When E M Forster in A Passage to India sniffed with the disdain of the omniscient narrator at 'poor little talkative Christianity' he was doing what the best novelists do so well, exposing pretension and presumption and daring to name what is ridiculous. Of course not all Christianity is talkative in that embarrassing way when much speaking disguises insecurity, or pretends maturity, or silences other viewpoints by not shutting up about itself.
But there's still a sharp enough barb in Forster's words to make me uneasy about the contemporary expressions of evangelical spirituality and worship. The urge to talk to the point of overtalking, the impatience with silence as if silence were wasted time, the compulsion to fill every unforgiving minute with maximum information, our praise song factories churning out new stuff at increasing rates of quantity, our uncritical acceptance of prayers that seldom reach the depths of our love or the heights of our aspirations and are often the mere immediate chatter of Facebook exchanges with God.
Add to that our programmatic approaches to mission, activism as the index of discipleship, the concessions made in Christian practices and social attitudes to consumer culture and the radical individualism of personal choice and privatised lifestyles, and there is little time, energy or inclination to stop, shut up, listen, pay attention and let the engines that drive us slow down, quieten down and cool down.
Now all that is overstated, and mostly unfair, and anyway I can much-speak and fast-talk and non-stop with the best of them. But perhaps that enables me to say all this less self-righteously than it might sound. T S Eliot's question (was it wistful, angry or resigned) 'where is the life we have lost in living...' remains one of the most important questions the contemporary church has to ask, and with which the contemporary disciple of Jesus has to grapple.
I know that discipleship is at the centre of current thinking on the nature of the Church's mission, but I'm not persuaded that the way the idea is used to shape and fashion people towards a particular view of mission does justice to the New Testament vision of what it means for each person to follow Jesus. There are other calls of Christ, other ways of being, other paths of following that are equally important to the Kingdom of God, if we take the time to consider and ponder the richness of the people of God and the unsearchable riches of Christ. But the irony is that the more we talk and the faster we live, the harder it is to even see what the important questions are, let alone what kinds of answers there might be.
Which brings me to a question I am considering and pondering myself. What would be the impact on our ways of being the church if we recovered,, in our midst, the contemplative tradition of Christian discipleship? I have in mind certain words that seem to me to offer important theological and spiritual correctives to a church perhaps too fond of unexamined assumptions.
Attentiveness to the way the world is without assuming our quick diagnoses are always accurate. Amos didn't come to the conclusion overnight that worship is a waste of time for those who grind down the poor. His entire collection of prophecies detonates beneath unexamined assumptions.
Attendance - in the sense of waiting before God, just waiting. If we are attending before God our minds can't be in two places at once. Prayer isn't multi-tasking, it is letting God be God, instead of telling God who to be.
Pondering - rumination and turning things over in our minds, may not be the preferred approach to problem solving in our quick as you can solutions culture. Somewhere in Christian spirituality there is a necessity for the long view, the slow maturation of thought, the virtue of patience which is in fact waiting trustfully. Isaiah looked down the long winding road of exile and realised it would eventually be the road that led back to God.
Recollecting - so many fugitive thoughts, fleeting experiences, volume of emotional and mental traffic passing through our inner processors. Time to assimilate, to collect together what is important and taken in, to absorb the significance of things. Where in our life together in Christian community is there the same urgency towards non-urgency, the same valuing of that discernment and sifting that turns experience into wisdom?
Remembering - in the sense of recalling our calling; meaning time to reorient our hearts towards the Love that not only moves the sun and other stars, but moves our hearts; and with a view to being re-membered, joined together, co-ordinated, so that over time our disjointed living recovers co-ordination, and our strained activism gradually gives way to living that is purposeful, creative and balanced in its intake and outflow of energy.
No this is not all a rant. It's a plea for a recovered humanism towards ourselves, a cherishing of our humanity in a way that takes our deepest selves seriously as ones loved by God. It is a recognition that Christians are called not only to do, but to be, and to give time of day to that genuine instinct for stillness and slowness, two dispositions I for one find unfamiliar, but out of which may come the finding of our life's hopes. It is an acknowledgement that the trivialisation of God is an inevitable process of trivialising our own lives. And it is a growing conviction that Isaiah was right to say to a people who had exhausted their capacity to hope, "they that wait upon the Lord shall renew theyr strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint..." Waiting - yet another word with which our culture, and the church, and our own hearts, are impatient.