Terry Shue is director of Leadership Development for Mennonite Church USA.
I woke up in a bad mood. It doesn’t happen often and I cannot easily trace back to the cause of my crotchety emotional state. It may have been thoughts swirling in my mind of the changing church, it may have been the late night and poor sleep. But this day, I wanted to sit alone in the sunroom, drink my strong, early-morning coffee by myself, alone, in silence.
There was nothing I was upset about, no one I was upset with. I was just in a grouchy mood.
I didn’t want to go anywhere or particularly talk to anyone. In fact I was feeling a bit sorry for myself and just wanted to reflectively moan a bit, in silence, alone. Get the picture? Maybe, just maybe, you can remember such a day yourself.
On most days of the week this would not have been an issue, I could have sat there and sulked alone in glorious silence, as my wife Kay leaves for work on school days by 6:30 a.m. Even if it were Saturday, I could have found the time and space I needed for my own personal pity party. But you see this was Sunday morning, and although I am not pastoring a local congregation, in my denominational role I still am a pastor at heart.
And pastors want to go to church right?
Well not always.
Knowing it was a long shot, I causally suggested to Kay that this morning might be well spent going on a hike. We’ve got to get in shape for the Camino next summer.
“We could get in a lot of great training miles and still be back before our afternoon family gathering,” was my thinly veiled attempt to hide the fact that I did not want to go to church.
That morning at our local congregation (yes my wife’s gentle wisdom won out) where we are still relatively new attenders, the negativity continued its gravitational pull. The worship leader was trying too hard to be funny and was treading perilously close to being offensive in his efforts. Though I love to sing, I didn’t know any of the songs. That doesn’t always stop me from singing, but this morning I hummed with little energy.
When the pastor started preaching, I really wanted to throw something. How dare he, as if in some divine partnership with God, speak of the benefits of coming together as a community of faith to worship, even when we would just as soon not?
Gathering in corporate worship, he reminded us, is a discipline which shapes us relationally and theologically, aiding the work of the Holy Spirit for our Christian formation.
Christian formation for me has always been a dance between the Spirit of God and the spirit, will and mind that God has given me. Being a disciple of Christ acknowledges that the transformation we long for is the result of both the work of God and the decisions we make. As the song states, “I have decided to follow Jesus …”
In our small group we are studying the book “Living in Christ’s Presence,” by Dallas Willard and John Ortberg. In the chapter titled, Importance of Christian Disciplines the authors speak of the meaning of being a disciple, a follower of Jesus. Discipleship is not something which is based on fear, shame or pride, all tactics known by us Mennonites and employed in the church at one time or another. But disciples are those believers who, offering more than fleeting hopes and attempts at a disciplined journey with Christ, are persons who are ready to do more than just try to follow Jesus.
Disciples give themselves to training their will to be a follower of Christ.
Dallas Willard gets at this when he says, “In relation to spiritual disciplines, the most helpful distinction is the difference between trying to do something and training to do something.”
Transformation in our Christian lives is not something that happens magically and dramatically as much as it is the slow dance of the Spirit of God working in and with our spirit. Thus the choices we make, the time spent here or there, have an effect on the way Christian formation develops (or not) in our lives. “To train means arranging our life around those practices that enable us to do what we cannot now do by direct effort. The point of training is to receive power, so we arrange our life around practices through which we get power,” Willard says.
I left worship that Sunday morning aware that God was at work in my life, not because I pulled my grouchy self into a church pew.
But through reflective awareness I knew that my commitment to Christ and the Church was not one of whimsical feelings, but an expression of a decision to be a follower of Jesus with others around me, together as a community, on this journey of life.
Sure, there will be other days which I will not feel like going to church or practice any of the other disciplines I do in my discipleship training. And on those days, I can only imagine that God’s dancing Spirit will again, annoyingly nudge me along. Thankfully.