What Does It Mean to Lead a Spiritual Life?
A Christian Perspective
The Rev. Dr. Kenneth A. Corr
First Baptist Church
I am humbled to be asked to speak on this topic because I know that there are nearly as many answers to that question as there are Christians. The different responses from the Christian community to the recent terrorist attacks is an example. Some have called for compassion, understanding, and non-violence; some have called for patriotic support of a military invasion; some have said that it is God's judgment on America; some have suggested it is the beginning of the apocalypse. All of these have claimed to represent the Christian perspective. So, when we ask the question of what it means to lead a spiritual life from a Christian perspective, there is no univocal opinion. If you have ever sat in an adult men's Bible class in a Baptist church, you know that is true. But I am willing to give my opinion as one who wrestles with this question on a regular basis.
Let me begin with a definition. I believe that this definition is true regardless of the faith tradition. The spiritual life of any person is the path that a person chooses to follow in response to the God within.
The spiritual life is a "path." It is more than doctrine or belief. It is the conscious choosing of a direction. Our English word, "belief" comes from the Anglo-Saxon word which means, "by-life." It is an understanding that "belief" is a way of life.
The spiritual life is also a "response." In the Christian tradition, this is called a conversion. It means that we set off on the spiritual path in response to something greater than ourselves. It may be a sudden and dramatic experience. It may be a long, slow process. But something happens to set us on the path.
The "something" that happens to us is "God." The only way that we can experience God is within. All religious experience is an inner experience. Then we have to ask, "What is an authentic religious experience?" The Islamic extremists are saying that the terrorist attacks are an authentic response to the God within. I'm sure that the men who blew themselves up in the hijacked airplanes thought they were doing the "godly" thing. How do we know what is an authentic religious experience? Here is where the different religious traditions take separate ways.
The Christian response is that authentic religious experience is defined by the revelation of God in Jesus Christ. "In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. . . . And the Word became flesh, and lived among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth" (John 1:1-2, 14).
That is a pretty bold statement and the basis for Christian ethics. How can Christians make such a bold statement for the uniqueness of Christianity? How can Christians claim that their understanding of God is more authoritative than the Moslem? It is this Christian claim for uniqueness that becomes a stumbling block for inter-faith cooperation.
On what do we base this truth claim? It is not the moral life of Jesus. It is not the teaching of Jesus. It is not even the death of Jesus. The answer is the Resurrection. In his book, Ethics, Jim McClendon, a Baptist theologian, says, "The resurrection event is in fact the turning point of all Christian thought, the cardinal matter of the New Testament. . ." (Jim McClendon, Ethics, p. 246).
The apostle Paul made the claim this way, "If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. . . . for if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile, and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied" (1 Corinthians 15:13-14, 16-19).
If you accept the resurrection, then the life and teaching of Jesus becomes authoritative. What Would Jesus Do really does become the critical question for Christian spirituality. It is a difficult thing for Christians to do. Tony Campolo, the Baptist preacher and sociologist once asked if Jesus would drive a BMW. I read an article by John Grisham, after the had written the book, The Chamber, in which he posed the question whether Jesus would pull the lever on the gas chamber. Fred Craddock, a retired professor of preaching, tells this story. ". . . I heard about a young man in his early twenties dying of that horrible, horrible, frightening, terrible AIDS in a hospital in Atlanta. He had no church connection, but someone said he had relatives who had been in the church, so they called a minister of that church, and the minister went to the hospital. The young man was almost dead, just gasping there, and the minister came to the hospital, stood out in the hall, and asked them to open the door. When they opened the door, he yelled a prayer. Another minister there in south Atlanta, down around Forest Park, heard about it and rushed to the hospital, hoping that he was still alive. She got to the hospital, went into the room, went over by the bed, and pulled a chair by the bed. This minister lifted his head and cradled it in her arm. She sang. She quoted scripture. She prayed. And he died. Some of the seminarians said, 'Weren't you scared? He had AIDS!' She said, 'Of course I was scared. I bet you I bathed sixty times.' 'Well then, whey did you do it?' And she said, 'I just imagined if Jesus had gotten the call, what he would do. I had to go.'" (Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories, p. 86).
That is the essence of the Christian spiritual life.
Jesus announced that the kingdom of God was in our midst. It is a new way of being in the world. It is a "topsy-turvy" world where, the last are first, and the first are last; the weak are strong, and the strong are weak; the foolish things are used to confound the wise, and the weak things confound the powerful; the outcasts are the honored guests, and those who are honored take the lowest place. Jesus said, "What is prized by human beings is an abomination in the sight of God" (Luke 16:15). What our world values, what is important to us, the ways that we measure success, the things after which we strive are worthless in the kingdom of God. William. Willimon says, "You have the world going in one direction, Jesus going in another" (Wm. Willimon, Pulpit Resource, July-Sept., '01, p. 40).
Many of you are aware of the Jesus Seminar. It is an effort by scholars to recreate as best we can the historical life of Jesus. John Dominic Crossan is one of the most influential members of this group. Crossan concludes that historically we can't reconstruct with certainty much of what the New Testament teaches about Jesus. But what we can trust for sure is that Jesus came eating and healing. More than just social occasions, the eating and healing events of Jesus were part of a larger strategy to challenge the values and structures of the world. He was offering a new community with a different set of values and structures.
Every time we share the Eucharist, we reenact in symbol this teaching of our Lord. Those who are welcome at the Lord's Table are not defined by economic discrimination, social hierarchy, and political differentiation. It means that we give up social distinctions that divide. At this table, there is no male or female, no black or white, no rich or poor, no pure or impure. There are only sinners who, by grace, have been adopted into the family of God. In his eating and healing, Jesus was giving a vision of the world in which God's kingdom is now and is a kingdom of inclusion.
The spiritual life is one that will follow a path that brings us into contact with the powerless, and brings us into conflict with the powerful.
Is it even possible to live that kind of life?
Let me give two examples of individuals who have become for me models of the Christian spiritual life. They are different as they can be.
One is male and one is female.
One lived in south Georgia, the other in New York.
One worked on the farm, the other worked in the city.
One was Southern Baptist, the other was Catholic.
One was happily married with children, the other had an only child out of wedlock.
One had a Ph.D. from seminary, the other never finished college.
You could not find two people more dissimilar.
But they both came to the same conclusions about the demands of the kingdom of God on their lives.
They both professed faith in Jesus Christ.
They both remained faithful to their church traditions.
They both lived with the poor.
They both believed in non-violence.
They both suffered greatly for their faith.
They both left a legacy that continues to inspire millions.
And they are both my heroes.
They are Clarence Jordan and Dorothy Day.
Clarence Jordan has been called, "a saint in overalls" and "a prophet in blue jeans" (Henlee Barnette, Clarence Jordan: Turning Dreams Into Deeds, p. 2).
He was born in Georgia in 1912, the fourth of seven children. He was raised in the Southern Baptist Church tradition and it was his belief in Jesus Christ that led him to an active concern for the poor, a radical view of social integration, and a belief in non-violence.
Listen to his understanding of the resurrection, "The resurrection places Jesus on this side of the grave-here and now-in the midst of this life. He is not standing on the shore of eternity beckoning us to join him there. He is standing beside us, strengthening us in this life. The good news of the resurrection is not that we shall die and go home with him, but that he has risen and comes home with us, bringing all his hungry, naked, thirsty, sick, prisoner brothers with him" (James C. Howell, Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs, p. 27).
That belief in the meaning of the resurrection, led Clarence to some radical experiments in ministry. He attended the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary where he finished a Ph.D. in New Testament Greek in 1942. He is probably most famous for his folksy translation of the gospels known as, The Cotton Patch Version of the Gospels.
While attending SBTS, Clarence became the director of the Long Run Baptist City Mission Program located in the Haymarket District of Louisville, where he was able to put into practice his concern for social ministry. He once gave an invitation in the chapel of the seminary, "If there is a student in this chapel who isn't looking for the First Baptist Church of Podunk Hollow, there is a ministry for you in this city's Haymarket district where 10,000 people are unchurched" (Barnette, p. 2f).
In 1939, there was an incident in the Haymarket district in which a young black girl was raped by a white man. The angry neighbors gathered at the Negro Fellowship Center. Bob Herndon was there that night and tells this story, "A large black man leading the crowd waved a section of iron pipe saying, 'Just like the whites kill a Negro for this; I'm going to kill a white man.' When the man made this threat, Clarence (who had slipped into the meeting) stepped forward, laid his head on a nearby table and calmly said, 'If a white man must die for this rape, let it be me. Do it now.'" (Henlee Barnette, Clarence Jordan: Turning Dreams Into Deeds, p. 6). That is an example of "belief" as "by life." Jordan believed that the Christian faith had to be lived and not just talked about.
But Jordan's most significant and most controversial contribution began in 1942 with the creation of an interracial farming community in Americus, Georgia, known as Koinonia Farms. Remember this was 1942 in Americus, Georgia. It was a radical experiment in Christian obedience.
He explained that the Christian faith must be lived and not just preached because people can't hear it when it is just preached. He gave this example. "The little country church to which I belonged invited me one summer to hold a revival meeting. They had heard I had graduated from the Baptist Theological Cemetery-uh, Seminary. So I accepted, and I preached to those people and I preached the word of God in south Georgia, and I didn't think that I would survive the ordeal, for when Jesus went back to his little home town to preach not a revival but just one youth sermon on Sunday morning they caught on to what he was saying before he even got to his closing point, and they took him out to the end of town to dash him over the hill. (That's one of the big troubles about Jesus' preaching: you can understand it). Well, I expected to be in that dilemma, but I wasn't; much to my amazement, when I got through preaching, these dear ole deacons came by and said, 'That's a sweet talk.' And I wondered where they were during that sermon! They again asked me to preach and again I tried to make it clear. I supplied for the pastor time and again but somehow I could never make myself heard. But gradually, as Koinonia took shape and the word that had been preached to these people became flesh and they could see it, then they caught on. Not only was I not asked to preach to those people anymore, I was excommunicated, along with all the rest at Koinonia, from the membership of that church. At last the sermon had been delivered." (Clarence Jordan, The Substance of Faith, p. 32f).
When the deacons called for his excommunication, he met with them and said, "'Brethren, if I have violated any teaching of this book (the Bible) in my beliefs or conduct, I will withdraw quietly from this church fellowship. Please point to the text or teaching I have failed to try to live up to!' With that he handed the Bible to the deacon seated next to him who nervously passed it, unopened, to the next. This silent uneasy passing of the Book continued, until finally one deacon explained, 'Brother Jordan, don't pull that Bible stuff on us!'" (Barnette, p. 9). The Christian spiritual life does try to take the Bible seriously. When you do, you get into trouble.
Clarence did not just receive resistance from his community. He also received resistance from his family. He had asked his brother to join him at Koinonia Farms. His brother had political aspirations and eventually became a state senator in Georgia and a justice on the state Supreme court. His brother said, "I can't do that. You know my political aspirations. I might lose my job, my house, everything I've got."
Clarence said, "We might lose everything too."
"It's different for you," Robert responded.
"Why is it different?. . . You and I joined the church the same Sunday as boys. I expect when we came forward the preacher asked, . . . 'Do you accept Jesus as your Lord and Savior?' And I said, 'Yes.' What did you say?"
Robert replied, "I follow Jesus, Clarence, up to a point."
"Could that point by any chance be-the cross?"
"I follow him to the cross, but not on the cross. I'm not getting myself crucified."
"Then I don't believe you are a disciple. You're an admirer of Jesus, but not a disciple of his. I think you ought to go back to the church you belong to, and tell them you're an admirer not a disciple."
"Well now, if everyone who felt like I do did that, we wouldn't have a church, would we?" To which Clarence applied the coup de grace: "The question is, Do you have a church?" (James C. Howell, Servants, Misfits and Martyrs: Saints and Their Stories, p. 28).
I believe that conversation is the essence of Clarence Jordan's understanding of the spiritual life of a Christian. We are called to surrender all.
He once preached on the call of Jesus to embrace all races. "After the sermon an elderly woman, as crisp with pride as a dead honeysuckle vine, made her way down the aisle, her blazing eyes telegraphing the tone of her response. Clarence braced, and she delivered-straight from the gut level of her culture.
"'I want you to know that my grandfather fought in the Civil War, and I'll never believe a word you say.'
"Clarence, who was tall and gracious and as Southern as sow belly himself, smiled and replied:
"'Ma'am, your choice seems quite clear. It is whether you will follow your granddaddy or Jesus Christ'" (Clarence Jordan, The Substance of Faith, p. 7).
Clarence died suddenly and unexpectedly on October 29, 1969. When he died, the coroner refused to come to the farm to receive the body. He was buried in blue jeans on the farm in a simple, homemade, wood coffin.
Millard Fuller's two-year old daughter stood with her family at the grave side and spontaneously began to sing, "Happy Birthday, dear Clarence." Henlee Barnette, who wrote a book on Clarence Jordan says, "Once I searched for his grave in that pine grove in Southwest Georgia. But, like the grave of the prophet Moses, there was no marker and I never found it" (Barnette, p. 11). The work that Clarence started continues today through the legacy of Habitat For Humanity.
Dorothy Day is my other example of the Christian spiritual life. She was born November 8, 1897, in Brooklyn, N.Y. She had a very difficult young adult life that included several lovers and one abortion. In March, 1927, she gave birth to her only child, Teresa Tamar. Dorothy never married Tamar's father. But she determined that she would raise her daughter with a religious faith and even though Dorothy was not raised Catholic, she decided that she would raise Tamar as a Catholic. This began a life of discipleship and service.
Dorothy prayed for guidance as to how she could serve the poor and needy, and a Catholic priest named Peter Maurin showed up at her house and announced that he was her mentor. Under Peter Maurin's direction, Dorothy's ministry developed along three ideas: A newspaper to distribute her views; a retreat ministry where people could escape the daily demands of life; and Houses of Hospitality for the poor.
Like Clarence Jordan, Dorothy believed that the resurrected Jesus is on this side of the grave. After a retreat in 1940, she wrote in her journal, "Heaven can begin here" (Jim McClendon, Ethics, p. 296).
Dorothy did not have an idealistic view that she was going to change the world. She knew well that poverty was not going to change. But the rules of the kingdom of God did not wait for heaven. The kingdom of God is now and demands obedience. Sometimes obedience can be very demanding. "Last week a woman came in with a policeman. She was a very difficult alcoholic whom Irene, who has charge of the women's house, had tried to help for the past six months. Over and over again she had cleaned Ann up, had tried to get her on her feet, had helped her to jobs, had forgiven her seventy times seven rather than put her out on the streets. The last time she was drunk, she had lost ten dollars in the house and we found it. Tom has charge of the money of the house, and it was turned over to him and used for 'flop money' for others, for beans for the soup or whatnot. When she next came in, sober, with a job, and asked for her money, we told her that we had found it but used it. We live often from day to day, so there was nothing at that moment in the house to give her. We did not say that she owed us far more for her six months' stay with us. And now here she was, coming in threateningly with a policeman, demanding we give her the ten dollars.
"'Give her your cloak, too,' Bob said." (Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage, p. 200f).
After being away at a retreat, she came back to New York. She records these words. "It is always a terrible thing to come back to Mott Street. To come back in a driving rain, to men crouched on the stairs, huddled in doorways, without overcoats because they have sold them perhaps the week before when it was warm, to satisfy hunger or thirst-who knows? Those without love would say, 'It serves them right, drinking up their clothes.' God help us if we got just what we deserved!" (Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage, p. 125).
One of my favorite stories of Dorothy Day is this. "One day a well-dressed woman visited Dorothy Day and donated a diamond ring. Dorothy thanked her and later in the day gave the ring to an elderly woman who took most of her meals at the shelter. A coworker protested, suggesting Dorothy should have sold the ring and used the money to pay the woman's rent for a year. But Dorothy insisted that the woman have her dignity. The woman could choose what to do with the ring. She could pay her rent for a year; or she could just wear the ring, like the woman who donated it. 'Do you suppose that God created diamonds only for the rich?'" (James C. Howell, Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs, p. 52).
Interestingly, Dorothy Day and Clarence Jordan knew each other. She visited Koinonia Farms. During her visit, she took her turn at the all-night sentry, sitting in a station wagon. It was the night before Easter. A car approached and slowed down. Dorothy ducked low in the seat just as a bullet passed through the parked car (James C. Howell, Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs, p. 47f)
She died on Nov. 29, 1980 and was buried in a homespun dress and laid in a plain wooden casket provided by the Trappists. The work that Dorothy began continues today. There are Houses of Hospitality across the country including one in Nashville.
Jim McClendon says, "Her life can only be understood in its wholeness if seen in resurrection light" (McClendon, p. 277). On the casket was one flower, saying, Resurrection (Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage, p. 64).
Clarence Jordan and Dorothy Day are not lives beyond the reach of ordinary Christians. They are simply individuals who took seriously the call to follow Jesus completely. I believe that is what the Christian spiritual life is.
Bibliographic resources for Clarence Jordan and Dorothy Day:
Henlee Barnette, Clarence Jordan: Turning Dreams Into Deed
James C. Howell, Servants, Misfits, and Martyrs
Clarence Jordan, The Substance of Faith
Jim McClendon, Ethics
Dorothy Day, On Pilgrimage
Copyright ©2002 The Reverend Dr. Kenneth A. Corr.
From a series presented by the Center for Spiritual Growth in Memphis, Tennessee.
Another Christian perspective by Dan Matthews.
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