you are what you love (3)

This entry was posted by on Tuesday, 21 March, 2017 at

Sorry for the delay in writing up this chapter! Hopefully now we’re back on track and I’m determined to blog once a week until the book is finished. If anyone is still listening, I’d love to hear your thoughts…

This chapter reinforces and underlines the claim that we can’t simply THINK our way to new hungers and desires. What really hit home for me was the image of the author “reading Wendell Berry in Costco.” This was uncomfortably close to the bone for me. Wendell Berry has been for a long time one of my favourite authors. His Port William novels are my first love, with their gentle reflections on community, place, belonging, membership, forgiveness and grace.

But I’ve also been inspired and challenged by Berry’s essays, which most often deal with issues relating to food, farming, and the land. I’ve read his words and been intellectually persuaded of their truth, their rightness. But they have made very little difference to my own eating habits. I’ve read Wendell Berry in McDonalds and in Starbucks, noting the irony in my mind but not changing my practice. And not only Berry – I’ve gone on to read Michael Pollan’s wonderful books examining the same issues, and Barbara Kingsolver’s delightful Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. I’ve taken notes and underlined, and read quotations to my friends. My mind has been persuaded, my intellect converted… and my habits deeply and stubbornly unchanged.

So I’m fully in agreement with Smith’s claim: “You can’t just think your way to new hungers.” My hungers have been shaped and formed by years of (bad) habits and (unhealthy) practices. And they can only be reformed by new habits and practices. This is true in relation to my physical hungers, but also in relation to my spiritual hungers and desires.

Again, Smith is not dismissing the need for good and deep thinking. But “reflection should propel us into new practices that will reform our hungers.”

So once again I’m sitting in Starbucks nodding along to an author who has persuaded my mind and convinced my intellect. But if this book is going to have any deeper impact, my big question is this – what exactly are these practices and habits and disciplines which will retrain and renew my hungers and desires? I need him to be specific. I need this spelled out in small words. Pictures may help.

Well, I’m hoping later chapters will help to answer this question and paint a picture for me. But this chapter starts to answer the question first by insisting we shouldn’t look for the dramatic or sensational. The habits we will be formed by will be “the ordinary means of grace” – he mentions “Word and Table,” “the church’s worship,” “prayer and song, preaching and offering, baptism and communion.” These are the ordinary, undramatic places where God meets us and shapes us by his life-giving Spirit.

Now, I like this quite a lot. But I have a question – just as I’ve noticed that lots of intellectual knowledge of Scripture and theology doesn’t necessarily lead to deep heart-and-life-change, I’ve also noticed that many of us have repeated these ordinary practices faithfully and regularly, for years, for decades – and our desires and hungers have not necessarily been deeply transformed. So have we been doing them wrong?

Smith points to one way in which he thinks we have been approaching worship wrongly – we have placed our focus on our actions and on expressing ourselves in worship. This tends to lead to a straining for “authenticity” and freshness and novelty. Which can be exhausting. He suggests that we shift our posture so that our focus is on God’s actions as he forms us through these worship practices. Instead of striving to express ourselves, we come open and expectant to receive.

There’s something deeply encouraging and restful about this perspective. “Worship is not primarily a venue for innovative creativity but a place for discerning reception and faithful repetition.” I’m interested to see where Smith goes with this. Does this line of thinking lead naturally to a preference for old songs, written prayers, and traditional formats? He says his concern is not about “traditional” or “contemporary” but I still suspect his thoughts lean towards the former – “we inherit a form of worship that should be received as a gift” and which contains “the accumulated wisdom of the body of Christ.”

An observation – many of those I know from “low church” evangelical churches (myself included) often feel tired of the expressive paradigm, the constant straining for freshness and authenticity, the need to always find “our own words” – and we can feel very drawn to the liturgical. We are tired of paddling our own canoe and want to push into a current that is deep, and ancient, and let ourselves be carried. That sounds NICE. But many of those I know who come from “liturgical” traditions are also tired – they are tired of a repetition that came to feel dry, and formulaic, and constraining. They long for freshness, for freedom to express love for God in new ways, for variety and creativity. They feel their canoe has been drifting aimlessly, and they long for some energy and direction.

Maybe I’m misjudging where Smith is going? I’m mostly with him, but I have plenty of unresolved questions and wonderings. What do you think? We’ll let Oscar Wilde have the last word:

Do you wish to love? Use Love’s Litany, and the words will create the yearning from which the world fancies they spring.


2 Responses to “you are what you love (3)”

  1. David

    Thank you, JM, for a wonderfully written meditation on this chapter from the intriguing Dr Smith.
    Your Oscar Wilde quote reminded me of advice Pascal dished out to those who would like to have faith but find themselves saddled with an “inability to believe”.
    He told them: “You would like to attain faith and do not know the way; you would like to cure yourself of unbelief and ask the remedy for it. Learn of those who have been bound like you… Follow the way by which they began; by acting as if they believed, taking the holy water, having masses said, etc.”
    This is a little like Wilde’s advice to those who “wish to love”, to use “love’s litany” and believe that the “words will create the yearning”.
    Smith clearly believes that communal religious practice will “create the yearning” for a life of close communion with God and his people.
    He writes that “families and churches should not just be focused on informing young minds; they should be looking to form habits early on”.
    It is not just children who need this encounter with the worshipping church. In one of his deliberately provocative statements he argues “there is no sanctification without the church” because the “church is the very body of Christ, animated by the Spirit of God and composed of Spirited practices.”
    But what does this worship look like? It may benefit would-be believers to take Pascal’s advice and imitate devout churchgoers, but most of us will have friends who spent their childhoods in radically different churches and yet find no impulse to be part of a community of faith today.
    Smith writes with great echoes of the Scottish theologian James Torrance when he describes what true worship should look like: “Christian life is nothing less than an invitation to participate in the life of the Triune God… [The] triune God is both the audience and the agent of worship.”
    I highlighted these passages with relish.
    I nod in agreement when he bemoans how too often “worship is understood as fundamentally an expression of human will, a Pelagian endeavour of self-assertion” and that we are “implicitly being taught that Jesus is one more commodity available to make me happy”.
    Worship – in both high and low church culture – can be presented as a chasing after epiphanies. As a teenager I felt confusion and frustration that such ecstatic encounters were not part of my regular Sunday experience. A particularly unpleasant form of doubt can set in if the reality of revelation is assessed by experiential markers.
    We risk making personal experiences of euphoria the test of the authenticity of the Christian message. Not only is this disastrous for discipleship and a near guarantee of disappointment and disillusionment, it is unlikely to prove productive in the challenge of passing the faith on to future generations.
    Young people will find plenty of opportunities for exhilaration and entertainment outside the church. So will older folk.
    As CS Lewis put it: “I didn’t go to religion to make me happy. I always knew a bottle of Port would do that. If you want a religion to make you feel really comfortable, I certainly don’t recommend Christianity.”
    But here is something more exciting… Christianity reorientates our view of the world and our understanding of our place in it. It suggests that there are things much more exciting than increasing ones self-awareness and self-esteem. There is the chance to know God in Christ and the revelation that we are loved beyond our wildest imagining.
    A truly great worship service may or may not have guitars, microphones, organs, bongos or violins, prayer books or Powerpoint slides… What it will have is a keen faith in the reality of Jesus’ promise in Matthew 18:20, that where two or three gather “there am I with them”.
    In my 20s I realised that the epiphany here was more exciting than anything philosophy could unlock, and that an encounter with God was a glimpse of a reality more piercing than any vista that could be discovered on a Kerouac-style road journey (glorious though adventures of minds and motors are!).
    The delightful Australian theologian Ben Myers recounted a similar experience when he stumbled upon Karl Barth’s The World of God and the Word of Man: “As I read this book, the whole word suddenly appeared in a new light. Everything looked different—to quote another Bob Dylan song, ‘I got new eyes.’ By the time I reached Barth’s statement that ‘one can not speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice,’ the door to my mind had been well and truly kicked open.”
    Smith is arguing that the church doesn’t need head knowledge so much as the cultivation of new loves through sacred habits, writing: “Our sanctification – the process of becoming holy and Christ-like – is more like a Weight Watchers programme than listening to a book on tape.”
    Maybe, but a close encounter with the writings of Thomas Merton, CS Lewis, Karl Barth (or the Apostle Paul!) can do wonders in opening the imagination and the desires of the heart for meaningful worship.
    Where I have found the habits of the faith immensely helpful is that they have kept me in the church and in the life of faith where I have discovered the greatest treasures I know.
    I’m grateful for the social pressures that kept me going to church during times of dryness and doubt. I’m glad that I find it hard to sleep before reading a few verses.
    It’s in the fellowship of the church that I have found the most beautiful friendships and in the pages of the Bible that hope blazes brighter than any star’s light.
    Smith is onto something when he writes: “If the sovereign Lord has created us as creatures of habit, why should we think repetition is inimical to our spiritual growth?”
    But I don’t share too much of his worry that the quest for “sincerity and authenticity tend to generate a penchant for novelty”.
    The Spirit does make all things new, and much of Jesus’ ministry consisted of deliberate breaking of religious convention. Western Christianity is a time of crisis and transition and a renewal of wholehearted worship of the Lord in our midst could lead to revolutionary change in the structure and public expressions of the church. That would be novel, but it may be no bad thing.

  2. PJ

    I enjoyed this chapter and appreciate both David and JM’s reflections.

    JM, you wrote: “He suggests that we shift our posture so that our focus is on God’s actions as he forms us through these worship practices. Instead of striving to express ourselves, we come open and expectant to receive. There’s something deeply encouraging and restful about this perspective.”

    Yes, I think when confronted with the notion that I’ve been “doing it wrong” all these years, it’s easy to feel a guilt trip coming. I feel like Smith isn’t heaping judgement, but nudging me in the right direction.

    David, I appreciate what you say here:

    “The Spirit does make all things new, and much of Jesus’ ministry consisted of deliberate breaking of religious convention. Western Christianity is a time of crisis and transition and a renewal of wholehearted worship of the Lord in our midst could lead to revolutionary change in the structure and public expressions of the church. That would be novel, but it may be no bad thing.”

    Perhaps there is a danger that we can become sneering about anything novel or different. This is a good reminder. Still, though Jesus did break religious convention in a seanse, we can read much of his criticisms not as complete novelty per se, but reorientation to the proper way of doing things. The temple itself was never criticised by Jesus (and we know Paul continued to offer sacrifice there, Acts 21:26), rather, the issue was that the system had been corrupted (here I think of Jonathan Klawans’ writing on sacrifice). There was novelty alongside a prophetic appeal to the past. A proper understanding of worship will cause us to reassess the forms we use and given our denominational context, will no doubt feel fresh and novel if the Spirit is in it.

    Anyway, enjoying reading the reactions on here.

    I’ve written a few things over here:

    Funny, a lot of Smith’s stuff chimed with some of my current reading on and struggle with anxiety, which I didn’t expect!

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