Too Hierarchical?

Posted in: Spirituality by bill-o on August 01, 2009

A small but growing movement of followers of Christ are beginning to form themselves into discipleship relationships known as spiritual fathers and spiritual sons. With these relationships, more mature men agree for some indefinite period of time to personally mentor and instruct less mature men, and even to provide discipline to them, in a loving and private way. These relationships usually exist outside of officially recognized church or denominational structures or organizations.

Those who favor this movement support it by saying:

  1. In the New Testament, the apostle Paul (St. Paul) called himself the father of the believers in Corinth and of Timothy. This was in spite of the fact that he apparently had had no natural children.
  2. Collections of spiritual fathers and sons demonstrate a picture (symbol) for the world around us: The relationship between God the Father and his son Jesus Christ. Yes, this can never be a perfect symbol. Yet marriage is also cited as being a symbol of the relationship between Jesus Christ and his bride, the Church. The heart-cry of the world around us is: “Show us the Father”. The invisible God cannot be seen. Yet his goodness and graciousness can be seen through spiritual fathers loving their spiritual sons.
  3. Only a trusted mentor (spiritual father) can provide loving discipline and spiritual direction to a protege (spiritual son) in a way that a committee or a formal church leader could not.
  4. When Jesus said to “call no man father”, he was only speaking of our ultimate progenitor, God the Father.
  5. The greatest issues of the world today all come down to one underlying issue: fatherlessness. What better way to address this issue than by having more mature men mentor younger men in groupings of spiritual fathers and spiritual sons.
  6. Spiritual fathers with their spiritual sons most closely matches the discipleship pattern of Jesus with his disciples. With Jesus, discipleship was not a class but a way of life. Jesus instructed his disciples gradually through time and circumstances and by living and traveling with them.
  7. Spiritual fathers with their spiritual sons is one of the most common patterns in all of human society, across all times and parts of the world.

Those who oppose or who question this movement as being too hierarchical say (and this is not an exhaustive list, by the way):

  1. “The ground is level at the foot of the Cross.”
  2. The priesthood of all believers. The New Testament only mentions one high priest, Jesus Christ. There is no ordering of leadership for this priesthood except for the headship of Jesus Christ himself.
  3. For Protestant Christians: One of the main things we were protesting about Roman Catholicism at the start of the Reformation was its hierarchy. How could we then countenance going back to anything that looks like a hierarchical system?
  4. Also for Protestant Christians: Jesus said to call no man father. So how can we have “spiritual fathers” or anything else like that?
  5. For Catholic and Orthodox Christians: We already have officially recognized spiritual fathers and they are our priests. Anyone else who calls themselves a spiritual father is clearly outside the teaching of the true Church.
  6. God has already designed natural, intact families for this purpose. Natural fathers should, where appropriate, provide spiritual care in their households for their children. After that, formal church structures should provide a measure of spiritual discipline.
  7. Spiritual fathers could abuse their positions of spiritual authority over their spiritual sons.
  8. God expresses himself through all of his children. How can any one of them be greater than any other?
  9. This movement is, on its face, anti-feminine because it only speaks of the male gender: fathers and sons.
  10. We need no earthly spiritual father because God the Father can now deal with each of us directly, including as per disciplinary issues.

Is this a movement that is too hierarchical or is it both a natural expression of human communities and of Christian theology?

I invite your comments.

How Do Plants Survive at Night?

Posted in: Science and Nature,Spirituality by bill-o on August 22, 2008

I believe that simple questions about science and nature can be points of reflection for us. These points of reflection can then lead to deeper questions about life and its meaning. In this way, the familiar leads to the unfamiliar; the natural to the spiritual.

A simple question about the natural world had puzzled me until recently: How do plants survive at night? Most of us know about photosynthesis: the amazing process by which green plants and trees use sunlight energy to survive and grow. Yet, for those of us who forgot the section about plants in biology class, plants also undertake the act of respiration, just as we do. With respiration (“breathing”), plants take in oxygen and release carbon dioxide. Because plants “breathe”, they can survive at night and in the winter (for those trees that shed their leaves each autumn).

Yet, there is still a little more to this story. Through photosynthesis, plants manufacture sugar. Many of these sugars become the main building blocks of the plant. They give the plant its overall structure and form. What is most interesting for us here is that plants make enough sugar from sunlight to tide themselves over during the nighttime and during dark, cloudy days. The sugar can be stored away as a starch and then converted back to sugar, as is necessary. Ultimately, the energy that is stored in the sugar is needed for respiration.

I would propose to you here that this natural process can serve as an example for our spiritual lives. We are like the plants and the light is like God’s touch upon our lives. Specifically, light may represent wisdom, insight, guidance, and revelation. This light represents the “Springtime seasons” of our lives, our “good days”. The nighttime and winter represent our difficult “desert” or “wilderness” spiritual experiences. At its most difficult, this can even be the “dark night of the soul” that Saint John of the Cross speaks about.

I think that many followers of Christ and spiritual seekers in general see the difficult times of life (trials) as completely distinct phases that are separate from the rest of one’s life. Yet this is not so. Just as the plants manufacture the sugar that they need during the day so that they can then breathe at night, so God gives us what we need during the good times so that we will have what we need during the trials of life. In this way, there is a delayed effect. His touch on our lives should not be completely and immediately consumed. Rather, some of what he does in our hearts and lives should be stored up for later use, … when the sun sets or the snow falls in our lives.

After Jesus fed five thousand people with bread, he told his followers (disciples) to gather up all of the leftover fragments lying around on the ground. In this way, no bread would be lost. The disciples first experienced the miracle and immediately distributed its result, but then Jesus told them to do the very messy job of picking up whatever remained. For the disciples, what came first was blessed loaves of bread, touched by the hands of God’s son. What came next were partially eaten fragments touched by the dirty ground. In Christ, nothing is ever wasted. Some of God’s bread is for right now. Some of his bread is for later. All is his, … given to us. For the day and for the night.

Arbiter of the Kingdoms of This World?

Posted in: Current Events by bill-o on August 16, 2008

The Saddleback (Church) Civil Forum of the two major presidential candidates just occurred in the United States. The forum occurred inside of the Saddleback Church in Lake Forest, California. The forum was not a presidential debate. (For those of you outside of the U.S., face-to-face presidential debates are held in October and not in August.) Rather, this televised event consisted of two consecutive and separate interviews of Senator Barrack Obama and Senator John McCain by the popular pastor and author Rick Warren. Mr. Warren asked each senator the same series of questions, and each senator was interviewed for about one hour. Mr. Obama went first, while Mr. McCain waited offstage in some kind of closed area where he could not receive any advance knowledge of the upcoming questions. Because Senator McCain’s answers were shorter, Mr. Warren was able to ask him a few extra questions.

I watched the entire forum from beginning to end. On the positive side, I do appreciate the way that Mr. Warren allowed both of the candidates to give fairly detailed answers to questions without interruption (something that is increasingly rare in the American political process). I also appreciated the contrast in responses to the same set of questions by each candidate. Mr. Warren also appreared to be non-partisan, not favoring one candidate over the other.

On the more critical side, I didn’t like Mr. Warren’s last question to each candidate. Others may disagree, but this question was basically asking each candidate to publicly justify what Mr. Warren and his church were doing with this forum. Perhaps this is little harsh to say but I think that this is like inviting someone to a party and then asking him or her, at the end of it, to publicly state to the other guests why the host of the party is such a good host.

And since Rick Warren brought it up via this final question, I would like to discuss here why I do not support this civil forum. Why?

1.  Quite frankly, I don’t see such a forum as having any biblical basis. In the Bible, I do see prophets confronting evil leaders, apostles (“sent ones”) sharing their faith with rulers, and I also see capable advisers raised up to give advice to kings and even serve as high-ranking appointed leaders directly underneath those kings (like Daniel and Joseph, for example). I even see prophets ratifying (anointing) the selection of a king, as per God’s choice (like Samuel and Saul). But I do not see any biblical pattern for serving as arbiters, gatekeepers, or kingmakers regarding the selection of the kings of this earth.

2.  Jesus said that his kingdom is not of this world. Yes, as ambassadors of Christ, followers of Jesus should be prepared, as appropriate opportunities present themselves, to serve in love the rulers of this world, if they ask for the aid, assistance, and counsel of Christ’s followers. True disciples of Jesus are also very much interested in the causes of social justice and real care and concern for their surrounding communities. That said, the Bible clearly says that our citzenship is in heaven. The view of the gospels is to live in the kingdom of God here and now in the world and thus change the world around us with God’s love. In contrast, Jesus did not say to change the kingdoms of this world via manipulating the mechanisms of those kingdoms. (Rather, Jesus said to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s and unto God what is God’s.)

3.  Mr. Warren started his forum by saying that “faith is just a worldview”. Faith in Jesus Christ is anchored in eternity, and the word of God stands forever no matter what happens here in this world. Faith is an “eternal-view” and not simply a worldview.

4.  If followers of Christ actively arbitrate the process of selecting the kings of this world, then the world will be resentful and angry with his followers when things go wrong, as they inevitably will to one extent or another. Even worse, if the selected kings make immoral or evil decisions, Christ’s disciples in the world will appear as being complicit or hypocritical. Followers of Christ should not seek to interfere with the processes of king-selection, just as followers of Christ do not want the world to interfere with their life and work in this world.

What do you think? Do you agree or disagree?

From Apprentice to Master

Posted in: Popular Culture by bill-o on July 03, 2008

What is the biggest difference between the original three Star Wars films and latest three? Well, … besides the newer special effects, the many Jedi instead of one, and Jar Jar Binks.

What makes Episodes I through III unique is the relationship between master and apprentice. (And, interestingly, that applies to both the Sith and the Jedi Knights.) While largely lost to modern Western culture, this type of relationship has ancient roots: the passing of wisdom, knowledge, and experience from spiritual parents to spiritual children through living and working together over a significant length of time. Many spiritual traditions call this discipleship.

A spiritual father must make himself available to his sons. Likewise, in Star Wars, a master could have only one apprentice. In this way, their attention would be undivided upon one another and upon their common mission.

There are three stages of spiritual development, each of one of which is reflected in the first three episodes of Star Wars:

1. Beginner
2. Apprentice
3. Master

The young beginners in Episode II assist Yoda in finding a missing planet. Here, the relationship between teacher and students is still one to many. Jedi Initiate training is based on remote control devices and is centered in a classroom. Likewise, spiritual beginners concentrate on the basics. The concept of spiritual beginners is seen at monasteries, where new members are known as novices.

Apprentices are known as Padawan learners. The Padawan learner leaves the classroom and learns directly from his master. The master teaches the apprentice through real-life missions. As time progresses, the relationship moves from a father-son dynamic to one more akin to brothers. (A Padawan was physically distinguished from his master by a piece of braided hair.)

Finally, an apprentice becomes fully-qualified to become a master. Spiritual masters are fully trained and competent to perform any action called upon them according to their order. (In Star Wars, it is the Jedi order). Then, in turn, they take apprentices (disciples) for themselves and pass on what they have learned from their masters before them.