Landmarks on the Journey of Spiritual Formation…
I wonder whether Tonka® trucks are even still around.
I had this Tonka® front-loader when I was a kid that I played with so often that I am sure my parents were surprised when I went into ministry instead of construction. This little front-loader was great because it had a handle that extended up to the waist-level of an 8-year-old child. I could push it around easily enough, but I could also push down on the handle and in so doing, raise the front-loader so that I could pick things up. I literally had hours of fun with this thing. Suffice it to say, I was easily entertained.
I also spent virtually all my summer outside. Being part of Generation X means that I grew up in a time before hand-held digital communication was a thing. Like my contemporaries, I lived through that transition and have fully embraced the digital age, along with the millions of social media platforms that are apparently integral to modern social interaction. However, my childhood memories are of a time when people had to be together, to be together. So…we spent all summer outside.
To be a child in suburban Topeka, Kansas in the summertime also meant that you had a plastic kiddie-pool somewhere in the neighborhood. In our neighborhood, that pool was at my house. My childhood neighborhood friends and I must have spent hours and hours in that pool, when we were not driving front-loaders around the yard, of course.
In piecing all of this together, I am not sure when it occurred to me that driving the Tonka® truck through the plastic kiddie-pool was necessary for my proper psychological development. I remember that it was getting late one weeknight, which meant that the sun had set to the point that I could barely see what was going on around me, but there was still just enough light to keep me from having to come inside to take a bath. As I was diligently using my front-loader to move piles of dirt from one place to another, I saw the kiddie-pool over on the side of the driveway. It sat there, beckoning me with a temptation stronger than any siren song of Greco-Roman mythology.
As a short aside, I think that it is important to note that PK’s get a bad rap, socially speaking. So often we are portrayed as lawless rebels, ready and willing to break any and every social code because of our apparently repressed and socially-awkward upbringing. I remember over and again hearing from friends while growing up that there were apparently these long-held and fervent beliefs that: 1) my father (the minister) only worked on Sundays, and 2) my family sat around reading the bible all night long. Not that reading the bible all evening would be a bad thing…but no. All of these misconceptions miss the simple truth that most PK’s are relatively normal children (psychologically speaking) who spend a great deal of time at the church, and as a result often have an overdeveloped sense of morality.
It was this overdeveloped sense of morality that saw me marching right up to my front door that fateful evening to find out if I had permission to play in the pool before I came inside. Knowing that my time was limited, my mother told me that I did not have permission. I naturally responded by going back outside, marching right up to my kiddie-pool, and repeatedly driving my Tonka® front-loader back and forth through the middle of it.
I was standing in the middle of the driveway a few minutes later, soaked to the bone, when my mother came outside to tell me that it was time to come inside and take my bath. One look at me and she asked if I had gone into the pool, even after I had been told not to. Like every good PK with an overdeveloped sense of morality I looked right back at her, in the eyes, and promptly lied. I told her that I had absolutely no idea what she was talking about. Oh, did we have a pool? Look at that. How interesting.
Rules and laws matter, and we cannot avoid interacting with them. Whether you consider yourself to be a rule-follower (with an overdeveloped sense of morality), or a rule-breaker (with an over-inflated sense of your own importance), rules and laws significantly impact how we interact with the world around us. They govern our interactions with one another, and our relationship to ruling authorities, whatever those authorities may be.
As I prepare to begin this dialogue about practical New Covenant Christianity, I want to offer the disclaimer that rules and laws are necessary for healthy community at any level. On a micro-level, individual rules and laws set the criteria for the formation of healthy boundaries that protect us from the kinds of unhealthy attitudes and behaviors that keep us from living life, and that more abundantly so. Rules and laws also help to create standards of behavior that promote healthy relationships and healthy interactions with one another in community. Again, on a micro-level, these rules and laws help to promote healthy relationships in marriage, between parents and children, with our extended families, and with our various social groups. On a macro-level, rules and laws help to enforce standards of behavior that protect individual freedoms while protecting individuals from the actions of others that infringe upon our own rights and freedoms.
Though minimal, this perspective provides an important foundation for us as we begin a dialogue about practical New Covenant Christianity. No matter what society or culture we call home, individuals are predisposed to understand relationship through rules and laws. We are conditioned to learn, from those who raise us, what the appropriate standards of behavior are, beginning at a micro-level and continuing to a macro-level. As a people, we naturally look for laws that govern our ethics (which I would define as systems of behavior) and subsequently our interactions with one another and with the larger world that we live in.
This means that we are conditioned to naturally interpret relational ethics through the lens of rules and laws. No matter what those relationships may be (marriage, parent-child, extended family, friends, congregational, work-place) our lifelong conditioned response to the role of rules and laws in our lives predisposes us to ask ourselves (even subconsciously) what the appropriate standards of behavior are in any given relationship. No matter the relationship, we are therefore naturally going to ask ourselves:
- What are the rules?
- Why should I follow the rules?
- What happens if I follow the rules?
- What happens if I break the rules?
While I would absolutely love to spend some time discussing fidelity (promise-keeping) and the effect that healthy boundary setting has on individual and corporate meaning-fulfillment potential, the purpose of this dialogue is to engage what it means to embrace New Covenant Christianity, from a practical perspective. To do that, we have to understand the role that rules play in our lives and our propensity to look for them as a fixture by which we measure our relational interactions. Unless we do so, we will never fully understand why we (as New Covenant Christians) are so prone to regress toward the legalism that is characteristic of the Old Covenant as a substitute for the relational ethics of the New Covenant.
By way of setting a firm foundation for our dialogue, I also believe that it is important to address the importance of the Old Covenant very early in this conversation. Embracing New Covenant Christianity in no way means that the Old Covenant is, or should be, devalued. It is upon the foundation of the Old Covenant that the New Covenant is built. As we will see, there is much about the Old Covenant that the New Testament writers/teachers, including both Christ and Paul, say is very germane to life in the New Covenant. As New Covenant Christians, we affirm the place of the Old, all that God has made possible through it, and the faithfulness of our forebears who lived it.
So important is the Old Covenant to our lives as New Covenant Christians that the first half of this book will be dedicated to understanding the place of rules and laws in its administration. By discussing the place of the law in Old Covenant life, we prepare ourselves to better understand what Covenants are, why we are always so prone to revert to Old Covenant legalism, and how we can make the transition from the legalistic theology of the Old Covenant to the relational theology of the New.
The experience of growing in a relationship with God is very much like the experience of growing in any relationship. Over the centuries, many Saints have traveled this road, and more than a few have written of their experiences in the hope that doing so will help other Christians to better understand what they are experiencing as they come to know God more intimately. In 1911, Evelyn Underhill published a work titled Mysticism, in which she sought to examine the writings of many of the Saints on this topic so that she might come to discern the experiences that were common to each. Others have since built upon her work, and work on this subject matter is obviously ongoing, however the end result of this work as it exists today has been the coalescence of the experiences of many of the Saints into a chart that identifies the experiences common to each of the major seasons (or “Ways” as they are also commonly referred to) of Christian spiritual growth. This work will take a look at the seasons of spiritual growth, and how those seasons are reflected in the order of salvation. Much of what follows will be a bit academic in nature, as we work our way through concepts, theologies, and practices that lead to a deeply spiritual life.