing discipleship.
I hope you enjoy this Lectio article. Feel free to leave a comment or a question after you’ve read it, I love receiving those.
It’s turned mostly cold and stormy here in Cape Town. We are in the depths of our winter which, while it doesn’t get much colder than 9c, gets made harder by the ‘Mediterranean’ building culture of houses without central heating that expel heat. The other morning my alarm clock temperature feature showed 10.4c inside the house.
We continue ramping up for the children’s camp we are running in just over a week. You can keep up with that on our Instagram here.
Gotts Street Park, a recording-only band (they say they can’t reproduce their sound live!), from the UK, continues to put out soulful, beautifully recorded music. Here’s some of their latest;
The indie band “Unknown Mortal Orchestra” is a ‘family band’; with two brothers, one on guitar, the other on drums and their father on the saxophone. They just played at NPR’s tiny desk;
This ‘acoustic’ recording of Sharon Jones singing with a gospel choir is delightful;
One of our favourite TV shows of all time is Parks and Recreation. It started out as an “Office-ish” spin-off of a government department, then created its own enjoyable genre which became something like Brooklyn 99. We’ve watched the whole thing at least three times.
Waaay back in Issue #9 of the Lectio, I shared a guide to making Risotto that has ended up as a firm favourite in our house.
I’ve made it in a whole range of ways, but this recent one was a particular hit;
Start here with this article; “How to make Risotto without a recipe”
For specifics I used;
Chicken stock (not from cubes…the already liquid stuff; get the best you can, all the flavour comes from here)
Then I added these baby carrots.
A Deeper Christian Maturity: Part 1: Where does Wisdom about Christian Maturity come from?
A few years ago, my brother and sister-in-law bought a beautiful old house in Scotland. It stands on a hill overlooking the delightful countryside of Royal Deeside. While new builds are often similar-looking and many being built at the same time within large developments, older houses tend to have a character and charm about them that comes from being unique.
When you enter my brother and sister-in-law's home, you are greeted with a grand staircase, a high ceiling, and doors into adjoining rooms. The charm of these old houses is that they usually offer some surprises. Newer houses are often designed functionally, but older houses are often laid out in intriguing ways. You open a door expecting a room, only to find a corridor with small spaces or larger rooms jutting off it. These are not houses that were efficiently copied and pasted on a computer in a developer’s architectural office.
Welcoming people into the “Boot Room”
One of the essential elements of these old houses in Scotland is the “boot room.” Scotland is a land of snow, rain and mud underfoot for a good deal of the year, so these are entry rooms that lead you into the house itself: a place to greet, take off your wet coat and remove muddy shoes before you enter into the charm and extensiveness of the old and beautiful house itself.
A great deal of the evangelical tradition focuses on getting people in the door of faith. People have begun to pass by the grand old house. They mistake it for a ruin, expecting that it is simply a relic from the past. But evangelicalism has rightly taken up the torch of proclaiming that this house still stands and continues to welcome people to live inside it. Far from being an ageing relic of a bygone age, it offers the home our hearts have always longed for, out of the harsh elements of a cold, pain-filled world into the warmth of a life with others in Christ.
However, as evangelicalism has formed over generations into the movement that welcomes people into the house it has, in many ways, lost its ability to pass on how to live well in this house in a way that it becomes a home. In our effort to get people out of the harsh weather of life without God, we bring them into the 'boot room' but many of us have lost confidence that we can give the 'grand house tour' and we settle for life in the discipleship ‘boot room.’
We may hold Alpha courses or have discipleship programmes but once these are over we are left with little wisdom about how to move deeper into the unexplored rooms of the house. We sit instead in the boot room of faith, wondering if this old house really can offer us the warmth of a home our hearts have always longed for.
A Hunger to Move Deeper into the Home of Faith
The term “spiritual formation” has become increasingly popular in recent years. I think the reason for this is a deep dissatisfaction with the experience of growth in Christian life. I've spoken to many people who have been believers for over a decade and now feel completely stuck. The cross-pressures of a world that corrodes the enthusiasm of their younger faith leave them either disillusioned or simply going through the motions.
I've had a number of opportunities to introduce the term “spiritual formation” to others from an evangelical background and I often make the point that really "spiritual formation" is just another way of saying "discipleship.”
So why do we need another word if we already have a perfectly good, and arguably more Biblical one, like discipleship? One main reason is that we tend to overuse words to the point where they don't mean that much to us anymore. It can be easy to use words so frequently, without reflecting afresh on their meaning, that we fall into what theologian John Stackhouse articulately terms the "yeah-yeah-yeah syndrome.” The syndrome is present whenever someone begins to talk about something, we catch a few familiar keywords and then, half-listening, we fill in the blanks and move on, unchanged and unmoved.
Discipleship seems to have become one of those words. In some circles, discipleship simply means a programme, a book group, or a 5-step approach, the fruit of which fades quickly after we have been involved in it. The challenges of life in parenting, financial struggles, grief and anxiety and so much more seem untouched by these simplified introductions to a life of following Jesus, and we lose hope for real change.
Focusing Inwardly or Focusing Outwardly?
The phrase 'spiritual formation' was more commonly used by Roman Catholics until its more recent introduction into the evangelical world. Whereas evangelicals have traditionally placed their emphasis on becoming accessible (missional and activist out in the world), the contemplative stream of the Roman Catholic church has developed its understanding of discipleship in the context of monasteries.
Monasteries were meant to be missional in their own way, but they are primarily spaces that gather in a committed community to a life of prayer. Lives lived in these contexts are given over solely to the task of prayer and living in close community which creates an unusual amount of time to pay attention to what is going on inside a person and between people.
While this is an oversimplification, the claim I am making is that Monastic Catholics have paid attention to the dynamics of life with God on the inside, while evangelical Christians have paid attention to the dynamic of life for God out in the world.
I am not making a case here that we should all become Roman Catholic, far from it, but what (I am hoping) is being discovered by evangelicals when we explore spiritual formation from this other Christian tradition is that these are two sides of what it means to be a whole; a life with God for the sake of the world.
Receiving from Other Streams to Grow in Maturity
While we as evangelicals have been welcoming people into the boot room, there are other streams within Christianity who, while they may have lost their ability to welcome people into the house, have been learning how to move through the house which leads to a certain kind of maturity that we can learn from. Of course, it is important that we practise discernment and separate the ‘meat’ from the ‘bones’ of these other Christian traditions, but there is good meat to be had.
In my own discipleship, I have found reading Christian authors from other traditions profoundly helpful. I have rarely been enamoured with them to the extent of wanting to move into that tradition but their different use of language and fresh perspective on living the Christian faith have often saved me from the "yeah-yeah-yeah syndrome.”
I am afraid that many people who search for depth, maturity and wisdom are not finding it in the Christianity they have experienced. Much like the prodigal son who wants his inheritance now, many are leaving to see what life outside of the house is like, potentially destroying their lives without realising this was the home they always longed for. Similarly, there are some of us who, like the older brother in the story, have been caught up in the motions of Christian life, but have lost heart. When it comes time to really celebrate, we reject the home we've been made to live in.
The boot room is not where we are meant to live. We were made for depth and maturity, but sometimes we have not been offered the blueprint for anything but the basics of discipleship. We have been invited into the richest home ever to have been built, but we need faithful guides to help us explore the house and make our home in it. I’m hoping this renewed interest in spiritual formation is going to deepen evangelicalism in our generation to hold onto the calling of deep inner lives which continue to express themselves in love and service to God’s life out in the world.
In the next Lectio, I'm going to share some insights I have gained from a spiritual formation writer from another tradition and I hope this will give us more insight into what maturity looks like, the thing that makes this house a home.
South african wildfire Firefighters land in Canada
For all that there is to lament about the state of South Africa, after 14 years here, I cannot help but love the place and people. This spontaneous singing and dancing is just a snapshot into the beauty of the people of this land;
Iceland’s Ancient Glacial Caves
Flying from the point of view of an eagle
Bruce Springsteen won’t talk about the Fender Stratocaster | Letters of Note
I’ve been enjoying the substack newsletter called “Letters of Note” which digs up old and interesting letters. Recently, they had one where a music journalist asked Bruce Springsteen to write about the Fender Stratocaster guitar, to which he replied, '“There are two kinds of people in this world…”, an entertaining interaction even if you aren’t a guitar gearhead;
Russell Moore on Tim Keller
While I imagine I don’t agree on everything with Russell Moore, I’ve been so impressed with his writing in CT. Here are some of his reflections on Tim Keller passing, who has been a close friend to Moore.
…Untold numbers of people have similar stories. Tim would call to encourage us, even while he was undergoing chemotherapy treatments. He sent his last text to me from a hospital room while he was nearing death. He wanted to check on a prayer request I had given to our Wednesday night book club the week before.
Tim was able to care for so many of us in times of trial because he didn’t tell us what we wanted to hear, and we knew that he knew what he was talking about. His wisdom came from decades spent in the presence of Christ. He cultivated closeness with the Spirit through the Word, and as a result, he, like Jesus, so often “did not need any testimony about mankind, for he knew what was in each person” (John 2:25).
Over the past several years, Tim and I were often in conversation with unbelievers—some curious and irenic about faith, others dismissive and hostile. I remember stifling laughter when an atheist whom Tim loved and respected told a group of us that the need for transcendence could now be met with psychedelic mushrooms. I watched Tim’s eyebrow go up. I felt like White House chief of staff Leo McGarry on The West Wing when he saw President Jed Bartlet at a press conference put his hand in his pocket, smile, and look away.
Watch this, I said to myself.
In every one of those interactions, I never once saw Tim humiliate someone with arguments, even though he could easily have done so.
In a later newsletter, entitled “Who would Jesus stone” he spoke about Why a new Ugandan law threatening the death penalty for homosexuality is not an application but a rejection of biblical authority.
I am an evangelical Christian committed to the verbal inspiration of the Bible, meaning I believe that every word of it is exactly what God intended it to be, by the power of the Spirit. I am also committed to the inerrancy of the Scriptures: that the Word of God speaks truthfully. Jesus’ view of the Bible—“Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35, ESV)—settles those issues for me.
I am also a Christian who agrees with the teaching of both the Scriptures and the church—Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant, for 2,000 years—which is that marriage is a one-flesh covenant between a man and a woman and that sexual expression outside of that covenant is wrong.
And yet my repulsion at the Ugandan state violence in this law is not despite those commitments but precisely because of them.
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That’s all for now…