A Historical Overview of Spirituality
Welcome to lecture two in our course Dynamics of Christian Spirituality - A Theology of Prayer in the Christian Life. The topic for this second lecture is a historical overview of spirituality and our key verse for this section comes from Hebrews 12 verse 1 where we read – Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us pray. Guide us Lord in our reflections on the spiritual legacy of that great cloud of witnesses of which we are privileged to be a part. May the words of my mouth and meditation of our hearts be pleasing in your sight and nourishing to our souls. In the name of Christ we pray, Amen.
Now I have to start by explaining that as Christians we do belong to a great tradition of saints who understood and lived the very same things we are talking about here and we have the privilege of being part of this great tradition. You know some people today like the idea of creating their own unique brand of spirituality; they are radical independents. They take one attractive idea from this religion, a helpful practice from another religion and using all these pieces they patch together something that is meaningful to them. Their final product is a composition. It is a lot like what you assemble when a candy shop lets you fill your box with an assortment of your favorite chocolates. The result of this approach to spirituality may be very odd and quirky, but overall these kind of independent people are pleased, having a personally designed approach to the spiritual life is of great importance to them even more important, it seems, than whether in fact they are connecting with the real thing. But Christian spirituality is completely different. Beginning with the spiritual experience of the Old Testament saints Christian spirituality is a mighty tradition coursing like a broad river through the landscape of human history. It stretches backward and forward in time to encompass countless generations who lived out their lives before God in a rich variety of historical situations. To be a Christian in pursuit of the spiritual life means that we will float our boats on this current and go along in the direction it will be taking us. We will be caught up in something larger than just our own interests and speculations and our experiences along the way, though they may be very intensely personal and special will nonetheless be experiences that will be similar to those of other saints who have walked parallel journeys. To be a Christian is to participate in the larger story of the whole people of God. You never walk alone. Certainly we are talking about a rigid, one-size fits all approach to the spiritual life. The river of Christian spirituality is broad enough to allow for and indeed to celebrate the differences we have of temperament and inclinations, abilities and experiences; all the things that make each human being unique. Nevertheless, we as Christians share a common heritage. We all join together in certain beliefs, certain center values and uniting commitments. We are moving in the same direction. Now, our unique stories is one of the most important ways we create meaning in our lives but as Christians our personal stories are part of a much larger story of the whole people of God. Our individual life journeys are ultimately variations on common themes; they are the music, musical parts played out by the different instruments of a great and harmonious symphony. And so that is why it is important for us to just survey today this rich history of the people of God in their spirituality. And I want to propose that we divide this into two groups; first of all the biblical saints, the people in the Bible who were living this story and then all the Christians who have been part of the church since the Bible was written. So, the first group is the biblical group and the second is the historical group that comes after.
Now, to say something about the Bible’s contribution to Christian spirituality. We all need to find our place in this great biblical tale that starts with creation, God’s creation of us and then our fall into sin and then our redemption in Christ and then our final glorification toward which we are still looking. This big patter of the biblical story starts high with creation, falls down low with sin and then we slowly climb back out of that low point through our redemption and our final glorification. It is like a big V in design; it starts high, goes low, comes back high like the letter V. This is the story in which we find ourselves and the people of the Bible are people who lived in one of two sections. First, there was the Old Testament time and then there is the New Testament era. And let us consider first those saints of the Old Testament time. You can take your Bible and you will find that whole parts of the Bible are so rich in spirituality. The Book of the Psalms, the largest book in the Old Testament is sort of the hymnbook of the Old Testament saints, it is the largest window we have into the spirituality of these people and it continues to be this wonderful prayer book and resource for us even today. But you can pick just about any Bible figure great or small. Great like Moses or David or Joshua or smaller like Hannah, Samuel, Jonathan or Simian and these people, these people’s life stories are soaked with insight into the spiritual journey with God. If we take the people of the Old Testament, we can see these three dynamics of spirituality very clearly revealed. Take their connection with God in relationship. You know after they have sinned in Genesis, there is this estrangement from God, there is this alienation in their relationship with God. These used to walk in the garden with him and be in complete harmony but now there is a distance. There is a distance and yet God never turns his back on this sinful humanity. He regularly communes and fellowships with those who are open to his voice and remain in tune with his presence in ways. Early on in the Bible, for example, we read of Enoch who walked with God. We read of Abraham who was called God’s friend. We find Isaac meditating out in the field at dusk one night. We run into David, a man after God’s own heart and Elijah to whom God came in a gentle whisper. Indeed, the frequency with which God communicated to people in words and in deeds and the interaction, the relationship with him that this made possible is certainly a striking feature of the Old Testament. Biblical spirituality is highly relational. Time and time again God tried to improve or upgrade this kind of communication to relational commitments by entering into the covenants and that was difficult, that was difficult by their sinful human natures. And at one time God sadly says – These people, they honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me. And as I said nowhere is the relational dimension of Old Testament spirituality more obvious than in the Psalms, the inspired prayer book of the people of God. There the intimacy of dialogue with God is explored as nowhere else. And while history shoes the covenant people as a whole to be tragically faithless there were some happier periods when it was otherwise and always there were some saints who could identify with the passion of the Psalmist when he wrote – As the deer pants for streams of water, so my soul pants for you Oh God. Always there is a vision of a day ahead God has promised will come when in the fullest sense God says – You will be my people and I will be your God – words from the prophet Jeremiah in chapter 30 verse 22. But we see the transformational dynamic in the Old Testament as well in a yearning for transformation. The writers of the Old Testament are very aware that human nature is deeply flawed. This is a serious problem in its own right but the problem was even more serious because the God of Israel was holy in his nature. And all the religious rituals of the temple and the tabernacle before it were designed to reinforce this holiness of God and the sinfulness by contrast of the people who tried to worship him. The people knew that they were supposed to be holy as God is Holy but it was more than they could imagine or manage. The result was as Psalm 14:3 says – All have turned aside, they have together become corrupt, there is no one who does good, not even one. The law was given on Mount Sinai to restrain evil behavior. It was designed to hold back all the wickedness that could destroy their community and Israel took great pride in the law that God had given them. Still it was much easier to hear the law than to live up to its demands. Forgiveness was needed for all the sins they committed and so God provided a sacrifice system to help them with their failure to change in the direction of holiness. Some of them felt so broken by their sinfulness. The psalmist pleads in Psalm 51 for example – Create in me a pure heart oh God, renew a steadfast spirit within me. And aware that his sin was getting in the road of his relationship to God he pleads in verse 11 of Psalm 51 – Do not cast me from your presence, oh don’t take your Holy Spirit from me. Yet the problem of unchanged sinful behavior is so widespread, so standard, if you will, that the prophets looked ahead for something better. They looked for a day when God would renew the human sinful spirit they possessed. The prophet Ezekiel records God’s word of promise this way, he has God saying this in Ezekiel 36 – I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart, a tender heart of flesh. And I will put my spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees.—The Old Testament writers were aware that their sin brought more than guilt and alienation from God, it brought all kinds of pain, like Jacob who wrestled with God, they knew that sinners now walked with a limp, they were victims too. Alongside the consideration of humans as sinners the Old Testament saints also knew that they were wounded creatures who needed healing. The idea of healing pervades even the Old Testament. If his people would only repent, God promises, he will forgive their sin and he will also heal their land. And Isaiah, the great prophet, saw both dimensions of human need, the need for holiness and the need for healing in his vision of the Messiah as the suffering servant and he said this about the suffering servant, the Messiah who would come; he says it in Isaiah 53, that great Messianic chapter, he says – the punishment that brought us peace was upon him—and then he adds – and by his wounds we are healed. So not only do we have this relational theme very strong in the Old Testament, not only do we have this yearning for transformation very strong in the Old Testament, but we have God’s calling, God’s vocational hand is upon the people but they neglect it. God’s great initiative to create a people for himself begins with the call of Abraham in Genisis 12. And he brings him out of the ancient city of Ur. God promises Abraham that all peoples on earth will be blessed through you and this promise is repeated a number of times later on. Part of the calling upon the decendents of Abraham was that they would bless the earth, they would bless the people of the world by being part of his redemptive plan. Wow, they were supposed to participate in the worship of God in such a way that the whole world would see them like a city sat on a hill and find they worship and their life before God so appealing that they would come close, they would draw near to see the glory of God. But they failed in their vocation. God had to work an alternative plan. Turn to the Gentiles and use the church to accomplish his purposes. So, the Old Testament is a rich resource for us. This inspired book contains the story of some of the earliest saints as they sought to live out the relational and the transformational and the vocational dynamics for themselves.
And when we come to the New Testament we find the same thing very, very clearly played out there as well. when you think of the relational dynamic, nowhere in the New Testament is this more clearly and eloquently expressed than in the writings of the Apostle John in both his Gospel of John and in his three short epistles at the end and then in the Book of Revelation itself. So, this relational dynamic of being in communion with God through Christ, experiencing the overflow of that love from God to others, it is beautifully presented throughout the New Testament but especially through John. And as we come to the transformational dynamic in the New Testament, this wonderful truth that God is not only going to forgive our sins, but by his Spirit renew our hearts and let us experience a new birth and a new beginning. This is highlighted by many of the authors; it is certainly celebrated by the Apostle Paul in his reflections on new life in the Spirit in the Book of Romans and elsewhere. And that vocational dynamic, that sense of call that comes to us in places like the great commission of Matthew chapter 28 and the sense of being called of God to be part of his purposes which the Apostle Paul experienced on the Damascus Road and the sense of the body of Christ in Corinth all having a gift and a purpose to live for greater than themselves is all there in the New Testament. And finally before we leave the New Testament, one other, think about the life of Christ. Think about the picture of Jesus himself in the New Testament. Here is our Lord and Savior, modeling an incredible relationship with the Father. We catch a little bit of that relationship when he is baptized and comes up out the waters of the Jordan and the Father says – This is my Son whom I love, in him I am very pleased – and we just sense in that little exchange of words the wonderful relationship Christ has to the Father. We see it time and time again as he prays to the Father and retreats from the busyness of life to get alone with the Father and to hear his voice and to draw on his wisdom. Well, the transformational goal is very clear in the life and ministry of Christ. He is out to change people for good, he is out to forgive their sins, to heal their brokenness, to liberate the oppressed, he portrays himself as a doctor of the soul, he is planting seeds that will bear fruit and we see transformed lives all around him from Zacchaeus the tax collector to Mary Magdalene out of whom he has sent numerous demons, to humble fisherman who turn into eloquent missionaries and people who can debate the smartest minds in the temple; transforming lives –the work of Christ. and then we see the vocational in Jesus as he lives to do the will of the Father. He does not get bogged down too long in things that are peripheral to the central calling of his life. It is a wonderful thing to see this. Well, this is the spirituality of the people of the Bible and we will be drawing on this as the community of faith all our lives, it must be central.
Now, I wanted to say something to you about what happened after Jesus rose and the apostles all died about 100 A.D. With the passing of the apostles and the completion of the writings that eventually became the New Testament, the people of God moved into uncharted territory. One by one the original eyewitnesses of the resurrection passed away and a second generation of believers moved to center stage. They were like those the Apostle Paul had described. They had never met Jesus Christ in the body, yet they also had a meaningful relationship with him. Though you have not seen him, you love him, observed Peter, and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy; this is what he says in 1 Peter 1:8. So even after Jesus ascended up into heaven, relationship with the resurrected Christ was still possible and it was still transforming lives and so those who were changed by their encounter with Jesus went out on a mission to change the world. And by the beginnings of the fourth century the churches gains were so great that the Roman authorities reluctantly approved the new religion and the era of massive persecutions finally came to an end.
But before we go any further there, I wanted to just explain to you what we are trying to do in this chapter. You know there is a wonderful text in Ephesians chapter 3 verse 17 and 18 and it goes this way—I pray that you being rooted and established in love may have power together with all the Lord’s people to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ. Now the interesting thing about this statement is it says that you together with all God’s people, together with all the Lord’s people may be able to grasp this great love of Christ. There is a sense you see in which we need to hear from all of God’s people in order to understand in the fullest and deepest sense all that we have in Christ. And so, all God’s people who speak wisdom into our minds includes those from the past that we are reviewing in this lesson and it also includes all of those who live today, even from different traditions in churches than our own. It is the diversity of these voices past and present that is really what we mean by together with all the saints we can grasp how rich is the love of Christ. And so we want to just acknowledge the fact that the Christian faith is divided up into many groups. You may know the story that in the first thousand years or so of the Christian faith there was basically one main church, but then there was a division in about 1050 A.D. and the church split and the western side became known as the Catholic church and the eastern side became known as the Orthodox church and the Orthodox and the Catholics have never got together again completely since they had that horrible divorce in 1056 A.D. And then you may know that in the western church, the Catholic church, 500 years later there was a split in that side and the Protestant church and the Roman Catholic church divided amid a great deal of conflict and that division between the Protestants and the Roman Catholics has not been healed. And so today we have three kinds of Christians in the world, we have the eastern Orthodox tradition with its hundreds of millions of Christians, we have the Catholic Church with its hundreds and hundreds of millions of Christians and we have the Protestant kinds of Christians. And within the Protestant group within that third wing of Christianity we have countless denominations but here is the point. We do not need to agree with everything our brothers and sisters from these different traditions believe. We can be very clear on the matters where we disagree and at the same time we can learn things from them, we can benefit from them as we read prayerfully and wisely and select the good things and set aside the things that are not so helpful. That is what we are engaged in this historical overview of Christian spirituality because we want to include all the resources that are available to us.
Now, if you take the heritage of the past. If you look at all the resources that we have from the past, it is possible to kind of see three types of spiritualities emerging. One group I have called the mystics. And what I mean by the mystics are those who focus upon their relationship with God, that give priority to cultivating that experience of encounter with him that is so intense that they tend to, some degree, sometimes to neglect the other aspects of their lives. Another group I called the monks. And the monks tend to be the people who gather in community to pursue the spiritual disciplines for the purifying of their souls to the glory of God. And then there is another group I have called the mission-focus believers. Those are the ones whose top priority is to do things for God, to be obedient to his calling, to evangelize the world and to plant churches, to help people who are suffering, to be witnesses to God’s will and ways in the political sphere, to try to see laws passed that are more just and which preserve the dignity of human beings. The mission-focus people are the ones who are involved in relief work and helping people in emergencies and crises. A wonderful tradition but there tend to be these three kinds – the mystics, the monks and the mission-focused believers, and as you can see their priorities tend to correspond respectively to the relational, the transformational or the vocational goals of Christian spirituality.
Well, let’s return to our historical narrative and I will just point out some of the contributions that various Christians have made in the past. After Christ ascended, until the Roman emperor legalized Christianity, that was a period of the first three-hundred years of the church, and during that time there were tremendous periodic waves of persecution against the church and in that time of persecution many Christians died for their faith. They were martyrs for their faith. Their martyrdom and the testimony they bore for Christ before they were burned at the stake or eaten by lions or tortured to death in various ways, and these were men and women alike, some of them remarkably young and heroic. This was the deepest kind of spirituality; the spirituality that was valued the most in the early church was the spirituality of the martyr. We have some writings even today that have been preserved by these people, perhaps one of the most famous being Polycarp of Smyrna, Polycarp of the modern day city of Izmir in Turkey. It tells the story of how he willingly went to his death to be eaten by wild animals because of his love for Christ. The tradition of the martyrs continues to inspire us with the challenge to give our all for Christ and to not be afraid of pain or death if that is what it calls for to be faithful to him. So when you come across the stories of the martyrs like Polycarp of Smyrna, know that they are part of the cloud of witnesses and that they remind us of something very, very important. Now, once the emperor Constantine of Rome legalized Christianity the persecutions stopped and there were no martyrs anymore. And so the early Christians began to live in a much more comfortable and welcoming society and they began to discover how difficult it was to maintain a strong spiritual life in this atmosphere that was so comfortable and ordinary and peaceful. What would you do or how should you live not to be absorbed by the world’s standards, not to grow soft in your commitment to Christ? Well the answer that many came to was that they would retreat from the cities and practice rigorous spiritual disciplines out in the deserts of Egypt. And they were led in this direction out into the desert by a great man by the name of Anthony, Anthony of Egypt. There was a book written about Anthony that we still have today about this Saint Anthony. These people kind of replaced the martyrs, the real heroes of the faith. And they went out into the desert, the practiced fasting, they lived very simply, the minimum, and they prayed and they engaged in spiritual warfare praying. They had a spiritual authority to them; so many people would come out to them for counsel and to listen to their spiritual wisdom. But these desert fathers would, at least initially, live all by themselves and the name for those people who lived all by themselves, in relative isolation, the name is hermits. And as you know the business of being a hermit is a bit dangerous because you need other human beings to keep you emotionally and psychologically balanced, and so gradually, over time, the church decided that it would actually be healthier if these real God-seeking and desert fathers, these hermits, could gather together in some kind of a community where they would interact with one another and stay more emotionally and socially healthy. So they did. The person that helped them make that transition was more than anybody else Benedict, Benedict of Nursia in Italy. He established the Benedictine Order, he established the sort of basic house rules by which you set up a monastery and his influence has been huge. But this group leaves us with this reminder that sometimes we have to draw away from the ways of the world in order to be radicle followers of Jesus Christ. We cannot get too involved, we are pilgrims, not citizens and this is part of the inspirational legacy of the desert fathers. And yet, as they came to understand that you cannot do this in total isolation, it is reminder to us that Christian spirituality is not just about me and God, but it must be about me in community with God. There is a communal dimension. We have to be relating well to others if we hope to relate well to God. Our ability to connect with God and our ability to connect with others are very much related.
Well, our story moves us quickly into the Middle Ages and there we run into a new group of people called the mystics. What can I say about the mystics? The mystics are people who seek God through special spiritual experiences. And it is interesting that this movement of mysticism included quite a few women. Women like Hildegard of Bingen and Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich and the Spanish saint Teresa of Avila and you wonder how come so many women were involved in this tradition of mysticism. I think part of the answer is that the society did not allow the women to get very involved in public life. They could not govern countries very often or go off to war or learn at the university, they were isolated. In their isolation, in the limitations that were imposed upon them they turned toward cultivating a deep and meaningful and very rich relationship with God. Their works have come down to us as a great example of a deep connection with God. Perhaps one of the great works of this time would be Thomas àKempis's book The Imitation of Christ. Thomas àKempis lived from 1380 to 1471. His book The Imitation of Christ is probably the book most read after the Bible of all the books in the Christian tradition. One of the things that these monks and these mystics really got hold of, some of them very deeply was a deep and passionate love for God. And one of the people who wrote on this in a very special way was Bernard of Clairvaux, we still have his writings and if you ever have the opportunity to read them you will be inspired by the depth of his love for God, even as you will be inspired as you read Thomas àKempis by his passionate desire to imitate Christ. You come across, for example, from this era the work of Brother Lawrence, he lived a little later on but he was a simple man who just worked cleaning pots and pans in the dining room of the place where he lived with others. His book of The Practice of the Presence of God was his explanation of how you can do everything during the day without losing a sense of God being with you and being your communication partner.
To go back to our historical narrative we come to the 1500’s and the reformation. And one of the very significant things about the reformation was that it said basically, we are going to do spirituality differently. We are going to approach things differently. We are not going to seek God by withdrawing from the world the way the monks did, but we are going to go out into the world, we are going to get outside the monasteries and we are going to live for God in that area. Well, it was a wonderful thing to say that spirituality was not just for the clergy, not just for the monks and the nuns, but spirituality was for everyone. This was a huge thing, this was a great gain. And the other thing that the reformers did was to say we are going to provide the Bible for you. We are going to teach you how to read it and we are going to translate into a language you can understand and we are going to enable you to connect directly with God through his powerful word. So the reformers introduced a new Bible-centered emphasis in Christian spirituality. It was a wonderful step forward. Now, the problem was though, that as the reformers shut down the monasteries and moved all the Christians out into public life as soldiers and businessmen and doctors and all of this sort of thing, that it was very easy for people to get so caught up in ordinary everyday life that they squeezed the relationship with God out of their lives and they became secular. The essence of secularism is not to deny that God exists but it is rather to treat God as though he is unimportant and on the sidelines. And that was one of the tendencies, that was one of the bad things about Protestant spirituality over time.
And then a reaction to that, a new movement or a couple of movements grew up within Protestantism to try to bring people back to a more heartfelt and deeper experience of God in their Protestant lives. And the two movements I have in mind are the Pietist movement and the Puritan movement. Now the Pietists were people who were Protestants in about the 1600’s who said our faith is rightly built upon the word of God but our faith has to go deeper than knowing the doctrines that are in the Bible. Our faith has to go deeper than the teachings of the Bible, it must touch our hearts, it must be something we respond to with affection and feeling and devote ourselves to and enjoy and delight in God. And so that emotional dimension that some Protestants had lost touch with comes back strong in the writings of the Pietists. And one of them Jacob Spener wrote a book called Pies desires, Pia Desideria. This sums up this idea that the heart matters too. And over in the English speaking world a similar movement is going on among people who call themselves Puritans and their great contribution was to remember that this life is just a very short prelude to eternity and so we must be very serious about getting ready for eternity in this life and we should make it our priority to grow in our souls and grow in the holiness of our lives. They got their name Puritans from their desire to become pure. It is one of the things that really shaped the United States of America in the early years of its founding, that it was settled first by some of these Puritans.
Now, in the 1700’s God’s spirit moved across the Protestant church in a very mighty way. The historians called that movement of the spirit the Great Awakening. And the Great Awakening was led at the human level by a man by the name of John Wesley. And one of the things that was distinctive about John Wesley, who became the founder of the Methodists, was his longing to become complete and perfect just like Christ. Well, there has been a lot of debate among Christians about whether that is even possible in this life and probably it is not one-hundred percent possible in this life, but nonetheless John Wesley says whether it is possible or not we should pursue Christ’s likeness all the way and seek to attain to Christian perfection even if we cannot make it all the way. This was a very significant emphasis many people reflect the influence of John and his brother Charles Wesley and the Methodist movement. One of the other contributions of the Wesleyan movement was to say that whether a person becomes a Christian or not, whether a person grows in transforming holiness or not depends in large measure on what they decide about these matters in their wills, how they choose, what they choose, when they choose, will determine the outcomes here. And so a lot of Wesley’s preaching, a lot of the Methodist preaching appealed to people to choose right, to make decisions for God, not procrastinate, not pretend it is too hard, but to exercise their power of choice. The Calvinists and their tradition tended to say that however things turn out is largely the result of God’s sovereign choice, it is God who decides everything and the Wesleyans were saying God gives us choices and how we use our wills is going to indicate how things turn out. and so part of Wesley’s contribution to Christian spirituality is in his deep emphasis on the importance of choosing God’s way at every turn and being passionately committed to God’s way over our own and making that choice and sticking with it, a very important influence. Well, another thing that Wesley contributed that is enormously important is he introduced the idea that the Christian life is basically a two-step affair. By that I mean the Christian life has basically two key points on it. the first is when you go from being a non-Christian to a believer, you are converted, you accept Christ, you receive the gift of salvation. That is the first one Wesley said. And then there is this other point where you may attain Christian perfection. Wesley got a lot of people thinking along this line that there is something important that must happen in the Christian life after my conversion, something that is separate from that. And for a long time people called that second thing entire sanctification or Christian perfection. But gradually there were new people who came along and said that second experience is called the baptism of the Holy Spirit. And when you think of the Christian life as having two main events, and the second one is called the baptism of the Holy Spirit, you are starting to think like a Pentecostal. And indeed in 1906 when the modern day Pentecostal movement got rolling Wesley’s old model of a two-step approach to the Christian life was adopted by Pentecostals and they simple added a doctrine Wesley had not held and that was that that second step involved speaking in tongues. Well, you can see just from this brief survey how varied and rich are the resources of historic Christian spirituality.
One of the great challenges to Christian spirituality in the western countries, in the developing nations, in our globalized modern economy, one of the greatest challenges of all is secularism, for secularism squeezes spiritual life to death. And in our common fight against secularization, the destroying of real spiritual life, Christians are finding God today in different ways. Let me suggest to you five as we near the end. There are some Christians, we might call them liturgical Christians, they pay a great deal of attention to the structure of their worship services. Some of their prayers are even written out in prayer books. They pay great attention to the observing of the ordinances, or they will probably call them the sacraments, especially the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper. They find in the repetition of the basic truths of the faith in their liturgical services, they find that their spirits get re-centered on God’s truth and all of the confusion and the stress of being part of a busy work week gets re-centered on God in the quietness and the stillness of their liturgical worship experience. They think and feel that God meets them with his grace in a special way through the observance of the sacraments. You cannot be anywhere in the world where there are not at least some believers whose spirituality is of this sacramental or liturgical way. Usually evangelicals will reject this alternative altogether as unhealthy and maybe superstitious. But I would invite you to ask yourself, although I may not be able to accept it altogether and I may not believe everything they teach about the sacraments, what are some of the things I can learn from that tradition. What can I learn about stillness and silence before God? What can I learn about beauty and the healthiness of repeating important truths until they become familiar and memorized? There are things we can learn from the liturgical approach.
Now the second approach that is around today is the one that evangelical’s, conservative evangelical’s gravitate toward. It is one that prioritizes the word of God; it puts the Bible in the center as the main place where we meet the living voice of God, the pulpit where it is preached is central to our churches. The Bible study is what we do during the week in homes. The personal devotions is how you start each day or end each day with the open Bible before you seeking to hear the voice of God. Yes, there is a great strength to the evangelical tradition of a Bible-centered spirituality. What we have to be careful about is this Bible-centered spirituality must not treat the Bible as the end goal but as an inspired means to actually encounter the living God and in that relationship be transformed and called to service.
We mentioned a few moments ago a third stream of Christian spirituality, that of contemporary spirituality, that of the Pentecostals. What is the distinctive contribution of Pentecostal or charismatic spirituality today? I think that one of the great contributions that tradition makes is that it constantly reminds us that there is a supernatural dimension to authentic Christian living. There is a living God who acts in our world and we should be watching for and expecting and celebrating his supernatural touch, his supernatural influence, his supernatural involvement. We should not be so afraid of the supernatural because we want to control everything. This is part of the witness of the Pentecostal tradition. And the Pentecostal tradition is also a reminder to us that God is not weak but God is powerful and we can celebrate that.
Fourth, there is a liberal Protestant tradition that cultivates, prioritizes, ministries of compassion to people in need that works actively for justice in the world. Some people in their spirituality withdraw from the world so totally that they do not really help make it a better place, but this liberal tradition is very convinced that when you give a cup of cold water in Christ’s name you are really giving it to him. And as you serve the poor and the needy, as you do what is inconvenient and costly Christ notices and your heart is beating in sync with the heart of God and there is a kind of intimacy and fellowship with God that comes through Christ-like service that maybe cannot come in the same way, just through prayer or just through Bible reading. So there is a wonderful reminder in that tradition as well, although its weakness is sometimes that it ignores the communion with God and does not emphasize the need for personal transformation quite so much.
There is a fifth and final strand of Christian spirituality today that I would mention to you in conclusion, or almost in conclusion, and that is the emergence of the voices of the saints from the developing or third world, the two-thirds world, the majority of Christians where Christianity has not been around so long but is growing and is vibrant and represents the future. And as we survey the spirituality of people in lands that are becoming Christian, one of the common theme in the theme of suffering. The theme of how God’s power is revealed in weakness. How God’s wisdom is revealed through people who do not always have a great and extensive education. The theme that seems to emerge in these spiritualities is that God takes the ordinary and does great things and God takes the experiences of suffering to refine people’s character and to make them more Christlike and God uses that suffering to give people a supernatural authority in ministry so that it is out of the suffering that the real spiritual power is released. This is the kind of spirituality that many of the people hearing this lesson may be able to contribute to and I commend it to you.
The final observation I would make as we complete our historical overview of spirituality is that often the spiritual riches of the people of the past does not come to us through their writings but through their music. Often what we have that influences us the most comes to us through the hymns and the praise choruses and the songs of the past. We know that it is what we sing together that often forms us even more than what we hear in a sermon or in a teaching class. So let us explore the wonderful musical heritage we have. Let us find neglected things that enrich our souls and let us pay attention to what we sing together. Let us pay attention to more than whether the music sounds nice but what it says, because what we sing and sing repeatedly is the most powerful instrument for forming the spirituality of Christians.
Here then is a summary of what we have covered here in this historical overview. We flew first over the landscape of the biblical story, that great epic of creation, fall and redemption from the Garden of Eden at the beginning to the Apostle John’s vision at the end of the final victory of Jesus Christ. And it is within this biblical story, this biblical tradition that we as Christians continue to live and move. But we are also interested in the quality and variety of spiritualities that characterize, the countless saints who have followed them through the subsequent centuries. We want to know about their lives because we are still part of the tradition they established. Now their legacy is not perfect, we have to read it with wisdom and discernment. We have to listen to its music with wisdom and discernment. But it is instructive and it is potentially very helpful. And regardless of whether we are talking about missionaries or monks or mystics, whether we are talking about Pietists or Puritans, or Wesleyans or Pentecostals we discover that the basic patterns of Christian discipleship, the basic patterns of Christian spirituality stand up pretty well through time and are remarkably consistent.