Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Cloistered Life

During August I spent two weeks in the Kansas City area and northern Missouri related to my work with Central Baptist Theological Seminary.  Seven of those days were at Conception Abbey, a Benedictine monastery, located on a beautiful site in the middle of rolling farmland. 

The monks pray in the Abbey Church (minor basilica) five times a day—vigils, lauds, daily Eucharist, vespers and compline.  At the center of their worship is chanting of the psalms.  We regularly joined in at least three of those times of worship daily.

For a Baptist, the worship is both alien and familiar.  The style and theological emphasis is definitely different, but the central place of Scripture brought new life to familiar texts.  Underlying the worship, however, is the commitment of the brothers to prayer and service.

This was my third time at the Abbey, but I learned a lot more this time about the life of the brothers.  Their monastic life may be immersed in contemplation, but they do not deny the world around them or ignore its needs.  In addition to their ministry of prayer, they are involved in teaching (at the Seminary College on campus), publishing, and parish ministry among other things.  All get two weeks vacation a year and some have Facebook accounts.

The life of a brother is centered in contemplation but he does not ignore the world.  He seeks a proper balance between the two.  Prayer does not lead to indifference.  In fact, true prayer leads one into involvement with the needs and people of the world.

Those of us who are immersed in the world might consider adding contemplation to our own lives as a counterbalance to the things in which we are involved.  The monks deny themselves certain things in order to devote their lives to God, but they realize they live in the world but not of the world.

The challenge for the rest of us is to understand how we can live in the world and still show our devotion to God.  Prayer is a key to such understanding.  Can we practice a life of contemplation in some way without becoming cloistered?  This is one of the challenges of the Christian life.

Thursday, August 07, 2014

A Biblical Understanding of Groups—Part 3

Only in recent years have I come to see the Doctrine of the Trinity as essential to a full understanding of community among the faithful and healthy group formation.   The interaction of Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer—Father, Son, and Spirit—in the Godhead provides fresh insight into God’s expectations for any community of believers.

In Discovering the Other: Asset-Based Approaches for Building Community Together, Cameron Harder points out that although we have been baptized in the Triune name—“Father, Son, and Holy Spirit”—we fail to acknowledge it, especially in the way that we function in community.  Harder suggests that  “God’s Trinitarian life is, at least in some ways, the source and model for our human community.” (p. 21).    This suggests some principles for building humanity community (pp. 22ff):

  • Community is built out of conversation.
  • Creative conversation is adjustment to the other.
  • Community is a web of relationships.
  • Difference is at the heart of community.
  • Struggle is normal and necessary in healthy communities.
  • Power multiplies when it is distributed.

These principles certainly apply to the development of a healthy group.  If we are aware of these principles, we will be more intentional in providing a climate in which the Spirit of God can work.


Molly Marshall expresses the process in this way in an article in the Review and Expositor journal: “When the community expresses its life as Imago Trinitatis, certain practices ensue: Generativity, Humility, Hospitality, Diversity.  . . .  Trinitarian life is shared life; it is welcoming of that which is other—even the humanity of the incarnate one.”

The example of the Trinity calls us to the highest and most productive expression of relationship.

Tuesday, August 05, 2014

A Biblical Understanding of Groups—Part Two

Although Paul was not a systemic theologian or a small group facilitator, his writing in  Ephesians 4:11-12 about the way the Spirit works to create a community of believers provides some ideas about what is necessary for a group to grow in spiritual maturity, service, and unity:

So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers,    to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” (NIV)

The various leadership roles in the life of the church have one primary purpose:  “to equip his people.”  Those who are leaders of a group invest themselves in others.  They call out the best in the group members and encourage them to stretch their boundaries as believers.  All of the leadership functions are important and contribute to group development.

The “works of service” are the ministries that believers perform.  These works grow out of one’s relationship to Christ and are not intended to earn salvation but are instead a sign that one is already “in Christ.”  These works of service may be internal to the group—serving sisters and brothers in Christ—or external acts of service to those outside the fellowship. 

Leadership and service help to build Christian community.  We are called to “unity in the faith” by sharing, learning, and service together.  As we work together, we learn more about each other, our experiences in Christ, and the One who has called us.

In this process, we are also being formed as disciples.  We receive “knowledge of the Son of God” and “become mature” as His followers.  Believers challenge and encourage one another in their journeys of discipleship.

All of these are necessary to a healthy, growing group of believers—leadership, ministry, community, and formation.

Monday, August 04, 2014

A Biblical Understanding of Groups—Part One

A person does not need a theological degree to pick up the biblical emphasis on community.  In Genesis, we read that God created humanity for fellowship with God and then created the family unit of the man and woman.  God called Abram out of Ur to father a nation of people.  The children of Israel struggled to be a people who supported one another in their devotion to God.  Christ called to himself a group of disciples so that he might share with them and begin forming them as apostles of the faith.  Through the work of the Spirit, the church—a community of the faithful--came into being after Pentecost.  Paul and his team went about the Mediterranean world planting communities of the faithful.  Finally, out of the scriptures, early Christian scholars perceived the doctrine of the Trinity, a mysterious relationship between Creator, Redeemer, and Spirit that has existed through eternity.

Therefore, it should come as not surprise that the Christian life is not meant to be a solitary pursuit.  Our vertical relationship with God finds expression in a horizontal relationship with other believers.  Although not always an easy task, we are called to learn, share, and work together as the people of God.

This ongoing work takes place in the larger fellowship of our faith community called the church, but more often in a small group setting where we can share openly.  We join together with other believers who are committed to the faith journey and learn what it means to be in fellowship with one another and with God.  This is God’s plan expressed eloquently in Ephesians 4:15-16:

“Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.  From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.” (NIV)