Discipling Body, Heart, and Mind
by Carolyn M. Mowchan (January / February 2003 • Volume 19 • Number 1)
A holistic approach to discipleship.
Despite Paul's urgings that no part of the body is more important than any other part (1 Corinthians 12:12), Christians have been notoriously unable to take a holistic and integrated view of themselves.
Those with well-developed brains have looked down on those with well-developed hearts. Both are suspicious of people who don't spend much time worrying about thoughts or feelings. These folks just roll up their sleeves and go to work as the hands and feet of God busy in common labor and rather oblivious to the conflicts of the higher-ups.
Because the body has often been distracted by dis-integration and dis-ease, more and more people have looked elsewhere for health, healing, and wisdom.
Meanwhile, one of the primary concerns of the moment in the church is how congregations can help people mature in faith. And one of the primary conflicts is "What is the role of the intellect and what is the role of emotion in faith-forming communities?" Christians have asked "What do my thoughts, or knowledge, have to do with God? What do my feelings have to do with God?" And, rather nervously, "What does my body have to do with God?"
Any answer that neglects the inseparable trinity of body, heart, and mind is incomplete and has gotten us into trouble.
My own faith journey — as well as my work now as a pastor trying to help shape a congregation to grow disciples — has wrestled with these issues for more than 20 years. As a self-declared emotional female who loves systematic theology and at one time taught dance, I have longed for a more well-rounded approach to faith development. I have longed for a community that nurtures body, heart, and mind.
My search initially took me to the seminary, where I experienced faith formation Lutheran-style. I journeyed through a mountain of knowledge even while my heart was still aching for a deeper "relationship" and more consistent experiences of "feeling God's presence."
I suppose what I expected was four years of Bible camp experiences. To my surprise, what I received was rigorous intellectual training that more closely resembled law school. Even more surprising was that I loved it, thrived at seminary, and discovered that my time did help deepen my faith.
Seminary provided a structured environment for the practices of faith. There was the luxury of imposed discipline that few of us on our own could or would have maintained. There were some givens. We were there to learn, and we knew it. We submitted ourselves to the discipline of study, regular prayer and worship, and the challenge of faith discussion within a community of believers. We sacrificed years of our lives and years of our income in order to be there.
Immersing myself in the things of God (daily worship, study, Bible reading, and prayer for the Spirit to open my often-dull mind and tired body as I shuffled from class to class with my coffee cup) did grow my faith.
The seminary experience grew our hearts but probably not in the same proportion as it grew our minds. Academic theologians have often been criticized, perhaps unfairly, for having over-developed brains and under-developed hearts. (A good resource to understand these difficulties is the book Emotional Intelligence by Daniel Goleman [Bantam Books, 1995]).
At times, an anti-intellectual strain within the church has assailed those of us with well-developed brains. Such a strain is made up of those who believe that the felt experience of God is more important than the knowledge about God.
In response, those with well-developed brains have prided themselves on not being mush-minded theologically nor emotionally manipulated. They proceed with good order, smart doctrine, and intellectually superior European hymnody in worship.
The end result has been the critique that such worship is merely a "head" service.
Those who have yearned for a more full-bodied expression sometimes go elsewhere. My teen-age daughter tells me that her post-confirmation friends — who were once generally engaged and showed some spark of genuine interest during their confirmation years — no longer attend worship because they "don't feel the presence of God there."
I suspect that worship is no longer potent for these young people because it is no longer supported by other faith-forming practices, as well as a community of faith. Once they leave the confirmation program, they are often no longer engaged in intentional learning, reflection, and service or the challenge of discussion with their peers. Without other practices of faith, worship alone can quickly seem irrelevant.
At the same time, the goal of preaching seems to get confused. Sermons that explain what the Bible text really means are aimed at people who are consciously trying to integrate biblical knowledge into their daily lives. Our Lutheran tradition has stressed right knowledge in preaching. What God expects (the law) and the good news for those who can't live up to God's expectations (the gospel) have been our primary themes.
But another important goal is at work among some of our parishioners. Some are hungering spiritually for tools to recognize the presence and activity of God not only in the past but also in the present so that they can trust God's promises for the future. The good news for these folks is not that they are forgiven or even loved, but that God is still here and up to something significant in their lives. A huge gap in our Christian faith-formation process remains because congregations should be giving people the tools to see what an authentic experience of the presence of God is and isn't.
|Faith formation discussions need to include the questions both corporately and individually: How are we encouraging physical, emotional, and mental health?|
Searching for Balance
My own journey for spiritual intimacy with God took me on a search for a more balanced diet. From Catholic contemplatives, I learned a quite different style of faith formation.
On one hand, I discovered that most contemplatives had more time on their hands than most young mothers of small children will ever have. Searching for enough quiet time to just take a shower in those days, I found it very difficult to be as introspective as my spiritual directors advised. I quickly learned that the lifestyle and faith practices of celibate Catholic contemplatives were difficult to translate into my own.
On the other hand, I also received some very helpful advice. For instance, the call to "lift up your hearts" takes much more than the split-second response "we lift them up to the Lord." It takes time to find your heart, focus, and calm it. Contemplative introverts do this with silence, solitude, and meditation. The rest of us do it with a lot of music at the beginning of worship. If music is indeed the language of the heart (and I believe that it is), it's no accident that what we call "heart services" begin with l5-20 minutes of music primarily directed at engaging the heart. Orchestrating communal silence and reflection remains much more difficult.
Regardless of what happens in worship, worship alone will not grow disciples. Without disciplined biblical knowledge, will we be able to recognize the tracks of God when they do cross our paths? Without times of silence, is it possible to listen for the still, small voice of God? In an age of chronic over-busyness and addiction to noise, is it not difficult for people to have anything "still" or "small?"
Without heartfelt, head-informed dialogue in Christian community, faith is neither shared nor challenged, and genuine discernment is reduced to private experiences. Such experiences will be difficult to trust.
Finally, without active, sacrificial service, would-be disciples don't experience the presence and power of the risen Christ and non-believers have nowhere to look to see God incarnated in the world. Bodies need to be set in motion by the head and the heart.
But individual bodies are not enough. The power of God is seen best when it unites and directs otherwise estranged individuals into communities of Christian service.
How then are we to shape communities that produce mature disciples? Clearly what we've been doing hasn't been working too well or the topic wouldn't be at the forefront of so much discussion.
It seems to me that any informed discussion about Christian maturity and health needs to be as holistic as a good physician's approach to health. This involves the mind, the heart, and the body. It assumes dis-ease as part of the human condition, but it's not afraid to speak bluntly about prevention, prescription, and healing. Our physical health informs our emotional health; our emotional health informs our intellectual capacity.
The state of our bodies does shape our experience of God. (Go to worship with a very bad cold and an exhausted body and test this for yourself.) The state of our hearts does contribute to how much learning we can or cannot do. (Try reading a book when you've just had a fight with your spouse.) What we know or don't know clearly shapes the way we perceive and translate our own experiences. (Otherwise knowledge would not be power.)
Faith formation discussions need to include the questions both corporately and individually: How are we encouraging physical, emotional, and mental health? What are we doing to be physically active in the world, emotionally engaged, and intellectually fit?
When these questions are answered honestly, assessment, diagnosis, and prescription follow much more naturally. Then the question becomes "Are individuals and congregations really ready to take their medicine?"
Carolyn M. Mowchan is a pastor serving at Trinity Lutheran Church, Spooner, Wisconsin. The author is currently collaborating on a book about faith development.