Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Discontentment can be spiritually formative

Today I read the introduction that Dallas Willard wrote to a book co-authored by two pastors who, after chasing and catching the Evangelical mega-church vision, took a more discipleship-based approach in their ministry and began a transformation of their church that apparently took the better part of ten years. The two pastors are Kent Carlson and Mike Lueken and the very appropriately Franciscan title of their book is Renovation of the Church: What Happens When a Seeker Church Discovers Spiritual Tranformation. What struck me in Willard's introduction was something he quoted from the text of the book: "it is spiritually formative to be dissatisfied and unable to resolve it".

Being struck by a line like that is not unusual for me, nor does it usually result in me writing something, especially in these days when I have slowed down, but only serves to remind me that I am created and redeemed for something greater, something infinitely great because only something that great can really match my desire, which is what is bursting forth when I feel discontented. After all, I cannot be content with discontentment! But then I read an introductory chapter of Robert Fryling's book The Leadership Ellipse, a book that is now on my Kindle reading list. The passage that spoke clearly and plainly to me from this book began with a lengthy quote by Henri Nouwen:
I want to love God but also make a career. I want to be a good Christian but also have my successes... I want to be a saint but also enjoy the sensations of sinners. I want to be close to Christ but also be popular and liked by people. No wonder that living becomes a tiring enterprise
Picking up this and addressing Christians leaders, Fryling chimes in with,
We proclaim the good news of the gospel and invite people to come to Jesus so that he will meet their needs. But when they come to Jesus, they find out what their needs are - they need to do this and need to do that! In wanting to do better, we seek to more and to accomplish more. We grasp for the forbidden fruit of living beyond our limits and then impose this grasping on others All of this grasping, though, only provides more discontent

This leads to two very useful pieces of wisdom. The first, from Christian tradition, which serves as the epigraph of this first chapter of the book, a quote from Blaise Paschal: "We could avoid most of our problems if we only learned how to sit quietly in our room." The second is from Scripture, which has only three verses:

        O LORD, my heart is not lifted up;
     my eyes are not raised too high;
     I do not occupy myself with things
     too great and too marvelous for me.
        But I have calmed and quieted my soul,
        like a weaned child with its mother;
        like a weaned child is my soul within me.
     O Israel, hope in the LORD
        from this time forth and forevermore (Ps. 131-ESV)

After a discussion about what means to "weaned" in a spiritual sense, Fryling concludes that "our personal contentment should not and cannot be just a privatistic experience" because "[w]e are created to be in relationship with God and others." While finding time both for prayer and solitude, which is what Paschal is getting at in his quote, are vitally important to ease to our existential discontent, "we can't be content for long all by ourselves." While it is quoted far too often and much too glibly, what St. Augustine observed at the very beginning of his Confessions truly applies: "You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You."

Of course, our discontent and dissatisfaction, described more dialectically as existential angst, can also lead us in other directions and down dead-end paths. But these, too, by the grace of God, can be spiritually (trans)formative.

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