The Outdated Testomony says all of it
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This is the fifth in a six-part series of essays drawn from a cross-section of leading scholars who reconsider the place of the "First Testament" in contemporary Christian faith. – The editors
I I'm not an Old Testament theologian, but I've loved the Old Testament for a long time.
I had quiet times before I knew they were a prerequisite for Christian living, and it was during such times that I was naturally and inexplicably drawn to the Old Testament. I took my Bible and a journal – and sometimes a Bible study guide or book of poetry – and got lost in it.
The psalms in particular were amazing to me. They were full of emotions that I experienced as a teenager: anger and sadness, loneliness and questions, longing and passion, adoration and awe. When I was immersed in the Psalms, I felt understood and comforted – as if someone had really caught me. As I read David's confessions of sins or his seething curses against his enemies, I knew that there was nothing I could not name in God's presence. Nothing was out of bounds. For a passionate, melancholy young girl and pastor's child in a conservative religious environment, this was no mean feat! The psalms gave me a place to be and breathe; I loved God because I lived there with God.
I now realize that I have learned to pray not so much from the teachings of the New Testament (precious as they are) but from actual prayer along with the great prayers of the Old Testament. For me it wasn't old at all; it was fresh and new. The psalmists gave me words when I didn't have any and started my own prayers. This was my earliest experience of being spiritually shaped by the Old Testament.
What is Christian Spirituality?
What do we mean when we speak of being “spiritually formed”? The term spirituality is a rather ambiguous and ubiquitous term in today's culture. If we listen carefully we can hear that it is used to describe everything from meditation to mountaineering, from the "flow" an athlete feels on the basketball court to the unconscious state of the artist trapped in his art quiet retreat to worship in a cathedral, from practicing yoga to simply paying attention to your breathing. The language of spirituality can seem like an ill-defined, amorphous, soft-margined thing signifying an otherworldly sentimentality with a tendency toward the mystical that often has little to do with any deity or religious affiliation.
But let's reclaim that term and put it to good use, shall we? Simply put, spirituality is all of the ways in which people reach for God, for truth, for personal meaning, and for ultimate meaning. All people have a body, a soul, and a spirit, and the spirit is what animates us. However, when the concept of spirituality is coupled with the word Christian, an even clearer perspective emerges. Bradley Holt makes it clear in his book Thirsty for God that the term in the Christian tradition "relates primarily to lived experience". “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep up with the Spirit,” Paul writes in Galatians 5:25 (ESV). "The starting point is the spirit of Christ who lives in the person," says Holt.
So in a Christian context, the words spirituality and spirituality mean to be “of the Holy Spirit” – the third person of the Trinity sent by God at Jesus' request to be our advocate and counselor and guide us into the truth as we do can take it. As Philip Sheldrake argues in A Brief History of Spirituality, a "spiritual person" (1 Cor 2: 14-15) in Paul's letters was simply someone in whom the Spirit of God dwells and who lives under the influence of that Spirit .
In defining spirituality in this way, we see the meaning of the root word spirit – a rich biblical concept that applies to both the human spirit and the divine spirit. The divine spirit refers to the Spirit of God who was active in human affairs in the Old Testament and is the Holy Spirit who now dwells in us. Spirituality that is clearly Christian is thus spirituality that is initiated, animated and guided by the Holy Spirit. This gives it a certain gravity that may be lacking in more general and imprecise uses of the term.
Image: Illustration by Matt Chinworth
Pray with the Old Testament
By definition, we all have a spirituality – a way of responding (or not) to a given mind. And while the starting point is the Spirit of Christ who lives in every Christian, we all have a certain style of Christian discipleship – or, as Dallas Willard put it, a certain way “to be with him, to learn from him how one like him. ”
Different traditions, denominations, and orders embody and codify many of these distinctions in style. "For example, Jesuits, Lutherans, and feminists each have a particular combination of themes and practices that make them distinctive," writes Holt. “For Christian spirituality today it is of crucial importance that we consider this tradition and the global Christian family comprehensively and not just anchor that small part of the tradition that is known from our home, community or ethnic group. Spreading this tradition will open our eyes to vast resources of spirituality and provide guidance for our own decisions. "
If we can learn from the best of a variety of secondary resources, we can certainly rediscover how the Old Testament – most of the Scriptures – could shape Christian spirituality today.
For example, remember that prayer is a primary expression of our spirituality. The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Spirituality boldly states, "Prayer is more than supplication or pleading: it is our entire relationship with God." My own definition is that prayer is all ways in which we communicate and communicate with God. We are formed in prayer by actually praying. When I look back on my early experiences with the Psalms, I see that this is exactly what happened. I was formed spiritually by praying with the Jewish prayer book – the one that Jesus and his disciples used as practicing Jews. What an amazing thought!
For the sheer completeness of the prayer genres, the psalms are unparalleled. There we find personal and community prayers, prayers of lament and prayers of thanks, penitential prayers that express deep humility and unsightly prayers that courageously call down God's wrath and judgment on sinners, spontaneous prayers and temple liturgies, doxologies that express great certainty, and intimate prayers expressing deep questions and doubts. No wonder that in historical Judeo-Christian practice the Psalms are read and prayed every day. If this were the only Old Testament contribution to our spirituality, it would be plentiful; But of course there is a lot more.
An invitation to solitude and silence
Those early encounters with God in the Psalms were perhaps my first experiences with my spirituality – not just my theology – being shaped by the Old Testament. But that was not all. When I was in my early 30s, a day came when words just stopped working for me and systematic theologies did not fulfill my longing to really know God. Also, I was looking for a real change in my life, and New Testament categories just weren't as resonating as they used to be. Indeed, the rampant activism that characterized my evangelical upbringing had exhausted me and utterly exhausted me. So I got out and I wasn't even sure I wanted to become a Christian anymore.
The only thing I knew was that I wanted God more than I wanted to be a Christian (if that makes any sense), and then my story crossed with that of Elijah in 1 Kings 19. This is where I met a person who I was could relate to – a spiritual leader who had come to an end and his ability to receive what life in leadership required. After a great success (1 Kings 18), Elijah runs for his life after leaving everything and everyone behind, collapsing under the lonely broom tree and asking God to kill himself. This is the deepest kind of loneliness, or inwardness, and loneliness began to do its good job, although Elijah did not know much about it.
When I met Elijah, I found myself in a similar situation internally, although the details were different. At that time, no one in evangelism spoke about loneliness and silence. When a spiritual leader introduced me to these practices, I needed a place in scripture to land. I needed to know that what I was doing was within the framework of Orthodox Christianity, and the Old Testament showed that it was.
Elijah's story (not his pontificate) gave me the courage to let go and take my own journey into solitude and silence. I began to cultivate solitude as a place of rest in God, just as Elijah had experienced. In the course of time it became a place of encounter with God, where I heard God's questions to me, a place of peace where the inner chaos began to calm down, and finally a place of attention where I could find God's guidance and Wisdom could get for my next steps. None of this would have happened without Elijah's story. Although I was fully aware of Jesus' time in the wilderness and its significance, something about the raw humanity of Elijah's experience attracted me in a new way.
Eventually I returned to my life in the company of others and, as God wanted, I was drawn back into active service. As the demands and challenges of leadership intensified, I called out to God that someone else of the scriptures could walk with him – someone who could help me understand what happens to leaders, why it has to be difficult, and how to get there the long haul is maintained for this. And God who is faithful gave me Moses. In Moses' story, I found a detailed and deeply spiritual perspective on guidance that was unmatched other than Jesus himself. Somehow, Moses' story seemed to have more human elements of the struggle for fidelity, and I resonated deeply with its ups and downs and everything in between.
I asked myself: how did he do it? In the midst of such difficulties and relentless challenges, how could he hold his own in the long run? I noticed that Moses didn't seem to have a great strategy for leadership. Instead, I observed a sacred rhythm that I felt drawn into. The sacred rhythm was to meet God in solitude and then come out of that encounter and do exactly what God commanded. For Moses, guidance was so easy, and I thought, well, that's one approach to guidance that I can actually take.
There is so much more I could say about Moses' companionship for my life as a guide. Suffice it to say, however, that God used the Old Testament narrative of Moses' life to turn the experience of leadership upside down so I could see what it looked like and what really helped, continually strengthened at the soul level to become.
Show, don't tell
In my experience, the Old Testament narratives externalize what is deep within, utterly personal and even somewhat mysterious in the spiritual life. Instead of telling, they show what it is like to encounter the living God in the midst of our ordinary lives and what happens when we answer. They illustrate what it is like to have a real relationship with God, which can even include arguing with God until God gets angry with you.
David's soaring praise and intense struggle with God (captured in songs, poems, and written prayers) show, rather than say, what it is like to be honest with God and show that God can accept it. Elijah's life sustaining encounter with God illuminates the powerful results of loneliness that come to us in no other way.
The factual portrayal of Deborah's role as prophetess and judge in Israel at a crucial moment in the nation's history in the Old Testament showed me that God can – and will – use everyone! – God wants to do what must be done (Judges 4). When a young woman was called to serve, I had to see it. I also had to be assured that there would be men like Barak who saw the value of partnering with female leaders and were willing to fully participate in the risks and opportunities of going together into dangerous areas and being met by God there to become.
Another example is Eli's support for Samuel as Samuel increased in his ability to hear and respond to God (1 Sam. 4). This shows the invaluable value of spiritual guidance in the life of an aspiring spiritual leader – a crucial biblical snapshot for my own reputation. Eli's realization that the voice in the night could be God calling the little boy and the way he guided Samuel to respond when it happened again seemed to be one of the most precious things a human could do for could do another. And you didn't have to be perfect to do it. Later, when I realized that this is exactly what spiritual leaders do, I longed to sit with people in the same way.
All of these stories turn an individual's deeply personal experience of God upside down so that we can see what would otherwise be hidden from our eyes. They illuminate these experiences from within and invite us to be open, receptive, and maybe even expectant that the same things might happen to us. If we then stumble into such experiences without our own knowledge and without our own foresight, the Old Testament narratives help us to find courage, to lean back and say: "That's how it has to be. I'll be there!"
Ruth Haley Barton is the founding president of the Transforming Center, an experienced spiritual director and author of Strengthen the Soul of Your Leadership: Seek God in the Crucible of Service (IVP books).
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