”Everyone has his proper gift from God, one this, another thus” (1 Cor. 7:7)”
How do we welcome whilst teaching?
Last week we reflected on sharing and how, if we looked at our points of excess, be it food, money, whatever, then this seemingly impossible task of fairly distributing resources may become easier. This week, we read the same principle is to be taken with drink as it did with food and monks should consume in moderation. St. Benedict points out his awareness that in some religious orders, alcohol is forbidden but for his community (in Italy!) wine was a cultural drink; it’s like telling Russians they can’t drink vodka!
What we see here is not a blanket refusal for all things that are potentially harmful but a reliance on common sense. The Church, throughout history, has struggled with controlling its members’ destructive behaviours and have erred, at times, into overly strict control of all to help the few. We can think of the Puritans who saw some dangers in excessive frivolity, which on rare occasions led to sexual immorality; their response was to cut all frivolity and fun from everyone to protect against potential sexual immorality.
Discipline is difficult to police: one can be too heavy handed or not directive enough. Some people struggle with substance abuse, while others find certain situations difficult to control their anger. We can easily fall into the trap of thinking the way to help is to have a tight control on what is permitted and what is not. In order that some do not feel picked out the ‘ban’ becomes generalised and anti-productive for those who can remain disciplined in the specific situations. The church then becomes a place where there’s a lot of ‘you can’t’s and we spend more time policing the rules rather than worship and prayer.
In our current cultural climate, however, I see the opposite danger being played out. In response to a Victorian, over-bearing, clear cut, black/white mentality when it comes to moral righteousness; there is a lasez-faire approach to ethics and morality. In our desire to be ‘inclusive’ and ‘welcoming’ we reject any ‘barriers’ or demands put upon people who come through our door. We struggle to set behavioural rules out of fear we will be seen as judgemental or moralistic. We look at our fore-bearers and see a strictness and we want to set ourselves apart from them.
The problem with this approach is that we have missed out on a third way of managing temptation and behaviours. St. Benedict never shies away from enforcing expectations and demanding everything from the monks in his community but these ‘rules’ are focussed on principles and character rather than on practicalities. Leadership and spiritual guidance is less about dictating the pragmatic things we can and can’t do, policies and guidelines which must be followed to the letter and more about the general climate in which virtues are nourished.
If we take alcohol as an example. There are some who struggle to drink alcohol in moderation. The causes for this differ from one person to another and so it is hard to produce specific guidelines that all will find helpful all of the time. If, however, you see guidelines more about establishing a direction for transformation of character rather than prescribing detailed pragmatic actions then they can protect all people whilst enabling flexibility within it. Instead of saying, for example,
No one is to drink alcohol because it could, for some, lead to temptation to excessive drunkenness and violent behaviour.
We could write,
We want to encourage one another to be reliant on God and to be aware of His direction of us at each moment. Alcohol, when drunk excessively, hinders us from being obedient to God’s call. Therefore, alcohol must be drunk with care and consideration. If another is deemed to be drinking excessively, those in authority are to care for them by removing the temptation from them. It maybe appropriate, after the effects of the alcohol has worn off, for the leaders to discuss the reasons for their drunkenness to see if there is a way in which they can be encouraged to remain sober for the Lord.
The skill St. Benedict shows in his Rule is to have a clear endpoint in sight: the final judgement. Everyone in his community signs up to being transformed and changed, each day into the likeness of Christ. To be a part of the community is to commit to the hard work of discipleship which asks us to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Drunkenness and excessive behaviour in any context is a distraction from prayer and character formation and therefore is enforced not by specifics but under the general encouragement to a life of discipleship.
In order to develop a distinctive culture of discipleship a community needs to be clear as to their priorities. These are not pragmatic step by step things; it is about the ultimate end goal. The Church has this set out in Jesus Christ. The vision for each congregation is the same: to seek God in our whole life, to intentionally invite the Holy Spirit to transform us from our old selves, into new creation, through obedience to prayer, study, dialogue and worship and to live as part of God’s distinctive Kingdom in the world. All pragmatic decisions and policies must encourage each disciple to participate in this work and that will require one thing for one member and another thing for the next but the direction is the same.
There are many who are taking down the Church’s specific demands placed on people’s behaviours to encourage them to become part of the Church or to at least see the Church as relevant and in line with the culture we live in but in doing so have thrown the metaphorical baby out with the bathwater. We have misunderstood the heart of the rules and guidelines. We have rejected the teaching wholesale and we have ignored Jesus who demands everything. Jesus asks those who would follow him to leave their livelihoods, families, their safety and security; in fact he asks us to die to ‘self’ in order to be his disciples. He does not ask this of everyone but for those who he calls to ministry. There is a difference between the expectation and attitude Jesus has to the crowd and the expectations he has on his disciples and he is clear on the distinction.
Are you a member of the crowd or a disciple?
A disciple is expected to work, to change, to learn to live obediently to the challenge of the life of Christ but the reward is great. The crowd only sees a glimpse of the Kingdom but remain enslaved to the world until they make their own commitment to discipleship.
As a theatre director I directed actors, not by telling them precisely where to stand and how to speak but rather by keeping my eyes fixed on the principles by which we agreed to work and the character the actor was trying to perform. There were some general things which were fixed and to move away from them, even slightly, would be a distraction. Within this framework the actors were more free to play and discover. It is a paradox that artists appreciate more than others; if you want to be more creative, put up more guidelines. A musician returns to the scales for this reason, the painter primes the canvas, the actor studies the character/play. Discipline and obedience are key to developing as an artist and the same is true of disciples.
We can all agree that we need to create the right climate for discipleship to take place but there is a difference of approaches as to how to achieve it. For some it is about setting the right pragmatic actions. They work on each step and encourage people to achieve one after the other in an order. As each step of change is difficult to take people get caught up in the mechanics of those single step and our sights are reduced to a few manageable steps ahead. When difficultly strikes it is hard to discern what to do next and the choices as to which step to take in order to move forward becomes a complex and cloudy.
The alternative is to to set the momentum and the direction of the journey. You don’t need to know each step in advance but you know the trajectory. This means your head is up and some steps are made without even thinking about it. There is a momentum which drives people on. There will be times when you go off course but at different moments there will be a leader who raises everyone’s head to fix their eyes on the horizon not yet reached.
This frees the community of the Church from setting specific mundane requirements on its people and frees them to discern for themselves, within the framework of the community ethos, what they need to do in order to reach the goal. It is not about strict micromanagement nor is it the liberal, distanced observation of others; this is about dialogue and encouragement to journey the costly path of discipleship whose aim is to encounter God and to know His divine will for our lives.
Heavenly Father, whose will is perfect freedom. Your son challenged the Pharisees who lived at the law in action but were far from you in their heart. Your son also challenged those who were enslaved by their own desires who led them first in one direction and then in another. Your son, our way, our truth and our life, ha been set as the pioneer and perfecter of the faith and we commit our lives to following him, to being shaped by him.
Come, Lord Jesus