December 28, 2007

Rule of Life Essay

This was written for VOM this past semester. I really like the paper, for the most part, but you'll have to pardon a bit of hokey "this is what I do next" type stuff that's mixed in. Otherwise, enjoy. [The Management]

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"The most important human endeavor is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance and even our very existence depend on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to life.” [Albert Einstein]

On Pendulums: A Word on Balance

It was upon visiting a friend’s church plant that I first started thinking about pendulums as more than large weights, but as symbols. During the dinner after the service (their expression of Communion), the discussion turned towards balance, and one guy expressed how it seems to be that each time a turn in culture happens, it turns towards the opposite extreme. He compared it to a proverbial pendulum, always moving back and forth, resting at the peak of its arc, then cascading back towards the middle and swinging back up to the other extreme. As a metaphor, it works well to describe balance, that point somewhere in the middle at equilibrium between two extremes. Balance is as much a cycle-in-motion between extremes as it is a resting place. The pendulum thus carries with it a connotation of both “settled-ness” as well as motion, a metaphor which I believe describes balance quite well. It is a metaphor that is working in my life, and one that best describes the rule of life toward which I currently strive.

Mind and Body

It is remarkable how much the mind and the body influence one another. It is here that I wish to begin because it is here that the concept of balance is most intricately illustrated. The mind and body are tied together more closely than most of us would like to believe. The two are mutually interdependent; the mind controls the body, but the body houses the mind. While the two are obviously distinct, together, they form a complete organism. The mind is, for me, the easiest place to overshoot a pendulum. It is in this realm that we find academics, thought, concepts, and ideas (also, incidentally, all things in which I take great comfort). Without the mind, the body is lost; it is just an animal guided by instinct, thoughtlessly surviving. It is without a doubt the mind that gives us life that is worth living. It is by the mind that we can even conceive that God might be there to relate to, but it is also the mind that has been so deified by western culture for the last five hundred years (and at other times in history[1]). The body, on the other hand, is of a baser level. It is crude, instinctual, physical, but it is the body that sustains the mind. Without the body, the mind cannot exist.

Balance comes in the recognition that theology must inform praxis and that in turn, praxis will inform theology. When we separate the two, problems occur, called “dualism”: too much focus on the mind, and faith becomes an exercise in the “uber-spiritual,” downplaying the body’s actions to the point that they are barely tolerated and even evil. However, too much focus on the body, and all that happens is thoughtless action, guided by little more than baser instincts and the spur-of-the-moment. While I do not usually go to either extreme, I tend towards a version of the first, namely ignoring my body and letting it do it’s ‘thing’ however it pleases, so that I can focus on the more pleasurable and stimulating ideas to be thought. Instead of allowing an extreme to dominate my life, I must take care to balance thought with action, scholastics with exercise (I have to take care to schedule myself some gym time several times weekly instead of spending all my time reading), and theology with mission (constantly asking myself, who have I helped lately? Does my theology match my money and time and actions?).

Organic and Synthetic
One of the tendencies in our western culture is towards one of the organic or synthetic extremes. The organic is the world of nature, of the environment, even of the spiritual; we were born into this world naked and with nothing, and likewise from it we will pass. The synthetic is the world of the material, the concrete, of “stuff.” The present culture affirms the synthetic quite a bit more than it acknowledges the organic; it is enthralled with the material. I find myself caught up in this imbalance more than I usually care to admit; I want the latest computer gizmo, the best that money can buy, and in general, more stuff (and better stuff than my neighbor or family or even my wife). This world values noise and imposed schedules over the organic ebb and flow of time, leaving instead of coming, things instead of people. If I am to become balanced between the two, I am going to have to start giving up my desires to buy, to accumulate, and perhaps even start giving away what I have. However, there can be a tendency in some cultures to go to the other extreme, to give away so much that at some point they can no longer survive but for the charity of others[2].

Balance, once again, is found towards the middle; it values people but also values appropriate amounts of time with them. It celebrates the body as a creation of God and values the products of human ingenuity as useful, but rejects consumerism and materialism
[3]. This means I must buy less, and give more. It means that a proper amount of material goods is ok, but acknowledging that the amount might differ from person to person and that if what I have is different from another, I must understand that God is choosing to teach that person differently than me[4]. It means I must watch for those in need and then not hesitate to give up what I have for them. It means letting go of my tendencies to hold onto things I “might use again someday” and give them to others who need them and can use them now[5].

Solitude and Community
“In the secret, in the quiet place // in the stillness you are there…” When I first started listening to contemporary Christian music, this was one of my favorites. It’s by a band named SonicFlood, and the song describes the strong desire of the singer to better know the God he loves so dearly. While the song is very particular in describing the very personal relationship the author has with his God (and neglects the communal relationship), this has still been a big challenge for me. At times, I have been very solitary in my relationship with God; it’s Him and me, and we do coffee without anybody else, and there’s no place for others in my walk. But at other times, I’ve swung the pendulum in the other direction and spent little to no time alone with God (this seems to be the current trend; as Dr. West says, I’ve become a “quivering mass of availability” to others). I can always tell when I’m in one or the other by what I do with my Bible; in my solitary times, the Bible sits on my nightstand by my bed, and in my communal times, it sits on my desk ready to be put into my backpack. Western Christianity wants its adherents to focus primarily on solitude, the discipline of spending time alone with God[6]. Perhaps this merely highlights western culture’s individualistic drive. But the point is that it’s about the individual growing (because God is already as grown as He’s going to get; being outside of time has its advantages).

On the other hand, community is also important. Scripture emphasizes this point throughout; at the very least, scripture itself was intended to be read in groups
[7]. What we call the New Testament did not exist for the first chunk of “Christian” history; with a few exceptions, the books involved were letters to groups of people (the epistles) or were documents written to educate groups of people in the story of Christ (the gospels, with the notable exception of Luke’s gospel, written for his wealthy patron Theophilus[8]). Community includes several groups of people; family (immediate and extended), friends, mentors, mentees (“disciples” of both Christian and non-Christian flavors), small groups, work groups. But in every case, they are all “the other;” the person not-me – the woman, the impoverished, the black-skinned, the widow, the sick, the alien. In these cross-cultural experiences I must find my community.

It is fitting, then (in light of the line used to begin this section), that in my mind, the closest image I have to fit with this is that of music. Music requires both silence and sound in order to be music. The balance changes for each style of music, but in the end, both sound and silence are required to make a piece of music that is worth listening to. Silence is even called a “rest” in classical music. It is much the same in real life. The sounds of life must be offset by periods of restful silence, meditation, contemplation, prayer, and the like in order to lead a balanced (yet full) life. It is these periods of rest that enable a person – me – to continue functioning. Too much silence and I become apathetic and slothful, but too much sound and I will eventually become numb and deaf to the beauty of the music

Past, Present, Future

Time is an important indicator of spiritual health that must also be balanced. While I must balance my times of solitude with my times of community, I must also balance my preoccupations with time in its three iterations: past, present, and future
[10]. We learn from what has already transpired, but it is in the past that we cannot dwell, for the past is dead and gone. Likewise, we look towards the future expectantly, and it is into the future we move, a succession of present moments whose planning is today's responsibility but in which we cannot dwell because it has not yet happened. We are creatures of the present moment. But the three must be balanced.

My tendency is to live in the future; I have to have everything planned out so that when it gets here, nothing unexpected happens to throw off my plans. The trouble with this is that I always seem to be planning and spend little time enjoying what sits before me. I have so far tried to balance this with a commitment for learning history, about what has already happened. Despite my best efforts, what seems to keep happening is that I end up applying what I learn towards what will eventually happen, to better my plans. I need to learn to let go of my plans. Plans are good, don’t get me wrong, but if my plan is allowed to overrule God’s plan (and I do not allow myself to follow the momentary impulses of the Holy Spirit because they fall outside my schedule), I remain in a self-made trap. The trouble is that I cannot plan to be spontaneous nor can I plan to follow the Holy Spirit because, as the scripture says, the Spirit is like a breath of wind; nobody can guess where He’ll move next
[11]. Thus, the only solution to this is prayer; prayer that God will see fit to show me how and when to move, that I’ll be listening. I must be ever mindful of the present moment, wondering if in it God is speaking to me, speaking back. For as Lewis writes, it is in this present moment that we most closely touch the infinite; thus, to balance the extremes of past and future, a present-minded reality is the remedy[12].

Art and Science
Science might be best described by words like hierarchy, mechanical, artificial, revealed. It is the world of the rigid order that cannot be broken, the world of language and structure, of order. The world can be understood and controlled, the world of logic. The artistic, on the other hand, is movement, mystery (the unexplained), naturalistic, or fluid. It is the world of the aesthetic and the ascetic, the artist and the poet, constantly celebrating that which is greater than I and cannot be understood in language alone; it cannot be controlled, only expressed and emoted. I find myself at these crossroads quite often, my pendulum swinging wildly. On the one hand, I grew up in the western enlightenment culture of logic, of science, and I often find myself drawn to explain everything, to know everything (or if I don’t, I don’t admit it and make something up to sound like I know everything). On the other hand, I have always had a certain talent for music; I play eleven instruments, I sing, and I compose. The artist in me is always fighting against the scientist, constantly telling him to give up on explaining that which is best left to awe and wonder.

But neither is truly without merit; we should try to explain the world, complicated as it is. However, there comes a point where even the most brilliant Einstein or Hawking cannot make heads or tails of something (where do emotions come from? What do women want?) and must turn to poetry, art, music to begin to make sense of it, and failing that, to express our frustration at our bewilderment yet our inexplicable joy at its mystery. Though both struggle within me, I have, as of late, erred on the side of science, of logic, of academics. I do this unintentionally, but when I realized that I had begun pushing the pendulum too far, I made it a point to join the Asbury College Jazz Ensemble and spend some time with music for a while. It is something I have decided to continue through seminary; instead of allowing my academics to completely dictate my schedule, I will be a part of at least one music group each semester (more if I think my schedule can handle it) and will make time to spend playing music with my wife. Aside from the fact that our daughter likes to listen to us and that we both enjoy it, the music moves in my soul to worship and thus should not be repressed, as it has been. I cannot let it overtake my academics either, but this is a danger far from my present circumstances.

When it comes down to it, it doesn’t much matter that I don’t yet know my calling; balance is something that must be a part of my life regardless of my circumstances. For if the path of holiness is the imitation of Christ, then certainly balance must play a key role; the Trinity Himself is the personification of balance: three-persons yet one God, mutually-submitted to one another, complimenting and reinforcing one another, growing together, creating together, relating to one another, dancing together. Mission, then, is an outpouring of that dance[13]. Balance is but a means to an end; relationship with the triune God, the mission dei, its purpose. The relationship means I participate in the dance! This means that participation in the Kingdom of God – the path to Holiness – means the furthering of the Great Commission in all its expressions, moving with the Holy Spirit to whichever culture He leads. In C.S. Lewis’ classic words, it is ever moving “onwards and upwards!” into the mountains[14]. It is the ever-present journey, the journey that death can no longer stop. It is for this that I was born, and it is for this that I continue to live.

Works Consulted

Barton, Ruth Haley. Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. IVP Books: Downers Grove IL, 2006.

Claiborne, Shane. The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical. Zondervan: Grand Rapids MI, 2006.

Lewis, C.S. The Screwtape Letters. HarperCollins Books: New York NY, 1942 (2001).
------------. The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle.
------------. The Great Divorce. HarperCollins Books: San Francisco CA, 1946 (2001).
Seamands, Stephen. Ministry in the Image of God: The Trinitarian Shape of Christian Service. InterVarsity Press: Downers Grove IL, 2005.


[1] I can’t help but noticing that our western culture is quite similar to the last time this happened: Greece, and Rome. The two cultures (summed up in the word “Hellenist”) were very mind-centric in the meta-culture that dominated politics, academics, and philosophy (all concepts which find their lingual roots in the same time period). I also notice that the counter-cultures that sprung up during these times were very action-oriented, the proverbial pendulum swinging the other way. Truly, we have much to learn from the comparison between the two.

[2] Though they are few and far between, a notable example is the ascetics of the second and third centuries who would emaciate themselves because it was considered “spiritual” and moved them “closer to God.” I can’t imagine how these practices actually helped anybody, as it certainly didn’t help the participants. The Gnostics, as well, were preoccupied with this heresy to the point that the body was itself evil.

[3] Gluttony (overindulgence) in any form is sinful. See Dr. Martyn’s October 10, 2007 lecture on the deadly sins.

[4] In the story of the Rich Young Ruler (Luke 18:18-29), Jesus obviously values material goods in their proper context (for example, he says to the ruler to sell all he has, but never says to give it ALL to the poor, only to give to the poor). However, to the one who has everything yet still yearns for more, Jesus asks him to die to his selfishness and embrace the moderation of the kingdom of God.

[5] Perhaps cleaning out my closets of that which I do not use anymore and giving it to the Salvation Army is a good place to start on this one.

[6] Am I the only one that finds it ironic that we call it “solitude”? Isn’t it really supposed to at least be some sort of conversation with God, which means that we’re not really alone, nor are we ever?

[7] Think about it: who could afford to have their own copy of the Torah except only the wealthiest of Pharisees? Scripture was memorized by Jewish boys by the time they were ten, and then they spent the rest of their formal education (those that ended up as priests) working through scripture in the company of a Rabbi and his other disciples. In fact, this trend continued right up into the sixteenth century when Gutenberg invented the printing press; it was only after this that society was able to truly become individualistic. Scripture and community are intimately tied together.

[8] Luke 1:1.

[9] Barton, 133-145.

[10] It was through C.S. Lewis that I began to understand this concept, when I read his wonderful text (yet strangely chilling, given that it’s a series of letters from a demon), The Screwtape Letters. See pg. 75-79.

[11] John 3:8.

[12] Naturally, to be ever-mindful of the present is next to impossible; there are far too many stimuli in the world for this. Yet it is this towards which I strive. That is why I must do what I can and allow God’s grace to work in me, showing me the most important things to which to pay attention, and abandoning the rest as useless; I only have so much time, and so there really isn’t time to have both what I (the sinful I) want and what God wants. Nothing to it then but to replace what I want with what God wants. I’m pretty sure that’s in scripture somewhere (Luke 22:42).

[13] Seamands, 157-178.

[14] The Chronicles of Narnia: The Last Battle and The Great Divorce.

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