Six Spiritual Traditions that can nurture our faith

There is throughout Scripture a rich image of “streams of water” or “living water” that represents Life in general, but more specifically, spiritual life – the God-filled, God-shaped life. The image of “streams of living water” also evokes the reality that there are various traditions of spirituality through which our life in God is experienced. Richard Foster’s Streams of Living Water looks at 6 main traditions, which provided the outline for a sermon series that began in January 2018. Each week, I wrote a brief introduction for the worship service for each spiritual tradition. Here are all six intros published together.

The Word-Centered Life: The Evangelical Tradition

The Evangelical Tradition is composed of three great themes: first, and foremost, the faithful proclamation of the gospel; second, the centrality of Scripture as a faithful repository of the gospel; and third, the confessional witness of the early Christian community as a faithful interpretation of the gospel,” writes Richard Foster in Streams of Living Water

Most of us at NorthChurch have been shaped by the evangelical tradition. One gift of the evangelical stream has been its focus on Scripture as the Word of God. Evangelicals love Bible study! Some figures in history who exemplify this tradition are the Apostle Peter, who gave the first evangelistic message on Pentecost; St. Augustine who was an articulate and passionate defender of the true faith; and Billy Graham who preached the straight-forward gospel message to more people, in more places than anyone in history.

In the Presbytery of Cincinnati, North is known as an evangelical church and World Outreach Christian Church and Crossroads are two other examples of evangelical churches in our area.

Doing Justice, Loving Kindness: The Social Justice Tradition

The Social Justice Tradition may seem like it is a relatively recent spiritual stream, springing out of the political movements and revolutions of the past 100 years. But it has its roots in the Old Testament prophets who spoke “truth to power” — not just to those with ruling power, but religious power and economic power as well.

Richard Foster defines it simply as “a life committed to compassion and justice for all peoples” which engages in outward conflict with “all social, economic and civic injustices of society” through the weapons of prayer, Christian community and prophetic witness.

The prophet Amos, who lived 800 years B.C. is an often-quoted biblical example of a social justice expression of faith. In America, we can look to John Woolman who in the 1750’s, before the American Revolution, led his whole Quaker denomination to be the first church group to abolish slavery from its ranks, and to be the only body in history to vote to pay financial restitution to the slaves they once held.

A more recent example comes from Dorothy Day, the founder of Catholic Worker Houses, which includes CAIN’s Grace Place. In Cincinnati, the AMOS Project provides a way for churches and individuals to join hands to work for social justice. Currently AMOS is gearing up to change unjust incarceration practices in the State of Ohio.

Loving God: The Contemplative Tradition

The Contemplative Tradition is usually associated with monasteries, mystics, and the Catholic Church. You’ve experienced it perhaps through a silent retreat, or in reading a book like Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle, or by meeting with a spiritual director.

But the contemplative stream has some unexpected contemporary expressions; like in free-flowing worship times recorded in You Tube videos. Click HERE to watch “Worshipmob Venture 9″, with over 1.2 million views, which includes young people from local churches.

Richard Foster defines the Contemplative Tradition as the “Prayer-Filled Life.” But is more than that. It is about being immersed in God’s love, seeking and abiding in God’s presence—not so much for answers or directions, but simply to know and experience God more and more.

The Apostle John, “The Beloved Disciple” who leaned on Jesus’ breast during the Last Supper, and whose Gospel reads so differently than the other 3, is a biblical example in the Contemplative Tradition. There is also St. Anthony, the first of the “Desert Fathers,” credited with beginning Christian monasticism. A more recent example is Frank Laubach, a twentieth century protestant missionary in the Philippines whose Letters by a Modern Mystic, describes his desire and attempt to think about God literally every minute of his life.

Signs and Wonders: The Charismatic Tradition

These are the manifestations of the Spirit we associate with the Charismatic Tradition: instantaneous healings, speaking in tongues, exorcisms, prophetic knowledge or visions, and various kinds of miracles. We also associate the Charismatic Tradition with a certain form of worship — more free-flowing, one that encourages freedom of individual expression and the exercise of spiritual gifts in the time of worship.

It is an attentiveness to the third person of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, that empowers these expressions. But as Richard Foster says, “Frankly, there are no ‘noncharismatic Christians.’” To be Christian is to have the Holy Spirit in us and the normal Christian life “is, quite simply, life in and through the Spirit of God.” The Charismatic Tradition is especially open to what that is like.

The name Charismatic comes from the biblical word charismata, which is often translated “spiritual gifts.” These include the “ecstatic” or miracle gifts, but also leadership gifts and community-building gifts, and as Foster puts it, “the sign of the presence of the charismata is that the effect of one’s actions greatly exceeds the input of human being.” In other words, they are powerful signs that God is present and active, often in situations that we have written off as hopeless.

Because we’ve connected the Charismatic Stream with a certain form of exuberant worship, we might be surprised to find St. Francis of Assisi as an example of this tradition. But his life of faith began in response to a powerful leading of the Holy Spirit and his entire life was rich in miracles and healings, signs and wonders, revelations and visions. We might not think of the Apostle Paul as a charismatic (perhaps because of his rational way of writing), but read the book of Acts and see how Paul’s life was filled with powerful manifestations of God. More recently, we could look to William Seymour and the Azusa Street Revival, which gave birth to modern Pentecostal churches like the Church of God in Christ and the Assemblies of God. In the 1970s, a “charismatic renewal” not only gave birth to the Vineyard movement, but brought fresh life to many mainline churches.

The Virtuous Life: The Holiness Tradition

For it is written, “You shall be holy, for I am holy.” (1 Peter 1.16). The call to holiness is consistent and clear in Scripture.

The Holiness stream of spirituality springs from the doctrine of Christian perfection, outlined in modern times by John Wesley in the mid 1700s. For Wesley, this meant such a “purity of intention” and love for God that one would no longer willfully sin.

Richard Foster calls the Holiness Tradition the Virtuous Life, and says it is not about rules and regulations, or avoiding real life, or giving up all comforts, or working our way into heaven, or reaching a state of sinless perfection in this life. Instead, it is “sustained attention to the heart” and life-long pursuit of and progress in pure and right actions, which is made possible only God’s grace.

The insistence that faith must translate into action makes the Apostle James a biblical example of the Holiness Tradition. Throughout Christian history there have been numerous calls for what church Father Gregory of Nyssa called “constant growth in the good.” In the 1800s the Second Great Awakening brought about new emphasis on holiness at camp meetings, through the “Tuesday Meetings for the Promotion of Holiness” started by Phoebe Palmer in New York City, and from revival preachers like Charles Finney. Oberlin College, the Salvation Army, and the Nazarene Church, all had their roots in the Holiness stream, along with the various Methodist churches that trace their origins back to John Wesley.

The Sacramental Life: The Incarnational Tradition

In his book, Your God Is Too Glorious, Chad Bird talks about “a veiled spirituality that discovers God rolling up his sleeves in the toy-strewn rooms of stay-at-home moms, the dirty cabs of John Deere tractors and the mop rooms of school janitors, where saints are forged in the fires of lives no one will remember except God.”

That’s a good way to introduce one aspect of the final spiritual stream in our series, the Incarnational Tradition. The basic idea is that God is made known to us and is experienced through the “stuff” of life.

Richard Foster calls it “The Sacramental Life.” A sacrament is often defined as “visible means of an invisible grace.” In Protestant Churches, our sacraments are baptism and communion, things we can taste, touch, see, feel, hear, that bring us into God’s presence and saving work. Catholic churches, which perhaps most represent the Incarnational Tradition, have seven sacraments, including marriage, and last rites.

But the sacramental life is not experienced just in the setting of worship in a church. “The most fundamental arena for the Incarnational Tradition [is] … everyday life” — homes and families, our work, and in the beauty of nature and art and music. “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” wrote the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “Christ plays in 10,000 places.”

Who would we look for in the Bible as an example of the Incarnational Tradition? How about Bezalel! (He was the chief designer of the tabernacle; see Exodus 31:1-5). We could also learn from Brother Lawrence, who experience God while washing dishes; and Susanna Wesely, the wife of John Wesely, who gave birth to 19 children and home-schooled the 10 who survived; and Dag Hammerskjöld, whose journal, Markings, reveals how he lived out his faith through his vocation as an international economist and the second Secretary-General of the United Nations.


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