Moving Beyond the Basics
By The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond
Special to Virtueonline
January 25, 2013
One of my favorite television programs is the newly released Elementary. It is the traditional Sherlock Holmes radically recast for contemporary audiences, and quite entertaining. Those of us familiar with Doyle's classic texts, as well as with the films loosely associated with them, will be familiar with Holmes' famous phrase "Elementary, my dear Watson." The thesis underscored is simple: Some things are so very basic that they need not be elaborated upon.
Dr. Watson, Holmes' educated assistant, learned this lesson well. What was at one time most difficult for him to understand, with time became "elementary." By associating and learning from Holmes, Watson became a most adept investigator.
The church should take note of this. Having traveled a great deal, and having had the opportunity to both preach and worship in a vast array of denominational settings, has led me to one very sad conclusion: The American church, Anglicanism included, is shamefully shallow. Beliefs and behaviors that are expressly "elementary," are often promulgated as "deeper life" teachings. I have been stunned at how frequently the basics have been broadcast as deeper life doctrine. We must move beyond the basics.
Hebrews 5: 11 - 6: 12 tells us how. In this text we read about an assembly of believers who, having received sound doctrine, should have been a spiritually educated and transformed people. Instead, however, they were fixed upon "first" and "elementary principles" unworthy of those who should have been advanced in the faith (NKJV).
The author of this book provides us with an outline of the basics that dominated their attention. The basics are, according to Hebrews, repentance, faith, baptisms, the laying on of hands, the resurrection from the dead and eternal judgment (6: 1 - 3, NKJV). And here is the "kicker:"
I have rarely been in any American or Canadian church in any denomination which has moved beyond these fundamentals of faith. In spite of our ongoing need to remain faithful to these essentials (Hebrews 6: 3), we continue to emphasize the elementary. Enough. We must move beyond the basics. How?
We must become "skilled" in faith (Hebrews 5:11). In context, the author of Hebrews makes a distinction between the "milk" of youth and the "meat" of adults. As children, specifically infants, we need "milk," but, as we mature, a heartier diet is required. Part of the reason for this is because, as we mature, we develop teeth. Teeth help us chew our food. In order to become skilled in faith we must develop a diet that is tougher to chew and tougher to digest. In other words, we must learn to wrestle with the very hard issues of life without resorting to evangelical escapism --- or other "traditional" forms of life-evasion.
One example of the hard issues that are rarely (if ever) addressed is also found in Hebrews. In the "Heroes of faith" chapter we read these very difficult words, "AND ALL THESE [HEROES OF FAITH] DID NOT RECEIVE THE PROMISE" (Hebrews 11: 39). Although we can interpret and present this text in a palatable manner (make it milk), I have never heard any pastor at any time wrestle with its extremely painful possibilities or realities (keep it meat). Developing skills, moving beyond basics, requires that we wrestle with God over painful issues and risk being hurt. This brief passage, and its implications, offers a Via Dolorosa for us to grow in God. We must struggle in order to become skilled.
We must develop discernment by training our faculties (Hebrews 5:14). For some years I was raised by my uncle, a career military man who (thank God) had very high standards. One of his expectations was that I make my bed --- every day and with military corners. I hated it. Nevertheless, now almost fifty years later, I continue to make my bed every day --- and sometimes with my wife still sleeping beneath the covers. Although I hated making my bed, it became a habit. The way it became second nature to me was by perpetual practice. I did it, and kept on doing it, until the point where I did not even give it a thought. Similarly, if we are to develop discernment, we must consistently practice righteousness. We must "exercise" our spiritual muscle. We must be obedient.
Obedience has many applications and, to some small degree, is determined by each individual in her walk with God. Nevertheless, regardless of its subjective applications, the Bible provides us with an array of objective expectations. The Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount immediately come to mind. With little effort I am sure that each reader can arrive at a number of her own subjective and objective applications. Practice makes perfect, and, even if this adage contains only limited truth, is it any wonder why our churches are so often stocked with those who do not know the basics. They do not "know" the basics because they do not practice obedience. Knowing truth is perceived and discerned by practicing it. If we lament over the low ebb of Christian culture we must learn to be obedient and work righteousness.
God is holy and we are called to be a holy people. No spiritual integrity, no spiritual insight.
We must learn to be earnest (Hebrews 6: 1). In the first verse of chapter six, the author of Hebrews tells us that we must set aside the "discussion" of principles. This text reminds me of St. Paul's experience at Mars Hill where his opponents spent their days discussing new ideas --- or, in fact like Post-Modernism and New Age thinking, stale and emasculated old ones. We as a church spend far too much time in stale discussions when we should have long past made spiritual decisions. This does not mean that, given certain parameters, discussions are not needed. God himself urges us to "reason together," and St. Paul was no opponent to dialogue. Nevertheless, our discussions must be decision based. We must ask at the outset WHAT MUST I DO? How shall I act? Where will we go?
This orientation will, of necessity, be subjective. The first agent of change is me. I must look at and change myself before I have the "cheek" to expect change of others. But, beyond this, WE must change. WE must move on. WE must make a decision. AND, at least on one front, this challenges our current Anglican associations. WE must decide how to move from federation to communion.
Or, on another front, WE must determine whether our "higher ground" of biblical fidelity is feasible when, contrary to St. Paul's admonition, we take other Christians (even if they are dead wrong) to court. This quite naturally (pun intended) returns us to our need for spiritual discernment through devoted practice. WE must be earnest by developing disciple-like discernment aimed away from endless discussion toward enterprising decision. MOVE ON.
Finally, we must become imitators of Christ. As Christians, Anglican Christians in particular, we have been graced with enlightenment, "gifts," scripture, and power / authority (Hebrews 6: 4 - 6). Our Book of Common Prayer, a rare treasure indeed, is just one example of the many graces we as Anglicans have uniquely received. But what are we doing with these gifts? Are we skilled in righteous living? Are we insightful through obedience? Are we discerning through practice? Are we exceptionally earnest? Are the graces we have received making us true imitators of Christ?
Thomas 'a Kempis, in the first chapter of his classic Imitation of Christ, has written "[W]hosoever would fully and feelingly understand the words of Christ, must endeavor to conform his life wholly to the life of Christ" (Moody, 1980, p.23). Are we conforming our lives to Christ so that we might leave the elementary teachings behind us and, finally, move "further up and further in" (Lewis, The Last Battle) to God's ever richer and deeper blessings?
The Very Rev. Dr. Donald P. Richmond, a Priest-Oblate with the Reformed Episcopal Church - Diocese of the West and Order of Saint Benedict, is a widely published author.
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