In mid-Advent we are in the midst of a season of discipline and penitence, a “mini-Lent”. Fittingly, I have worked on an overview of disciplines for our parent website:
(Photo Credit: Training Exercises, U.S. Marine Corps, by Cpl. Will Perkins, Sept 10, 2015; Public Domain)
This is where the rubber meets the road in Christianity. Through these activities which we refer to as “spiritual disciplines”, we can grow in faith and knowledge, and are permitted to assist in the work of the Holy Spirit, our divine companion, who is dwelling and working mysteriously within us.
St. Paul in one of his letters advised his readers: “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure.” (Philippians 2:12-13: English Standard Version). The “work out” part is where these activities come in to play.
At our baptisms, God could probably have chosen just to “zap us” with instant knowledge and all the “fruits of the Spirit” in full development. He could have made us fully impervious to temptations and further sins. However, God has graciously chosen to allow us to cooperate with Him on a lifelong journey. This idea flows from the Christian idea that “God is Love”, that He wants relationship with beings who can choose love, and not merely a bunch of robotic servants.
Baptism is the beginning for us, not the end. We refer to the earliest part of our spiritual journey as a “new birth”–it is a beginning, a moment of decision, an emerging. We have answered the call to become “God’s woman” or “God’s man”. It may be for some a “mountain top experience”, but in fact answering the call and being baptized are but getting to the trailhead in the foothills, at the beginning of our trek. At this point we are picking up our trail maps and donning the clothes and tools we need for the climb, but hard work remains ahead. The mountain top lies before us, in the remote distance. We will get there, with God’s help.
It should be made clear that these activities we call the “spiritual disciplines” are tools to help us to draw closer to God’s presence, but ultimately the work of transforming our inner being belongs to God alone. In advocating these disciplines, we are not endorsing a “works” based doctrine of salvation. Christianity teaches that “works” flow from “faith”, and not vice versa. Furthermore, even faith itself is mysteriously a gift to us, and not something we conjured up alone. A vital (living) faith produces good works, while dead faith produces none.
We should also make clear that our efforts are designed to bend ourselves toward God. We don’t pray or meditate in order to bend God or the Cosmos to our wills. We are not wizards or necromancers. There are disciplines that if used wrong can become empty incantations, and lead to a false sense of power. You might hear in some quarters about plugging into or wielding the power of the Spirit, or reaping the benefits of prayer. And there is something to that, but the major effort of God’s power is to scrub us and polish us, not merely that we may shine with our own glory, but that we may be better mirrors to reflect God’s glory.
What are the disciplines? Well, you will find a variety of categories and lists. The biggies would be prayer, Bible study, and the various activities that are done in community, what some refer to as “corporate” disciplines. Prayer is a discipline that connects us to God. Bible study connects us to the history of God’s work in the world, His teachings through prophets, and the words of His Son, our Lord, Jesus. “Church” or corporate disciplines involve what we find in Acts 2:42: “And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.”
One of the recent classics of the subject spiritual disciplines is the book A Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster, founder of the “Renovare” movement. He is not universally embraced, of course, but that aside, I have borrowed his classification of the disciplines.
He perceives three categories or types of disciplines: Inward, Outward, and Corporate. The four inward disciplines are meditation, prayer, fasting, and study. He lists four outward disciplines as simplicity, solitude, submission, and service. The remaining corporate disciplines focus on the development of Christian community as a whole; these are confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.
I recall from childhood one of the lingering echoes of our forebears’ attempts to establish our nation as a “city on the hill”. The now infamous “blue laws” prohibited much mercantile activity on Sundays. The original rationale was to help Christians observe their sabbath.
Roots of these laws reach deep into the spiritual fervor of colonists who arrived on the East Coast in the 17th century. Always prominent in such reflections are the Puritans of New England, but consider also the 1611 foundation laws of the Anglican colony of Virginia, which are the earliest set of English laws produced in the Western Hemisphere:
As also every man and woman shall repair in the morning to the divine service and sermons preached upon the Sabbath day in the afternoon to divine service and catechizing, upon pain for the first fault to lose their provision and allowance for the whole week following, for the second to lose the said allowance and also to be whipped, and for the third to suffer death.
(You can read this document online here).
Even after the adoption of a secular constitution, blue laws enjoyed widespread support in the U.S. Blue laws were not only supported by religious people, but were also celebrated by organized labor. An online history of the 1909 blue law in Washington state noted the following.
Some labor organizations supported the broad ban the Blue Law placed on commercial activities on Sunday, in order to preserve it as a day off for their members. For example, meat was a product that supposedly could not be sold on Sunday. This gave the butchers’ union a successful argument against merchants requiring butchers to work on that day. (from HistoryLink).
In the mid to late 20th century, there was a rush to abolish these laws. Now they linger on only in a few isolated locales. I don’t recall hearing any great rationale for this change, just something about them being old fashioned, like the spate of stately Victorian and beaux arts buildings that occasionally got slated for demolition in order to build parking lots or condos. Just one more thing for decent ordinary people to suck up–another thing that couldn’t be stopped–in the name of “progress.”
To be fair, although I may not recall them, valid arguments have actually been cited. One was that such laws amounted to discrimination against non-Christian minorities. Church-state concerns have also been raised, and have led to court battles, in which the constitutionality of blue laws has been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court (for example, McGowan vs Maryland in 1961). Another reason often advanced is cash flow, an example of which we saw as recently as 2010, when New Jersey governor Chris Christie urged repeal of blue laws in order to increase revenue to the state. He cited Bergen County, one of the last last places to keep its malls closed on Sunday, as “costing” the state $65 million in potential tax revenue.
The loss of the “blue laws” has not necessarily been to everyone’s advantage. On a clearly economic basis, it is debatable whether the blue laws have actually helped or hurt localities. It may increase some economic activities and diminish others (Goos, 2005).
It has clearly harmed attendance at churches, which must now compete with shopping malls and an ever growing variety of Sunday morning activities such as youth sports. (To be clear I don’t believe that blue laws are solely to blame for emptying our churches–many other factors can be cited). In concert with declining church attendance, other social ills can be correlated with this change. One study finds that blue law repeal is associated with a decrease in measures of happiness, particularly among women, even as Sunday shopping has increased. (Cohen-Zada and Sander, 2010)
Consider also the findings of a study by economists Jonathan Gruber of MIT and Daniel Hungerman of the University of Notre Dame, published in 2008.
Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY) on consumption of alcohol and illegal drugs, the economists found that repealing the blue laws did lead to an increase in drinking and drug use.
What’s more, they found that individuals who had attended church and stopped after the blue laws were repealed showed the greatest increase in substance abuse, Gruber notes.(a summary with link to the journal can be found at MIT News).
A 2014 study from Dara Lee at University of Missouri Columbia indicates that opening the malls on Sunday has caused decreased graduation rates and decrease in number of years in school, along with an increase in risky behaviors (Available online here).
What does it matter? Well, I certainly don’t expect blue laws to make a comeback. Like a lot of changes that happened in the 20th century, you really can’t close the proverbial “Pandora’s Box”. As individual Christians, though, we should do our best to “remember the Sabbath to keep it holy.” We should continue to try to put God first in our lives. That means going to church and perhaps missing out on some sales. It may mean explaining to our sons why they can’t play travel ball on Sundays. Although it won’t be as easy, we should be committed to carving out a time and space for Sabbath rest within our own busy worlds, to focus on God and his purposes for us.
With respect to the larger society, we should also be more vocal and strident in insisting that society “count the costs” before making changes that affect us. We should ask that purely financial goals be weighed against the non-financial harms that might ensue.
In a list of wisdom from the late tech guru and Apple founder, Steve Jobs, one item that leaps out is “your logo is your life!” (See example at a website byMillo).
A slight play on the wording here would give us an even more profound statement, “Logos is life”. As Christians, in the midst of the season of Advent, we have the privilege of heralding the arrival of the divine Logos, God’s “Word made flesh”.
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, (and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father,) full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14, Holy Bible)
Logos is Life!