Spiritual anchors in conflicted times

Jan 15, 2015 by

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In these days of church conflict I am reminded of the story of my father-in-law, Rollin, age 94 when he died. In the last few years his balance was compromised, life was confusing, and little made sense: Alzheimer’s. He didn’t even remember his beloved horses anymore.

One afternoon, three months before he died, the chaplain of the nursing home saw Rollin rolling his wheel chair up and down the long hallway and asked, “Coming to Bible Study this afternoon, Rollin?” Dad said, “Nope, I can’t. I’m planting corn.”

The nurses said he had been going up and down that hall all day long. Dad, in his striped overalls, plaid shirt and farmer cap, was rolling his wheel chair up and down the hall planting corn. Quaint story. We smiled knowingly, yet painfully: Alzheimer’s.

But what is so amazing is that it was actually corn planting season! All the Iowa farmers were going back and forth in their fields planting corn. How did this small, friendly Iowa farmer know it was time to plant corn? He hadn’t a clue about the time of the day, the day of the week, or the month of the year. He could hardly remember his children’s names. But somewhere deep in his inner being, that lifelong, life-shaping practice of planting corn awakened . . . in its season. A mystery. Layers of confusion couldn’t suppress the call of the annual spring ritual so powerfully imprinted in his inner being. A mystery.

I have pondered the parallel between this beloved old farmer and the layers of conflict facing us in and out of the church. Are there life-shaping spiritual practices that will enable us to plant the seeds of Christ-likeness? In heated controversy our unredeemed selves often appear: peaceful people become irate; servants manipulate; and the body of Jesus splits in the name of obeying Jesus.

How can we reclaim our discipleship when our capacities for discernment are diminished by conflict, and love for our enemies within the church evaporates? We have little energy left to “make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” Are there lifelong spiritual practices that will open our collective inner being to transformation with power through the Spirit? Can faith, hope and love once more bubble through layers of hurt and controversy? Can forgiveness prevail over division?

Jesus gave his disciples such spiritual practices just before their world turned upside down. It was at the Last Supper. How will the disciples survive the turmoil and confusion of Jesus’ death? John devotes more than 20 percent of his entire gospel story to this conversation (chapters 13 to 17). Jesus’ last words and final prayer were that important. They obviously shaped John’s pastoral leadership and he seeks to imprint these practices in his people.

John highlights these spiritual practices:

  • Wash feet and serve one another (13:1-17).
  • Love me and keep my commandments (14:15, 23).
  • Welcome the Advocate, the Holy Spirit called alongside (14:16-17, 25-26; 15:26-27; 16:7-15).
  • Love one another as I have loved you (13:34-35; 15:12).
  • Abide in me, in my word, and in my love (15:1-11).
  • May they be one as I and the Father are one (17:21-23).

Without these lifelong, life-shaping practices we cannot hope to embody Jesus nor can we become the answer to Jesus’ prayer “to be one as he and the Father are one.” Jesus prays for us that “the love with which you have loved me” will be awakened in our season of conflict. A mystery.

“I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me” (17:23). The mystery of mission.

We learn these practices by doing them, not through more information. It is like someone said about the exercise of prayer, “We learn to pray, by praying. And we learn to pray well by praying much.” Just practice Jesus’ words day in and day out. Even when you do not know what day, month or year it is, you will still do the Jesus truth in the Jesus way and share the Jesus life. The church will embody Jesus. A mystery!

Duane Beck is the pastor of Raleigh Mennonite Church in North Carolina.

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