I am always telling my kids that repetition is the key to honing their skills in soccer or other sports. Repetition works it into muscle memory: the technique, the situational awareness, the ability to receive and deliver the ball expediently. Almost everything works this way. I have told them their whole lives that if they want to be better, good, or great at anything, all it takes is repetition. Having guided repetition, the right repetition, may require a little coaching or tutoring, but most of the hard work is done on one’s own, between organized practices, putting in the effort out front at the basketball hoop or out back in the yard dribbling, juggling, trapping.
If repetition is the key to so much of the rest of our lives, then perhaps we shouldn’t be too quick to think that spontaneity is the key to the spiritual life. For certain, space ought to be made for intimacy with God and being in the moment, and if our prayer life is only repetition, we may need to make changes. Lex orendi, lex credendi is a phrase that means the law of prayer is the law of belief, meaning that the way we pray causes us over time and repetition to cause us to believe the biblical and apostolic revelation of who God has revealed Himself to be as the lover of our souls/bodies and the savior and redeemer of the world. In other words, only spontaneity doesn’t quite work as a catechetical, or teaching, tool. Repetition in prayer causes us to have the timeless truths–about God’s redeeming work and desire for intimacy with us–worked into the folds of our minds and hearts, with which we are then able to gratefully respond to all He has done for us.
The Church Calendar, the Sunday and Daily Office lectionaries, the spiritual disciplines encouraged by the Church to work the content of the faith into the folds of our minds…. these are not the enemies of spontaneity or intimacy with God. Quite the opposite, they work together to edify the members into a unified body of believers who all have had the same communal access to the biblical revelation of God, a saturation with the Scriptures, to ensure that none of the sheep are wandering outside the boundaries of God to justify their own self-actualization, as though they needed no Good Shepherd to guide them.
The design of the Church Calendar should cause us to refresh and repeat the true stories of God’s divine intervention in the salvation of the world, the work He renewed by Covenant throughout Israel’s history, and in, by, and through them in the New Covenant through the Son of Abraham and David, Yeshua Josephson, or as we now know Him, Yeshua Hameshiach in Hebrew, which means Jesus the Anointed King, or in the Greek translation: Jesus Christ, the King. The name Yeshua itself means God IS salvation, so the stories of God’s saving work through Covenant, through Law, and culminating in Gospel is ultimately about our deliverance from our sin and into the boundaried pastures of our Good Shepherd. The Church Calendar, and the lectionaries therein cause us to be reminded, as the repetitive reading and singing of the Psalms did for Israel, of the fulfilment of the Covenant to bless all Nations through Israel and the New Covenant that Jesus made with those who are being saved in Him.
Advent, the beginning season of the Church Calendar, means “the Coming,” and it refers to the fact that Jesus HAS come to inaugurate His Kingdom and that He will come again to consummate it fully with a New Heaven and a New Earth, a new Creation. We are in that in-between time of already and not yet during Advent. We rejoice that Christ has come into the world as its savior–not “world” in our connotation, but rather in the Greek connotation of the whole of the cosmos, all of Creation. John 3:16 says, “for God so loved the COSMOS that he gave his only begotten Son….” The implication of God’s love for all of Creation is that He is going to do something about it, to redeem it from its fallen state.
The story is retold in Advent of Jesus’ first coming and the story of His Kingdom coming in full is foretold. This great news, not that our names are merely written on some parchment called the book of life or that we’ll live in some disembodied cloudland called “heaven,” but that He is coming back resurrect us into renewed bodies, to make all things new in New Creation, where sin and death are crowded out and with finality banished into hell where God is absent. God will be present as He is now by His Spirit within us–the foretaste of the coming Kingdom God poured into His Church at Pentecost–but at the consummation, He will be present round and about us, when He pours His Spirit into His temple/palace the Cosmos. We will be re-embodied in the resurrection to live in communion with Him and others throughout the cosmos, and yet without sin rupturing those relationships. As a Kingdom of priests, we will serve continually before Him in a temple not made with hands, a mere copy of the true one, but in the City of God where He reigns and rules.
The only reason I am aware of all this is because of the renewing of my mind by saturation with the Scriptures over the years. If you want to get swole, you cannot just go to the gym once, have a spontaneous interaction with weights, and expect to win a body-building contest. The Church Calendar, the lectionaries–where by intention we are saturated with the Scriptures, washed with the water of the Word, drenched to the point where it soaks into us and renews our minds–the repetition of the story of God’s saving work in human and cosmic history: these are the things we can’t do without. Left to ourselves and the roller coaster of human emotion, we will always be bold in the attempt to put ourselves on the throne of our own hearts.
There cannot be any pride in this, as if those who keep the Church Calendar and its lectionaries are somehow über Christians in comparison to members of other denominations, as we often see in those who are newer to this brand of the faith. That would be sort of akin to someone saying in the early days of New Year’s resolutions, “Look at me! I’m in the gym!” as we often see in social media, which by implication is to suggest that others are, in fact, not in the gym. It is as if we think we can win a body-building competition on day one. In fact, those who have been keepers of the Church Calendar and its lectionaries will know that God is not puffed up with pride and neither should we be. He could have come at first as a conquering hero, but He was willing to become a man, to be swaddled with the clothes of our humanity, as a baby born in humble circumstances, to relate to the most insignificant of us, to shepherds and Samaritan women. We are not greater than our master. Jesus himself in fact said that hierarchies in His Kingdom function the opposite way than the human economy, with greatness measured not by lording power over others, but by becoming a humble servant aimed at the betterment of the condition of others, especially the least, the last, and the lost.
Over time, the saturation with the Scriptures embedded in the keeping of the Church calendar, has the impact of Body-building, to keep us from erring against the truth due to either ignorance or arrogance, to keep us in community. In fact, in the Song of Solomon, when the bride is restless because she has been made “Keeper of the Vineyards,” and it probably says that on her Hebrew business card, she admits, “my own vineyard I have not kept.” Then she asks the one who knows the answers how to get back to her original feeling of intimacy with Him, and He surprisingly does not recommend constant spontaneity in the bridal chamber, but rather to “follow in the footsteps of the flock, feed your little goats, beside the shepherds’ tents,” or to get back into relating in accountability to the community of faith, to take care of one’s God given responsibilities–as He is not the one who made us keeper of the vineyards (plural) to the extent that we cannot even keep our own vineyard–and then to do so under God-inspired authority of shepherds, those who are keeping the flock moving from pasture to pasture, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, within the boundaries of their care. The sheep are neither to be overfed to the point that movement from pasture to pasture becomes impossible, nor are they supposed to be driven in mission to the point that they collapse. We are invited, as Eugene Peterson has translated, into the gentle “unforced rhythms of the Kingdom of God.”
The worldwide Church, across denominational lines, unified as the mystical union of the Body of Christ without division, could use a little repetition in our spiritual disciplines. Those that have fallen into ONLY repetition could use a little intimate spontaneity, to be sure. However, those of us that have fallen into ONLY an immature desire to be constantly spontaneous might need to consider adding a little bit of repetition. The Scriptures are living word and therefore life-giving. The Word is food for our souls. Without the Word of God, our souls are starving to hear, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it. As Jesus said, “man cannot live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God.” And we are told by the prophet that His Word goes forth like rain to accomplish the task of watering and renewing the earth. Again we are told that the seed of the Word of God comes into us, goes off like an explosion of new life, and then over time grows us into the likeness of the Son of God Himself, and this is the telos, or the endstate, toward which God has been tending all things, to restore all things to right relationship with Himself, and restore us all to right relationship with each other. How are we as the Bride of Christ to really know Him, know ourselves as His beloved, and know each other in the light of His love? It is by prayer (communing with Him); fasting from being overfed by the world (to create space to commune with Him); and by repeating to ourselves and others–because we so often forget–the story of His love and movement toward us in intimacy through Covenant and New Covenant, through Law and Gospel, because of His desire to love us, to know us and be known by us, and for us to know and be known by Him and each other.
The kind of demon our generation has can only come out by much prayer and fasting, as it is the result of a massive plank of a trinity of idolatries: money and stuff; power and positional authority; and celebrity and youth. We would be wise to allow ourselves to return from chasing after the world and its priorities–as though after another lover–and to be restored to right relationship with God and others, to follow in the footsteps of the flock, and feed our little goats, beside the shepherds tents. This might frustrate the individuality and independence we have so cherished in the West, but we were not created simply to be individuated. We were created for communion with God and our brothers and sisters.
Let’s use the beginning of this Church calendar year to insulate ourselves with the promises of God from the distraction of the ever present fear on offer from the news cycle. Let’s take up the Scriptures again, together, as an opportunity to gain wisdom from the Spirit of God in Christ in others. Let’s take up prayer again, in constancy, to learn what is on the heart of God so that we might join Him in the work He most cares about in our community, which has historically throughout salvation history to work for the benefit of those who cannot repay, to demonstrate the generosity of God to the world. Worship, spiritually formative disciplines, koinonia community, flowing into outreach and mission: these are the gentle, albeit repetitive, rhythms of the household of God.