Salvo-monastic

As you may know, I’ve been a student and practitioner of ‘new monasticism’ for over a decade. Even then, I recognise that a big part of The Salvation Army’s life that held me so significantly was the shared ‘rule of life’, the soldiers ‘Articles of War’ and ‘Officers’ Covenant’, and the deep bond of the community of Salvationists. So this sense of call stretches back to my conversion in The Army in 1995, nearly 25 years. My conversion was a radical call to give it all away to Christ, and The Salvation Army was the vessel through which it was expressed at the time.

Now, I have to confess that I’ve never quite found anything that is up to replacing that Salvationist expression as far as living a particular life in community goes. I’ve no problem admitting that, and The Army remains very close to my heart. There is, at its best, something very special about living out the Salvationist charism or ‘characteristics’. The very best of it still lives in me – it can’t not!

Having said that, The Army isn’t where God would have me right now and so I’ve journeyed outside the Salvationist movement with a strong call to a covenanted life, which has found some expression in new monastic community. I am a Companion of the Northumbria Community, which was the first community I happened upon and whose rule and daily prayer speaks to me. I’ve learned a lot from the Community of Aidan and Hilda and the writings of it’s founder, Ray Simpson, and, in fact, their way of expressing a rule of life is actually a more helpful place for my particular personal commitments to be held, given the more detailed invitation they invite with regards to the construction of a way of life. Alongside this, I have a (different) relationship with the Order of St Leonard.

I say all that mainly because there are, as life moves on, new readers to the blog who might not have picked up the long history of my spiritual journey. I also write it as a confession, and that is to say that all of my Christian life has been accompanied with a certain frustration and tiredness with ‘casual Christianity.’

The life of Christ, for me, is an all-consuming way of life. As I reflected yesterday in my blog ‘Prefer nothing to the love of Christ’, Jesus is everything and his call implies a radical change of life at both the heart level and the practical level as we are grafted into his life and into his community. Life-long transformation (ie continued ‘whole-life’ discipleship) is at the heart of seeking after Christ – the process of becoming like him (and boy do we need it!).

One of the views you might find in Salvation Army circles, which doesn’t always come from a healthy place, is a scepticism about the church. Not church in the biblical sense of being God’s people, but church in the institutional sense…maybe its more about a scepticism of ‘churchiness’ than church – a better way to see it, perhaps.

There is a strong culture in The Salvation Army of being a people called out of the comfort of the church to the front lines, at least in the rhetoric. A sleeves-rolled-up life, a radical call to a holy life, a life given to the preaching of the gospel and care for the poor. Now, there are questions as to The Army’s faithfulness to that, but that’s no longer my question to explore and I pray nothing but blessing on what a friend calls ‘The Beloved Movement.’

I say all this because all of these questions and the deep sense of call is what is continually being worked out in day to day life. An inescapable call to abandonment to Christ, and not to settle into the tired culture of a fading Christendom. Throughout history, monastic movements were always radical reform movements who sought to rid the ‘world’ from the church and establish a radical faith in Jesus out of the comfort zones of conformity.

New monasticism, at its best, helps me keep the questions about how we live in ‘exile’, an ‘unknown land’, to the forefront of my daily walk with Jesus. It calls me out of my personal comfort to a life of discipline. It sharpens the focus of my ministry and keeps me faithful to not rest in the blissful slumbers of the church institution, and to the work of repeating the call to be alert, awake and on the move as the people Jesus is drawing to himself. We are not to be content to simply do church and go about our lives – no! We are God’s new people living in a new Kingdom alongide the rot of the old, bringing light, peace, truth, good and transformation that only the gospel brings.

It’s all considerably more than the smallness we often assign to the life of faith. I’m committed to the renewal of the church – not in the sense of accommodating our life to make it somehow more palatable. Rather, to sharpen Jesus’ call to take up the cross and follow him. It never was a popular message – no reason to believe it will be now. However, is there anything more wonderful to do with life?

'Prefer nothing to the love of Christ'

The monastic Rule of St Benedict exhorts its readers to ‘Prefer nothing to the love of Christ’ – in other words, make him the sole object of your life, and lift nothing above him. Don’t let anything compete with Jesus for the devotion of your heart.

It’s what Jesus wants – he said that our love for our families should seem like hatred in comparison to our love for him. He wasn’t saying ‘don’t love your family’, but he was saying our devotion to him should out shine it by far. In consequence, loving Jesus also means that it spills out into love for others, so no one loses out – in fact, we love better.

In terms of the church, is there anything else that we exalt up there with Jesus? We all know the answer should be no, but I’m not sure that’s always the reality. I look at my own experience over the years and can see times when I’ve been guilty of the following:

Jesus plus my traditions
Jesus plus my denomination
Jesus plus my preferences
Jesus plus my culture
Jesus plus my favourite church programme
Jesus plus my pet topic

Thing is, if we build our church community around Jesus plus [whatever], we will spend more time maintaining the plus than you might imagine, because the plus becomes the thing that we’ve made the glue of our community. We become a very human community creation, not a spiritual creation. Pubs, community interest groups, sports teams, choirs, streets and villages etc can all build community that is good without God…we shouldn’t be surprised at this, it is very possible. It also means that the church can build community with community as the glue instead of God. It’s easily to become our ‘thing’ as opposed to the house God is building.

There are two things that can tragically flow from this:

1. You take away ‘the thing’ and people will quickly abandon because their ultimate loyalty wasn’t to Christ, but to ‘the thing’.

2. You can take away Jesus, pack him away in the basement, and much of the community will stay intact because ‘the thing’ is still there. Jesus wasn’t so central after all.

Makes me weep. I’ve glimpsed ‘church’ communities where Jesus gets a back seat. It’s quite possible for those communities of people to thrive and do good, but just because it ‘works’ and draws a crowd does not mean to say that what you are dealing with is ‘the church’.

The real church is not just those who gather in church buildings every week, nor even those who believe some religious stuff. The real church is those transformed and joined together supernaturally through Jesus, and who are held in him. We become the body of Christ, God’s building and it is among this people Jesus makes his home, and it is them that Jesus is building into a spiritual house. The consequence of this is that not everyone who sits with you in your place of worship on a Sunday is necessarily grafted in to the spiritual reality of the church – yet.

Is Christ, and Christ alone, enough for us? Are we brave enough to see what kind of house Jesus will build through those who have a wholehearted devotion to him? Jesus said he would build his church. It’s not really our job to build the church, we are so tempted to build with materials and ‘things’ that don’t last.

A community with the gospel message of Jesus at the centre that God is drawing together will stand against the gates of hell so long as they have Jesus. That’s when you know if you have a church or not

To prefer nothing to the love of Christ is more challenging that we may at first think. The Benedictines, in a time where being the church was turning into a state religion, stole away and founded ‘houses for conversion’ where the aim was to seek Christ above all else, and where life is conformed to what he wants. It’s surely what we need in our own day.

When everything else is stripped away, will be still be content with Jesus?