A Spirituality of ‘Boring’: Finding the Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life

In contrast to my last post, which encouraged a spirituality of adventure, now I want us to consider finding the extraordinary God in the ordinariness of everyday life.

It’s not hard to find preachers who will tell you that God wants to give you an amazing life. Of course, the discerning theologians among you will know that the truth of this all depends on your definition of ‘amazing.’ boringAuthor Michael Kelly argues in his book Boring: Finding an extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life (2013) that while it’s good to chase your dreams, and have a spirituality of adventure [see my last blog post], we also need to be careful that we don’t start finding our significance with God only in what is big, showy and exciting. Kelly’s point is that we should resist thinking that being ‘extraordinary’ (in the popular sense) is what matters to God:

What if the whole idea of “ordinary” is a myth? And what if a life of great importance isn’t found by escaping the details but embracing them? What if God actually doesn’t want you to escape from the ordinary, but to find significance and meaning inside of it?

Kelly wants us to learn to find the beauty of God and his gospel in the ordinary. Learning to do this is important for any Christian who wants to experience spiritual nourishment. Sure, you can walk the Camino trail in Spain, spend time with the Taize community in France, or go to the Hillsong conference in Sydney, but what if you could experience transcendence while cleaning your bedroom?

In Colossians 3:23 Paul tells us: “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters.” He wants the Church to be a people who do not have their hearts and minds focused on earthly things, but on things above.

This requires a kind of mindfulness. Merri Creek Anglican member Ed Cavanough recently gave a great talk about being heavenly mindful. He urged us (along with the Apostle Paul) to embrace our new lives as people who have been “raised with Christ” (Colossians 3:1) by setting our hearts and minds on “things above” (Colossians 3:2).

I loved this idea of Christianising mindfulness, so we are not just being mindful in the earthly here-and-now, but so we become mindful of God in the here-and-now.

Mindfulness has become an important practice for helping some people overcome depression and anxiety. When they struggle to move on from the difficulties they have experienced in the past, depression can set in. Mindfulness can certainly help people move their focus away from the past and onto the present.

Mindfulness is not necessarily Biblical — it is, in fact, Buddhist in origin — yet Ed did not reject mindfulness as a concept but used it to build a bridge to Paul’s idea of a ‘Godward posture’ or, as the writer of the Hebrews says, to: “keep our eyes fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12:2).

In the last couple of blog posts I have written about the problem of being religious but not spiritual (RBNS). Heavenly mindfulness is another great way of becoming spiritually nourished for people who only experience dry religion.

How, then, can we become heavenly mindful? What are some discipleship practices that can help us find God and the beauty of the gospel in the ordinary?

  • Say grace before your meals
  • Pray in the car on your way to work
  • Put a cross up in your kitchen to remind you of Jesus when you are doing the dishes
  • Read your Bible and pray each day
  • Make a point of asking your Christian friends about how their faith is going (not just about their work and family)
  • Pray for the little things as well as the big things (“God, please help me to find my keys”)
  • Practice the spiritual disciplines which help you focus on God, such as meditation, silence and fasting
  • Choose a posture of gratitude to God, which could include, each day, making yourself name ten things for which you are thankful
  • Put a Bible on your desk at work as a prompt to involve God in your decisions and interactions with colleagues (you may even want to read it!)
  • Set reminders on your phone to pray (there is a good app calledCommon Prayer for Androids and iPhones that can send reminders).

The list I have given is not meant to be prescriptive: hopefully you will think of your own approach. The point is to build systems that bring God into your everyday life.

A Spirituality of Adventure

If you consider the ways in which Western culture has radically shifted over the past century in regards to politics, economics, media, or technology, you would be sympathetic to anyone complaining of change fatigue. Institutions and individuals have found themselves tumbling in an awkward and painful period of transition.

The Western Church has lagged behind, with a confused identity: what does it mean to lose our traditional authority? As a result, we’ve grasped in the darkness with regards to worship, mission and even theology (think about all the anxiety around gender and sexuality).missional spirituality

In their 2011 book Missional Spirituality: Embodying God’s Love from the Inside Out (IVP), authors Roger Helland and Leonard Hjalmarson describe this cultural context as, “liminality … a threshold, an in-between place of ambiguity and uncertainty, disorientation and transition.”

Liminality does not have to be a threat; on the contrary, we can perceive it as an exciting opportunity. Australian mission and church specialists Michael Frost and Alan Hirsch point to Frodo in The Lord of the Rings as an inspiring example of someone responding to a higher calling and consciously stepping into disorientation. He left the comforts of The Shire, with a high chance of failure, and ventured into the mysterious and dangerous regions of Middle-earth.

But most Western people do not have the Frodo sense of adventure. Most people respond to liminality by trying to create for themselves continuity and success, safeguarding themselves against surprise or loss. Helland and Hjalmarson argue, however, that the secret of the Kingdom of God for Christians is to follow God into danger:

“Only radical commitment to God’s kingdom, as we walk in the ways of Jesus in the power of the Spirit will enable us to welcome newness and surprise as we join God on a mission to reach lost people who also experience liminality.”

In my last post I suggested that too many from our Western Christian context are Religious But Not Spiritual (RBNS). We participate in Christian religious behaviour, hold to a Christian identity, but experience constant spiritual dryness and so look to other contexts for our spiritual nourishment. Perhaps we contribute to our spiritual dryness because, instead of trusting God in the adventure, we opt for middle-class security. Helland and Hjalmarson write,

“The author of Hebrews described Abraham as going-but-not-knowing. And so it is with us. It is difficult to grasp what a mission-shaped spirituality is like while we live in such a security-focused culture. When tomorrow looks the same as today, when our world is stable and predictable, we have little need for faith.”

Let’s face it, churches that try and avoid liminality by safeguarding themselves against loss and being change-resistant, bleed a slow death. Alternatively, churches that are open to God, daily responding to his grace, allowing him to make them more Christlike, by the power of the Holy Spirit, find themselves spiritually alive. Frost and Hirsch write in The Faith of Leap (IVP, 2011):

faith of leap“When we embrace liminality – that in-between, discomforting place … and engage it head-on, we discover the truest sense of adventure. In fact … without the adventure we lose the necessary pathos by which we can truly understand the human situation and the meaning of the church.”

I am inviting you to jump off the ten metre high diving board of faith. Join a church plant team, step up into a new and challenging ministry, form friendships with marginalised people, or mentor someone. Take a risk for the Kingdom of God. This will require courage. I know that I have experienced some of my most spiritually enriching times over the past eighteen months while leading the Merri Creek Anglican church plant. I also know, however, that now that it has been eight months since we launched, it would be very easy for us to return to being comfortable Christians.

If you are RBNS, then perhaps you’ve moved too quickly to set up for yourself safety measures against change and loss? Surrender your insecurities to God, and follow him into the unpredictable and messy liminal space. You never know what kind of adventure you might have.

Religious But Not Spiritual (RBNS)

It is amazing how many Christians I know fall into the category of being ‘Religious But Not Spiritual’ (RBNS). Perhaps this is not surprising. 21st Century Western Christians often admit to a dryness of faith: we come to church, tick all the religious boxes, but don’t feel spiritually nourished. We don’t feel connected to God. We don’t feel spiritually alive – at least not when we are doing Christian activities. As a result, like parched sheep in the desert, we go looking for the water elsewhere – like Yoga.yoga

This reality of the rise of RBNS should ring some alarm bells for us, considering the simultaneous rise in popularity outside the Church of ‘Spiritual But Not Religious’ (SBNR).

In the last three years the notion of SBNR has caught the attention of sociologists and religious writers. Seven percent of all Americans describe themselves as SBNR (a higher percentage than Atheists, Episcopalians or Jews) and this seems to be a growing trend. Some SBNRs go as far as to argue that religion is an obstacle to spirituality. [Link] In Australia the percentages of SPNR are much higher. In the 2011 Australian census, 64% ticked one of the Christian denominations as their religion.  However, McCrindle Research has demonstrated that one-third of the 64% refine their answer as: “spirituality more than religion.” [Link]

The New York Times and the Huffington Post have both run a series of articles on SBNR, and in most cases, critiqued the concept as lacking substance, being un-profound, and self-centered.

Chicago based Congregational minister Rev. Lillian Daniel wrote a popular essay in the Huffington Post called ‘Spiritual But Not Religious? Please Stop Boring Me’ [Link] which sardonically cut to the bone of how cliched and un-insightful people are who describe themselves that way. The popularity of the essay caused her to expand it into a book: ‘When “Spiritual But Not Religious” Is Not Enough’ (Jericho 2013). Daniel “dreads” the predictable conversations she has with these people: they think they are so rebellious against the status quo, and unique in finding God in the sunset.

‘Spirituality,’ Daniels argues, fits too easily with individualism, hedonism and complacency. In an attempt to woo back the SBNRs, she makes the case for organised religion: “There is nothing challenging about having deep thoughts all by oneself. What is interesting is doing this work in community, where other people might call you on stuff or, heaven forbid, disagree with you. Where life with God gets rich and provocative is when you dig into a tradition that you did not invent all for yourself.”

Daniel’s line of argument has many supporters. Jesuit writer Rev. James Martin S.J., for example, bemoans the fashionable status of ’spiritual’ and the unfashionable status of ‘religious.’ [Link] While he knows full well the reasons people might stay away from organised religion (bigotry and arcane rules) it is unfair to overlook the many positives – traditions of love, forgiveness, charity, and social change led by religious leaders such as Martin Luther King and William Wilberforce.

According to Martin, the great problem with SBNR is that it assumes that faith is just between you and God. There is no one else who can speak into your situation or to challenge you if you go off track: “Religion checks my tendency to think that I am the centre of the universe, that I have all the answers, that I know better than anyone about God, and that God speaks most clearly through me.” Religious community corrects our naive individualism: God communicates through the group as well as the individual. Isaac Hecker, founder of the Catholic order, the Paulist Fathers, sums it up by saying that religion enables one to “correct and connect.”

Of course, I do want to affirm that spirituality is good. Rabbi Scott Perlo writes, “Spirituality is an individual’s direct, personal connection to God … It is spontaneous, malleable, and paradoxical. It is self-reliant, charismatic, and brilliant. Spirituality makes us feel alive.” [Link]

But Perlo also points out that spirituality is me-focused, it ignores bonds between people, and it does not know that God’s voice can be heard when spread over community and time. Spirituality lets go of the past, it might be smart but it is not wise: “Though fiery and inspiring, spirituality is, in a word, thin.” Religion, on the other hand, is thick. Religion has generations of learning and it is wise. Perhaps, religion is a little too thick, such that it “smothers spontaneity and individuality” and “struggles to see people as different from one another.”

Thus Rabbi Perlo and Rev. Martin argues that we need to be spiritual and religious. Martin writes: “Religion without spirituality becomes a dry list of dogmatic statements divorced from the life of the spirit. This is what Jesus warned against. Spirituality without religion can become a self-centred complacency divorced from the wisdom of community.” Religion and spirituality are opposites on the same plane, and our goal should be to hold the two in tension.

Christian spirituality, therefore, cannot be fully understood unless one is connected to a Christian “religious” community which shares common beliefs and disciplines. Church community is hard, but it is in the friction of inter-personal tensions that growth occurs. Presbyterian writer Bruce Reyes-Chow points out that: “in community our spirituality and our religiosity converge.” [Link] You might even hate each other, but through the processing of that hate, spirituality deepens. The Apostle Paul calls the Church a Body, where there are many parts, and no part is more important than the other. Reyes-Chow argues that: “as a Christian, it is by living with both the beauty and the brokenness of humanity that we discover who we are and who we are becoming.”

Marlise Karlin, founder of the Simplicity of Stillness Method, challenges the case for ‘spiritual’ needing ‘religious’: “Being accountable to a community doesn’t necessarily mean they will teach you reverence for humanity. How often have groups of people stood together, with a false sense of morality on their side, purely by the numbers who gathered?” [Link]

Karlin believes ‘spiritual’ and ‘religious’ people have equal access to selflessness and grace as long as they have an experience of infinite love. She believes she can guide people into the state of peace using her Stillness Method, no matter what religious affiliation they may or may not have. Therefore, she challenges Rev. James Martin and the advocates for the cause of religion, to stop being divisive and to focus on the source of truth in our hearts where we will find peace and inclusivity.

The fundamental problem I have with Karlin is her basic premise that our spiritual goal should be inner peace and inter-personal peace. While those goals are noble, they are not everything. She sidesteps, for example, the need for a moral compass, or the pursuit of justice. Like most 21st Century Western advocates of SBNR, she fails to consider that true, life-transformative spirituality might involve suffering and self-sacrifice. And, the real irony is that she argues that religious teachers like James Martin should not promote division by encouraging inter-personal and inter-institutaional correction – which is itself a corrective suggestion.

Religion needs spirituality: the Christian faith needs to be spiritually alive. So if you are a person who rolls your eyes at the thought of those pathetic Postmodern Secular SBNRs, you might want to pull the plank out of your own eye for being RBNS. The risk is you might just give up the ‘Religion’ and settle with being SBNR yourself.

A challenge I want to put to my own church, Merri Creek Anglican, is to be a Church that “Nourishes Spiritual Seekers” – and that we begin with ourselves.

 

For more on this theme, listen to a recent sermon I gave on Colossians 2:16-19 which asks, “Does God care if I do Yoga?”.