David Benner’s Soulful Spirituality may be his best book yet–merging together a lifetime of insights into the psycho-spiritual-physical self with his personal and historical insights regarding soul care from Jesus and the spiritual masters. He brings well thought-out intellectual discussions along side of practical soulish applications for the journey.
He presents a strong (and unique?) argument for the type of community needed among Jesus followers.
“Soulful spirituality invites us to do a better job of recognizing and prizing the otherness of others rather than simply seeing them as extensions of ourselves or using them as containers for our own projections.”
“Honoring otherness is a deep and essential part of any authentic spirituality.”
Benner warns against exagerating the otherness of others and turning them into monsters or gods.
We make people monsters when we treat the “stranger as simply a container for all the parts of our self that we seek to disown. We then dump the despised and feared parts of our self into this container and view the resulting monster as wicked and dangerous.”
But neither should we make others gods, “We kneel in vulnerability before this strangely fearsome god, hoping that by acts of contrition and offerings of one sort or another we might avert the danger that the stranger represents.”
Be means of these defense mechanisms, Benner says we make others “all bad or all good” and justify keeping ourselves at a distance from others.
Benner presents a strong case for being honest and living in reality about our reluctance to relate to others. We do no one (including our own souls) when we are dishonest. “An embrace of reality always supports the life of both spirit and soul. Both thrive in the soil of acceptance of that which truly is and shrivel when we wander from a commitment to such truthful living.”
- Rationalization–we “invent good excuses to cover the real reasons.”
- Denial—we “tell ourselves (and anyone else who might inquire) that we do not, in fact, feel whatever it is that is unacceptable to us.”
- Projection “involves a more substantial distortion of the truth of our experience—attributing to others things that we cannot accept in ourselves.”
- Reaction Formation displays “a feeling that is the opposite of what we actually experience, and by so doing, further convince our self that what we wish to avoid is not part of us.”
NOTE: This is an updated post from a couple of years ago.
To be left alone or to be in community?
Hmmm, if I am honest, I too often prefer to be alone than in community. What does that say about my view of spirituality and of the character of God?
Here are some thoughts coming out of Psalm 133 in which the Psalmist clearly says that it is good and pleasant to be in community, to dwell together in unity! Jesus had a few things about this in John 13 and 17!
The kind of community described in Psalm 133 is something attractive, something that most of us (including myself) long for.
First of all, it is GOOD (tov). Think God said something about it not being good to be alone from the beginning! So, it should not surprsise me to think that he thinks it is good to be together.
But community/unity is also delightful or it is pleasant. A quick search on na’im which is the Hebrew word, gives the picture that the delight of community should be similar to the joy we have in our relationship with God when we praise Him, the delight that comes with compliments, the pleasure that wisdom and knowledge brings to our heart.
Two images–like oil and like the dew. Eugene Peterson in A Long Obedience in the Same Direction suggests that the oil communicates a “sense of warm priestly relationship. “
With this imagery, we see God’s anointing of one another–we recognize that God is (equally) at work in my brother or sister’s life. I recognize and value what God is doing in my brother and understand that this may mean speaking the truth in love to one another.
What extravagance to see oil flowing down—community as rich, sweet and fragrant. It is natural that we honor our brother/sister and rejoice when they rejoice!
Peterson suggests that dew brings an imagery of a “sense of freshness and expectant newness.” Should community not bring a thirst quenching for the soul? It is like water on hot day or rain after a drought or the hot season. This image of community provides the promise of better things to come, of blessings!
What creates community? Colossians seems to bring unity and community together well in Col 3:14 “love is what binds us all together in perfect harmony.” Yep, back to love and 1 Cor 13!
What prevents community from forming?
- Seeing others as competitors
- Seeing others as problems to fix
- Using others as a means to make me or the organization successful
What to do?
- Stop labeling others
- Stop presuming to know why people do what they do
- Take each person seriously
- Learn to trust one another other
- Depend on one other
- Be compassionate with and towards others
- Rejoice with others.
Peterson quotes Bonhoeffer,
“The Christian needs another Christian who speaks God’s word to him. He needs him again and again when he becomes uncertain and discouraged, for by himself he cannot help himself without belying the truth. He needs his brother . . . as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word . . . Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the word of his brother; his own heart is uncertain, his brother’s is sure.” Cost of Discipleship
So, if I choose solitude over community, can I understand myself? how growth occurs? what is really important to God? learn how deceived I am about my own spirituality.
What can we do to build into community around us today?
“The truth is, most of us are uncomfortable with sadness, as individuals and as churches. We want to fix people and help them to feel better, and we are far less patient than God is with the process he uses to bring healing.” That is what Nancy Guthrie says in an interview someone sent to me recently.
A few more quotes from Guthrie:
“For a church to be a safe place for sad people does not merely mean that we offer comfort and acceptance. Sometimes it means that we gently but boldly challenge misbeliefs or misunderstandings of Scripture.”
“While we make room for people to be sad, we want to walk with people in expectation that God will indeed do a work of healing in their lives so that they do not stay stuck in their sadness, but emerge from it strengthened in their confidence in God, deepened in their understanding of the Scriptures, and equipped to serve others.”
Guthrie says, “Grieving people have four primary needs that the church has a key role in addressing:
- They have intense sadness that is lonely and lingering that needs to be respected.
- They have significant questions that need to be addressed in light of Scripture.
- They have broken relationships that need to be healed and normalized.
- They have a deep desire to discover some meaning and purpose in their loss.”
Related to Guthrie’s article is one by Ajith Fernando, “To Serve is to Suffer” in which he writes, “We call our churches and Christian organizations “families,” but families are very inefficient organizations. In a healthy family, everything stops when a member has big needs. We are often not willing to extend this commitment to Christian body life.”
Fernando’s article is hard hitting for those wanting to serve but who do not want to suffer! More from Fernando,
“When people leave a church because they do not fit the program, it communicates a deadly message: that our commitment is to the work and not to the person, that our unity is primarily in the work and not in Christ and the gospel. The sad result is that Christians do not have the security of a community that will stay by them no matter what happens. They become shallow individuals, never having true fellowship and moving from group to group. Churches committed to programs can grow numerically, but they don’t nurture biblical Christians who understand the implications of belonging to the body of Christ.”
Here is a quote that is particularly painful for me to read,
“I get the strong feeling that many in the West think struggling with tiredness from overwork is evidence of disobedience to God. My contention is that it is wrong if one gets sick from overwork through drivenness and insecurity. But we may have to endure tiredness when we, like Paul, are servants of people.”
In response to Fernando’s article and shortly before her husband died, Libby Little wrote A Small Version of the Grand Narrative in which she concluded, “May the fruitful door of opportunity to embrace suffering in service, or at least embrace those who are suffering, remain open for the sake of God’s kingdom.”
Like many Christians, I talk a good game when it comes to unity. After all, Jesus prayed that we may be one just as Jesus and the Father are one (Jn 17:11, 22) and that our unity might demonstrate to the world that Jesus was sent from the Father. So far, so good. But what price am I personally willing to pay to achieve this unity? David Hayward asks ten questions that IF I AM HONEST, I cannot simply answer yes, of course. Maybe you could say that some of his questions are flawed but not all of them. Thanks David for making me think! Following are his questions:
- Do I truly believe that everyone has the right to their own beliefs or lack thereof?
- Can I respect the person, even though I may not respect their ideas?
- Do I have the capacity to recognize my own fallacies?
- Will it kill me if I were wrong?
- Am I able to hold what I believe is truth lightly in the interest of dialog?
- Can I overlook and maybe even appreciate the idiosyncrasies of others in order to hear what they have to say?
- Am I willing to discern the deeper currents rather than being distracted by the surface ripples?
- Can everyone play? In other words, will I not ostracize someone because of their beliefs or lack thereof?
- Is personal harm to others the only prohibition I am willing to make?
- Do I love all beings, and if not, am I willing?
Psalm 95 is the reading for this first week of Advent—advent—“the period of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration” of the birth of our LORD Jesus. A couple of things jump off the page at me this morning. Reading in New Living. First, the focus on community in verses 1-6: Let us sing, let us shout joyfully, let us come to him with thanksgiving, let us sing psalms of praise, let us worship and bow down, let us kneel before the LORD our God, he is our God, We are the people he watches over. I guess this should not surprise me since God entered into our world to make community possible, fellowship first with the Father, Son and Spirit and then with others who bow in worship before Him. And then there is the community of all of humanity—all of those created in his image. A confession—community is not something I do well but then again, it is also something without which I cannot live well! So how will I involve community in my advent? The fact that I am even thinking about advent is a surprise in itself since advent is almost completely neglected in the church traditions that I have grown up with as a Christian.
Although I also now see the character of the one towards whom and for whom I worship together in community, the second thing I noticed about this Psalm this morning was the latter part beginning at the end of verse 7. As I read, “If only you would listen to his voice today” my senses become alert to what follows in 7-10. “Hardened hearts, tested and tried my patience, even though they saw everything I did, hearts turned away from me, refuse to do what I tell them.” Advent calls me to reflect on my heart condition—and I suppose I need to work out a way to do this also in community?
Following is a link to the second video short from 24-7 prayer network called Prayer as Community. First a few quotes,
- Prayer is talking, living, an ongoing talk with God
- Prayer is not supposed to be cut down to prayer times. Your whole day is supposed to be a prayer. Whatever you do is supposed to happen in connection to God and in connection to what he wants you to do and in connection to your calling.
Zinzendorff said, “Unless your day is a prayer all your prayer times are for nothing.”
Reflecting on Psalm 133 this week and my NT passage for the day was Eph 4–both carrying themes of unity. Four comments about unity and fellow pilgrims in Psalm 133
- Unity is to be enjoyed–it is pleasant and wonderful. The “sensory properties of oil” (as a fragrance) “convey a sense of richness.” (Dictionary of Imagery) Images that come to mind–a team working together, a symphony playing, a finely tuned engine, a fine work of art.
- Unity is valuable–precious like anointing oil on Aaron’s beard. It is inconceivable that Aaron would be anointed priest without oil just as it is inconceivable that fellow pilgrims on the way would not be moving towards the same goal. Can we say that unity is an essential extravagance? Is it to be obtained at all costs? Well, as much as it is possible (cf Hebrews and peace)
- Unity is refreshing–dew on Mt Hermon affecting the mountains in Zion. Like a drink of cold water given to our brothers ala Mtt 25.
- Unity is a sign of the blessing of God. By this will all men know that you are my disciples. John 13, 17 This suggests that “brotherly unity is an epiphanic experience, combining calling, holiness, life and power.” Imagery 126
Of course this fits well in Eph 4:1-16. What struck me there is the essential core of unity. Not that we are all the same since there are diversities of gifts given. Yet, these gifts were given one to another so that “As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love.” Eph 4:16 New Living
And then, reading in A Guide to Prayer, an oft-mentioned quote from Bonhoeffer,
Let him who cannot be alone beware of community. He will only do harm to himself and to the community. . . If you refuse to be alone you are rejecting Christ’s call to you, and you can have no part in the community of those who are called. . . But the reverse is also true: Let him who is not in community beware of being alone. Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray. . . If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ, and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you.”
I don’t know about you but I find these words challenging. For one, I see too much disunity and how painful it is to see fellow pilgrims on the way wounding one another. Second, I recognize my tendency to withdraw and yet, I know I cannot, I must not if I want to be whole. Somehow, mysteriously, our well-being is connected one to another. Maybe this is connected with Hebrews 11:40–never did quite understand that last part of the verse??