Dynamics of Christian Spirituality - Lesson 4

Experiencing Community

The first dynamic of Christian spirituality is relational. It involves friendship with God and the experience of community.

Glen Scorgie
Dynamics of Christian Spirituality
Lesson 4
Watching Now
Experiencing Community

Experiencing Community

A. Review and Introduction

B. Openness to the other: A new inclination of the soul

1. Correcting the centrifugal tendency of sin

2. Daring to venture out of our shells

3. The hollow victory called easy-believism

C. The Spirit and the welcoming self

1. The decisive choice: Exclusion or embrace

2. Forgiveness: The blessed grace to start over

D. We grow through relationships with others

E. The Church as prototype: The mission of the Church to model restored relationships (John 13:34-35)

F. Our relationship to the rest of creation

G. Some helpful guides: Benedict (480-550), Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Miroslav Volf

H. Summary: The first dynamic of Christian spirituality is relational. It involves friendship with God and the experience of community. In this lecture we considered our horizontal relationships with others and creation. The self-giving love of God contagiously infects all those who draw close to him. They begin a regenerated journey beyond self-absorption to welcoming of others. They joyfully participate in the expanding web of relationships that grace makes possible. This divine uniting impulse, which the church is called to model, should also lead to a harmonious relationship with creation.

  • The modern way of life has left the human spirit unsatisfied. Though organized religion has been found deficient, real Spirit-uality remains God’s gracious provision for the soul-hunger of every age. We have introduced a framework for understanding such spirituality – one that highlights its three essential dynamics.

  • It is within the narrative of scripture that we continue to live and move. We are interested in the quality of spirituality that characterized the countless saints who have pursued God down through the centuries. Their legacy is not infallible, but it is instructive and potentially very helpful.

  • We were created for community, but our sin has produced alienation. By his Spirit, Christ is restoring our intimacy with God and others.

  • The first dynamic of Christian spirituality is relational— friendship with God and the experience of community.

  • We have become image-bearers who sin, and worse than that, we carry about in us a disposition to sin. The gospel is the good news that our sinful thoughts and actions can be forgiven through the atoning work of Christ. God’s Spirit, who now resides in us, is also fixing the polluted source of ours sins.

  • God’s saving plan is to change us into persons who are both holy and whole.

  • The Christian life involves connecting, becoming and doing. We discover meaning in life by aligning ourselves with God’s call to steward creation, evangelize the nations, and build his kingdom.

  • The ability to discern our personal vocation in life is important. What we do with our lives is an essential element of true spirituality.

  • Each of us should seek to live a Christ-centered, Spirit-filled life characterized all three dynamics of Christian spirituality: relational, transformational and vocational. We should conscientiously incorporate all three into our prayer lives as well.

  • Grace is not opposed to effort, but to earning (Dallas Willard). We are as spiritual as we want to be (A. W. Tozer).

  • Gain insights into the ache of yearning and the reality of Christian life, and learn about the hope of Christian spirituality, which is sustained by the power of the Spirit, the foundation of the Lord's Prayer, and the authenticity of Christian spirituality.

If you are familiar with the author's A Little Guide to Christian Spirituality: Three Dimensions of Life with God, you will have a good idea of what is in this course.

The course is designed for those who are at the beginning stages of the spiritual journey. It talks about the dynamics of spiritual growth, how to grow to be more like Christ. (10:50)



Dr. Glen Scorgie

Dynamics of Christian Spirituality


Experiencing Community

Lesson Transcript


Welcome to lecture four in our course Dynamics of Christian Spirituality-A Theology of Prayer in the Christian Life. We have been exploring, or begun to explore, the three essential dynamics; the relational, the transformational and the vocational dynamics. In our previous lecture we began a consideration of the relational dynamic, Christ with us. We recall that we were created for community but our sin has produced alienation. The good news is that by his Spirit God through Christ is restoring our intimacy with himself and with others. In our previous lecture we considered the vertical dimension of this restored relationship calling it friendship with God. And here now, in this particular lecture, we look at the horizontal dimension of relationship, our connection with one another, and have entitled this Experiencing Community. The key verse for this particular lecture is found in 1 John 4:7 in the famous and familiar words, the inspired words—Dear friends, let us love one another for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.—Let us pray. Lord, once again may the words of my mouth and the reflections of our hearts be pleasing in your sight and nourishing to our needy souls. Grant that we may experience the grace-filled gift of real community and be contributors to it. In the name of Christ, Amen. The monks at Saint Andrews Benedictine Monastery in the high desert north of Los Angeles were delighted to hear of my eminent pilgrimage to Italy. “Ah”, they said, “while you are there you must visit Subiaco”. One of the monks headed for his room and brought back a large coffee table volume full of pictures in it. “Ah, this is where our founder, Saint Benedict, lived for three years as a hermit back in the 6th Century,” he explained eagerly. “You’ll have to promise that you will see it, it is incredible.” So, a couple of months later on a sunny morning I was on a bus heading east out of Rome climbing toward a ridge of mountains that runs north-south the length of the country on route to Subiaco to fulfill my promise to the monks back in California. The bus carried us with lurching gear changes through some stunningly beautiful towns perched on cliffs. We wound around canyons and through forests until our destination came into view. From the Subiaco bus station I still had a hike ahead of me. Just beyond the built-up area of town the road began to climb steeply and switch-back style. At the base were the ruins of notorious Roman emperor Nero’s lavish summer palace. You remember he was the one who famously fiddled while Rome burned. Well, his once lavish summer palace was now a neglected patch of stones and blocks overgrown with grass and weeds. I took some comfort from the thought that Benedict’s legacy had faired much better than Nero’s. Two large active monasteries on the mountain I was now climbing and the global influence beyond what anyone could calculate. Almost 1500 years ago Benedict chose to isolate himself from human contact to pursue life with God. He decided, in other words, to become a hermit. Benedict selected a tiny cave, really just an indentation in the side of a massive mountain rock face rising hundreds of feet from a river valley below. Shepherds up above, so the stories go, would periodically drop down food to him in a basket tied to a rope. And so he existed there for three full years all alone with God. I finally made it to the top perspiring and seriously out of breath, but the view was panoramic. Benedict had a good eye for location and had chosen well and today a monastery impressively engineered to hang on the cliff’s face completely covered over the little cave itself. Unfortunately this building was already closed for the afternoon and my return bus schedule did not permit me the luxury of waiting around until it reopened. So, I chose the lesser of two evils and proceeded to bother the monks. I pressed the buzzer at the door. My trump card was, or the thing I knew, was that, you see, I had read Benedict’s rule which is the, sort of, Bible of the monastery there and I knew that it required these Benedictine monks to show hospitality to strangers. I was not disappointed. With only a slight reproachful reminder that it was not yet time for visitors, a large monk opened the wooden door and offered to show me around inside. We descended right down to Benedict’s little ledge itself. I reached out to the dark stones in the flicker of candlelight and touched the distant past. But as history also records Benedict did not stay there. After three years he concluded that life with God was best pursued in community rather than in isolation, that the monastery was superior to the hermit’s cave. You see, the experience of being loved by God and loving him back grows naturally into love for others. The relational dynamic of Christian spirituality moves horizontally as well as vertically. Benedict climbed down from Subiaco and moved further south in Italy to Monte Casino, another mountain top site and there he wrote his famous rule for those who wish to join his community and established what has become the leading center of the international Benedictine order. He testified that authentic Christian spirituality is also about experiencing community. In this particular lesson we move on, like Benedict, to our horizontal relationships, and what I hope to demonstrate is that this is not a new topic but an extension of our previous one. Love for God and love for others amount really to one thing. What unites them is the virtue of openness to the not merely me. Our personal fulfillment and destiny are found by taking our place and playing our part in a larger web of relationships. We may hesitate to move into this larger area out of fear that we may be overlooked or become to small or unimportant. But such fear is unjustified. Moving in this direction is essential to our fulfillment and joy. This next little section is entitled “No One is an Island”. We have already noted that the triune God is a relational community. Throughout eternity the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit have existed in a loving interactive unity. Eventually God created humans in his own likeness and an important aspect of this is that we are designed like God for a relationship. In the last lesson we considered how this makes it possible for us to connect with God. Now we return our attention to the way our God-like capacity for relationship plays out in human interactions and in our interface with the rest of the created order. It is God’s plan that we should experience community with others and harmony with nature. We tend to treat some people or look at some people as more relational than others. We call such folks “people persons”. To site a rather overworked classification system we think of people as extraverts or introverts. It is true that people have different comfort levels when it comes to things like hospitality or solitude. But the important thing to remember is that these are merely distinctions of temperament. God does not favor one temperament over another even though some cultures and many churches seem to do so. It is not God’s intent to change quiet, thoughtful people into gregarious, backslapping, high energy, always laughing and smiling people. As God’s image bearers we are all though designed for connection with others. Extraverts may know more people, but introverts often forge deeper and more enduring relationships. In the famous words of poet John Dunn, “No man or woman is an island”. We are meant to live our lives with a disposition of openness to others. To live this way is a key to becoming fully human. Unfortunately, there are obstacles to the fulfillment of our destiny in this matter. In the last lecture we noted some serious challenges to growing a high-quality relationship with God. We noted the chronic curvature, the inward curve of our sinful selves. We noticed the reinforcing etiology of western individualism and we also noticed the hectic busyness of modern society. All these factors work against experiencing human community as well and there is another obstructing factor to consider, the centrifugal tendency of sin. I first learned about centrifugal force as a child on a playground roundabout. It was a poorer version of a merry-go-round that consisted of a little circular platform surrounded by a low railing. By pushing hard while we ran around in a deeply worn circle on the ground, we get this roundabout going as fast as possible and then when we got it going as fast we could we would try to climb on and let it continue to go around. Once we did, it would not take long for some of us to begin to feel sick to our stomachs. Everything started to swirl in our heads and we would feel nauseous and if it got really bad we might even vomit. That increased our risks of injury too, because, you see, if we let go we would instantly find ourselves catapulted out beyond the spinning piece of equipment and into the nearby bushes. That is the way with centrifugal force, it propels objects outward from the center, and sin is like this. It separates people from one another, pushing them out from a united center in a whole bunch of isolating directions. Sexism, prejudice against people because whether they are male or female, racism, a different kind of prejudice we are all familiar with, divisions in families, breakups in marriages, unjust economic systems that divide people into different classes. Why these are just a few of sins familiar effects. Sin can potentially turn close friends into distant strangers. It creates distance instead of generating mergers. It divides and it alienates. Many expressions of our sinful nature, which the Apostle Paul lists in his epistle to the Gentiles, are relationally divisive. Among them, listen to these from Galatians 5—Hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissension’s, factions and envy. You see, the lethal potential of the unrestrained sinful self is clearly portrayed in these ominous words of the Apostle, but by contrast grace is a centripetal force, centripetal is the opposite of centrifugal. Centrifugal pushes out, centripetal moves us back toward the center, it moves in the opposite direction, it takes people divided by misunderstandings, differences and wounds from the past and draws them back together in a restored center. And the good news is that Shalom, the desire of the Jewish people throughout their long and troubled history can become reality again. I was viewing the beach front of the seminary property in Panang Malaysia, looking at rocks and coastline that had been spared the brunt of a recent tsunami wave. Timothy, the preschool child of a student couple, ran up to show me his pet tortoise, his little turtle Toby. It was obvious that Timothy felt great pride in his little turtle and deep affection for it. I took the weight of it in my hands. It was pretty enough with symmetrical markings of black, green and yellow on its shell, yet there was absolutely no movement, no indication that this turtle even had a pulse. I assumed the turtle was still alive but it was hard to tell just by looking at it. It was a solid chunk of protective plates, no feet exposed, no tail, not even a hint of a head. Everything was sealed up tight. I might as well have been holding a bowling ball. “Hum, where is he?” I asked turning the turtle all around and upside down. Timothy pointed to the underside of the beautiful dark green shell, “He is in there,” he said. “Why doesn’t he come out then?” I asked. “Oh, Toby is afraid,” my little friend explained soberly. “He doesn’t feel it is safe to come outside right now.” So, we left Toby on the ground and went off to do some other things. Sometimes we are like that turtle. We are afraid of being hurt, so we close in on ourselves. This is especially true if we have been deeply injured in the past, then it becomes doubly difficult to become vulnerable to others. The natural tendency of the wounded person is to set up protective barriers to future harm. Tragically, these barriers also prevent the restoration of our true humanity. We must find the courage to become open again to others. It is not easy. It requires an intervention of the Holy Spirit. We are needy people and we find our own needs a full-time preoccupation. It is difficult to change the default settings of our psyches, to break free of these deep-seated habits. Later that day we came back to where we had left Toby the turtle on the grass. Now he had disappeared. Evidently he had concluded that the coast was clear and it was okay for him to come out of his shell. He had gone quite a distance actually; up the hill and into the bushes before we finally tracked him down again. His impressive ability to move across the ground reminded me that all sorts of adventures are possible if we are willing to move out of our shells. You know, Jesus once was asked to identify the greatest commandment of all. You can read about this in Matthew 22. For his answer he quoted two separate Old Testament texts. First, drawing from Deuteronomy 6 he replied—Love the Lord your God with all your heart. And then he added quoting Leviticus 19—Love your neighbor as yourself. These are not two completely different and distinct commands randomly thrown together to sum up a Christian’s moral duties. No, they are actually two vectors from a single matrix and that single source is our restored ability to look beyond merely oneself. Walter Rauschenbusch, now there is a long and awkward name, was an American pastor from an immigrant German family, and his passion was for Christianity that met the needs of the soul while addressing the problems of the world. He found it very difficult, almost impossible, to get the rich comfortable people in his New York City church to feel much concern at all for those suffering in nearby slum conditions. He was frustrated about this selfish individualism that appeared to persist even sometimes especially among Christians, confessing Christians. What was the problem? These were people, he reflected, who had responded positively to the evangelical gospel offer of forgiveness of sins and the free gift of eternal life without charge. It gradually dawned on Pastor Rauschenbusch that their conversions had required from them no significant change in their basic, selfish orientation to life. In an indictment of this kind of shallow Christian faith commitment he wrote—To be afraid of hell and desirous of a life without pain or trouble in heaven is not in itself Christian, it is still self-interests simply on a higher level. Rauschenbusch believed that the essence of sin was selfishness and the only sure sign of an authentic conversion and real regeneration was a turning to God and human need. As he saw things the sense of solidarity with others is always one of the distinctive marks of the true followers of Jesus. The essence of conversion was for him to align one’s life in obedience to the loving impulses of the Spirit of God. Genuine unselfishness is indeed evidence of the supernatural at work. I have a cartoon from a magazine and in this cartoon a middle-age couple are leaving church together. “How can I love my enemies?” the husband complains as they walk toward their home. How can I love my enemies when I don’t even like my friends?” The cartoon is amusing and what the man says is funny, but it is also challenging because it comes so close to what is often the truth. The Apostle John reminds us that love comes from God; he says so in 1 John 4 verse 7. That is how it is possible to love one another; it grows out of our relationship with him, with him. You see, our souls are forever changed when they open themselves up to the life of God. It is possible, the Apostle Peter explains, for us to actually participate in the divine nature. Through persistent formation loving openness to others can become a fixed and firm disposition of our hearts. Another way of understanding this welcoming self is to consider the uniting work of the Holy Spirit. On one occasion the Apostle Paul urges the believers in Ephesus, he says “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace”. The Spirit’s mission is to create such unity among believers. His mission is to promote peace, the very same Shalom that has been so elusive in human relationships through the thousands of years. The Spirit is a divine corrective or counterbalance to the signature effects of sin. The Holy Spirit creates space in me for the other person’s needs to find a home. Miroslav Volf is a Croatian who is well acquainted growing up with the realities of human hatred and violence in his former homeland of Croatia. He has eloquently presented the options we have whenever we are faced with otherness, with someone who is different from us. And our two options he calls exclusion on the one hand and embrace on the other. Exclusion is an unflinching will to exclude and it is symbolized by having our arms tightly crossed in front of our chest and closed. The alternative, the one called embrace, involves two body movements; open arms reminiscent of Christ’s outstretched arms on the cross and the father’s welcome home of the prodigal son illustrate the desire to include. They are a sign of discontent at being myself alone. But there is also a closing of the arms around the other symbolizing both incorporation into yourself and enrichment. The one who is embraced, Miroslav Volf maintains, not only enters within the circle of my care but also becomes part of me so that he or she can enrich me with what he or she has and I do not have. This completes what Henry Nowin has described as the spirit-led movement away from hostility toward hospitality. A word about forgiveness, which is the grace to start over. We are sinners and the consequences of our sinning spread like blood in the water. Inevitably we experience its painful effects in our relationships. Whenever we hurt someone else we try to rationalize our actions and make excuses for what happened. When others hurt us we want revenge and if we give into that desire for revenge a vicious cycle of violence develops. Perhaps you have watched one of these movies like the Godfather where Mafia families destroy each other this way. We know there are tribes in different parts of the world that have annihilated themselves in this way, but it really goes beyond the Mafia and certain tribal cultures. It is actually the story of us all. And this is where forgiveness, the response Jesus modeled, must enter the picture. Forgiveness releases the guilty person, releases the culprit, in such a way that the cycle can stop. It is the blessed grace of a new relational start. It provides an opportunity to put a negative series of events into reverse, to back up and start over again in the right direction. We have been taught to pray—Forgive us our debts as we also have forgiven our debtors. Forgive, Jesus urges, just as I have forgiven you. We have to keep in mind that forgiveness is not something easily or instantly achieved, it is a slow and painful process that must be sustained with great discipline and determination over long periods of time. Jesus Christ made our willingness to forgive others a prerequisite to experiencing his forgiving grace in our own lives. Surely, he considers acceptable anyone’s sincere intent and desire to fully forgive even though a long journey may lie still between them and complete victory. Yet despite how central forgiveness is in the Christian faith, there is a lot of confusion about what it really means to forgive another person. Today two definitions compete. Let’s call the first one the therapeutic one. It recognizes the healing benefits to a victim of forgiving the perpetrator, or the wrong doing person, in the sense of finally letting it go. Therapeutic forgiving involves relinquishing all claims to future pay back or compensation. The essential thing is that the victim finally be freed to get on with their lives and to move on. Now the other understanding is restorative forgiveness and this, I think, comes closest to the Christian ideal. It aims beyond the healing of a victim to the rebuilding of relational harmony between the estranged parties. Certain conditions must be met, of course, before this goal can be fully realized and no party can just by themselves create all these necessary conditions. As a result of all this full restoration of relationship is not always possible. Still it remains the ideal toward which the initial act of forgiveness aims. Its hope is that the conditions for full trust can somehow be restored. No one can come to God and remain detached from other Christians. The New Testament is very clear on this. We were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body says 1 Corinthians 12:13. Spirit baptism initiates us into both the saving work of Christ and the community of faith. There is only one baptism and this is how it works. It is an initiation into both vertical and horizontal relational realities. A few years ago in Montreal I visited a major car show. I do not know if you have ever been to one of these. The automobile manufacturers show up to tantalize the public with shiny, fully loaded versions of their most appealing of vehicles. Consumers get to ask questions, to kick the tires and sometimes sit behind the wheel. The real show stoppers, the most popular cars on display are always the concept cars that are not yet available in car dealerships, not yet ready for market and for sale. These are stunning creations that reflect the very latest in research and development. Usually only a very few of them exist yet. It will be years before they will be in full production, but for now they represent the future. They are prototypes. Now the church is to be a prototype of the coming kingdom of God. The church is intended in the mind of God to be a countercultural community in which the members build this wonderful peace, this harmony, this shalom by showing respect and practicing things like patience, forgiveness, kindness, affirmation, understanding and inclusion. Tactics of control do not fit here. The status distinctions that contribute to traditional human hierarchies make no difference here. The unity God promises cannot be achieved by the strategies and techniques of clever human leaders. The kind of unity that we are talking about here is a gift of the Spirit that seems to defy logic. The relational dynamics within the church are supposed to be a preview, a hopeful preview of how all things will someday be when Jesus finally reigns. As we say, the church is to be ahead of the curve. It is supposed to be ahead of its time. You know it is easy especially if you are a minister to get caught up in a dream of your church as a powerful institution, large in numbers and mighty and influential in its impact on society. That kind of a vision is best promoted by hiring to lead these churches religious CEO’s, Chief Executive Officers, like in multinational corporations rather than true pastors. But, whenever we buy into that vision of the church as a powerful institution led by a religious CEO, it becomes easier to treat the members of that church as disposable means to an end. They become merely means to an end. The biblical vision of the church is far less institutional; it is much more along the lines of a spiritual community. I like the words that David Benner uses when he so winsomely reminds us spiritual communities are after all simply networks of spiritual friends. Some Christians today view the church primarily as a herald of the Gospel. Now, herald is an old word, a herald’s job in the past was to publically proclaim a message far and wide for all to hear. According to this model the church’s chief responsibility and reason for existence is to get the Gospel message out. The church is rather like the far eastern broadcasting corporation radio transmitters. If necessary though, and here is the key point, it is thought that the quality of the church’s inner life can be sacrificed for the sake of the greater good which is the distribution of its message of words, its message of good news. But this is not so. It is much more biblical to view the church as we have been discussing, as a kind of prototype, a countercultural alternative, a prototype of how God intends for people to relate to one another. God intends for the church to embody his real presence and his real presence is always a reconciling presence. One of the key ways to testify to the reality of God amongst us is to do our relationships, to conduct our relationships in a different, better way than the world does. The herald model of the church focuses on defusing information. The prototype model is committed to making the truth believable, persuasive and compelling. How we live in relationship is often more important than what we say in words. How we live together in community ought to be in itself good and hopeful news. A while ago I was sitting comfortably in my church pew. I was not preaching that Sunday, I was someone down below and my eyes were devoutly closed as I listened to the pastoral prayer. I heard the minister ask God that we might somehow learn to leave lighter footprints on his good earth. It was a nice way of saying that, a nice turn of phrase, but it also startled me. Immediately my thoughts went back over thirty years to my summer job in northern Canada. I had been hired as a sailor on a large oceangoing tugboat that was pushing pods of barges down the mighty McKenzie River of Canada toward the Arctic Ocean. And the barges were all loaded with oil exploration equipment, trucks, generators, derricks, mud boxes and miles of drill pipe for boring deep into the earth, and periodically as we floated down the river we would run the barges up against the shore and drive the machinery off to designated sites on the fragile tundra, which is what they call the very low vegetation that covers the Arctic. There these piles of equipment we left would sit until the winter when crews would fly in from the south and begin their operations of drilling for oil. I remember one day awkwardly driving a huge diesel tractor truck off the barge. It groaned under the weight of the heavy-duty equipment on its trailer. As we crawled along the pristine flats covered in tiny wild flowers and compact grass. The ground was soft above the permafrost and the tires of the truck I was driving left a trail maybe six inches deep. On the way back to the ship one of the old sailors leaned over and told me that the snake-like scars my truck had left in the ground would probably remain there as long as I lived. I had made a scar on the beautiful arctic soil that would outlast my own life. Winter returned early of course in the Arctic; it returned with flurries of snow that August and I tried to console my conscience that the deep ruts I had made would be the first to fill up white as snow. Human sin destroys not only human relations; it has also driven a wedge between us and nature. The effects of our abuse of the environment are becoming very noticeable and troubling. We are putting at risk nature’s ability to sustain the human race. As C. S. Lewis said years ago—Our supposed conquest of nature is in the end nature’s conquest of humanity. What is the solution? More than one person has observed that the global environmental crisis is ultimately a spiritual matter. A while ago I was asked to lecture on Christianity and the environment at a university in the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese are well aware that environmental destruction is a great threat to their nation’s future. So which ideological or religious option today-Communism, Confucianism, Taoism, Voodism, Christianity-which of these options, my students wanted to know, offers them the most hope for the future? Which one, they asked, has the best resources for establishing a sustainable long-term relationship to nature? There is an attitude of prejudice among secular people in the west that Christianity values human life at the expense of everything else. And so some westerners who care deeply about the planet are now seeking support from Neo-Paganism, from the virtue of harmony pursued by Taoists or the simple gentle demeanor cultivated in Buddhism. I suggested to the Chinese students that authentic Christianity is still the best hope for humanity and the natural order that sustains us, but I also admitted that not enough Christians have lived up to the best insights of their faith on these matters. The real message of the Bible is not to dominate and exploit the environment but to carefully steward the earth’s resources. God judged his creation to be very good, to be valuable and worth caring for and his plans for the future include the restoration, the renewal of the earth and being a friend of God, and that is what we want to be isn’t it, involves viewing the world the same way he does. Now, a promising feature of Christianity here is its attack on selfishness. The greedy, sinful self must be restrained first if necessary by justice in the law and then converted by grace. Its ravenous appetite for more and more and more is to be transformed by an infusion of love, the power of self-forgetful giving rooted in a valuation of the other. Scripture teaches us not to spend everything on ourselves and we are to hold the created order in trust for future generations. You know, creation is an ever-present witness to the reality and wonder of God. Avery Dulles arrived at Harvard University in 1936 as an Agnostic; he was not sure whether or not God even existed, and one gray February day he took a break from his studies in the library. He described that moment in his memoir. I was irresistibly prompted to go out into the open air. The slush of melting snow formed a deep mud along the banks of the river Charles which I followed down toward Boston. As I wandered aimlessly something impelled me to look contemplatively at a young tree. On its frail, supple branches were young buds. While my eye rested on them the thought came to me suddenly with all the strength and novelty of a revelation that these little buds in their innocence and meekness followed a rule, a law of which I as yet knew nothing. That night for the first time in years I prayed. His testimony reminds us of the revealing power of nature, its witness to its creator must not be suppressed, but nutured and sustained for natural beauty is a window that opens out onto God. Probably no Christian has modeled harmony with nature better than Francis of Assisi. Like Jesus himself he practiced a love for God so lavish that it spilled even beyond humanity to encompass everything the creator had brought into being. Perhaps we touch Francis’ spirit most closely in his Canticle of Brother Sun which reads in part as follows-Praise be my Lord God for all his creatures, especially for our brother the sun, for our sister the moon and for the stars, for our brother the wind, for our sister water, for our brother fire; praise be my Lord for our mother the earth who sustains us and keeps us and brings forth various fruits and flowers of many colors and grass. See, Francis uses the language of an interdependent family. Now this is not pantheism. This is not, in his case, nature worship at all. What he is really describing is relational intimacy with nature, an enjoyment of it, a respect for it that can and should flourish within the larger dynamic of friendship with God the creator of all. 1500 years ago Benedict, the hermit who became a monk, pointed Christians in the right direction when he figured out that our relationship with God has implications for how we relate to others. This insight was extended even further by Francis, to encompass our relationship to the created order. Together their perceptions point to an overarching truth of the spiritual life, that our relationship with God will leave some marks on us. Inevitably we will be changed by it. In the next two lessons we will consider some other transformational consequences of Christ being with us and in us. Now, some helpful guides in this matter of experiencing community. The first is Benedict who lived from 480 to 550 A.D. As a pioneer of the Christian monastic tradition Benedict developed the communal dimension of Christian spirituality. His insights were entwined in the influential rule of Saint Benedict reacting against the extreme individualism of the earlier desert fathers. Benedict saw communal dynamics of obedience, tolerance, forgiveness as essential for soul crafting. Another more contemporary helpful guide is Detrick Bonhoeffer who died in 1945. He was a brilliant young German Lutheran. He stood for the spiritual independence of the church and took an active role in the underground resistance to Adolph Hitler’s government. His opposition to the established order eventually cost him his life. Bonhoeffer portrayed Jesus Christ as the man for others. His Life Together, a brief but profound vision of Christian community, has become a modern classic. And finally I suggest as a helpful guide Miroslav Volf. He is a professor of theology now at Yale Divinity School and a leading evangelical thinker. A native of Croatia, he writes out of his own poignant firsthand experience of ethnic violence during the tragic war in former Yugoslavia and sensitive to the dynamics of alienation and hatred. He calls the church to be a reconciled and also reconciling community. His book Exclusion and Embrace has received wide acclaim. And another book he has written called Free of Charge explores giving and forgiving in a culture stripped of grace. Here is a summary of what we have covered in this lesson. The first dynamic of Christian spirituality is relational. It involves friendship with God and the experience of community. In this chapter we considered our horizontal relationships with others and creation. The self-giving love of God contagiously affects all those who draw close to him. They begin a regenerated journey that leads beyond self-absorption to welcoming others. They joyfully participate in the expanding web of relationships that grace makes possible. This God-given uniting impulse, which the church is called to model, should also lead to a harmonious relationship with creation.

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