Christian Spirituality Part I: FIVE STREAMS

Once upon a time there were five nice Christians who lived in the same city but had never met one another. Let me introduce you to them. I\’ll tell you a little about each, and then I have three questions to ask of each one.

1. Colin Contemplative

Even as a child, Colin loved to go for walks by himself. He learned at an early age that God could be his friend, and he loved to talk with this friend as he walked. As a result, when he grew up and told his parents he wanted to become a monk, they were not taken by surprise. Colin loves the life of the monastery: the extended periods of silence, the regular times of prayer, chanting the whole Psalter every month, and the hard work in the fields. He also acts as a spiritual director for four or five lay folk who come to see him on a monthly basis. He would be very surprised to know this, but they are a little in awe of the strength of his spiritual life and what they feel to be his intimate knowledge of God.

· My first question for Colin is how he knows God. He replies with quiet confidence, God is to be known in silence and contemplation. He likes to quote Mother Theresa: In prayer, sometimes I tell him I love him, sometimes he tells me he loves me, and sometimes neither of us says anything. · For my second question, I ask him where he believes the kingdom is. He smiles. The kingdom of God is within, to be discovered and explored in relationship with God who is the King. · Question 3: is there a particular verse from the Bible that inspires and guides you? Again, he doesn\’t hesitate: \”Be still and know that I am God.\”

2. Then there is Astrid Social-Activist (Astrid was actually born Astrid Activist, but then she married Steve Social, so she became Astrid Social-Activist.)

Astrid grew up in the church, but God had never been particularly real to her until one Victoria Day weekend her youth group went to a conference where Jean Vanier was speaking. There for the first time she understood that the heart of God identifies in a special way with the weak, the poor, and the oppressed of the world. It was a revelation to her–and a revolution in her understanding of the Christian faith. She left the rather conventional, middle class church of her parents out in the suburbs, and started attending a downtown church which had a wide range of social programs.

· So, Astrid, I want to know, how do you know God? She answers at once: I see the face of God in the face of the poor. · And, Astrid, where is the kingdom of God? The Kingdom won’t come, she replies, until the structures of society are reformed so that power and wealth are justly distributed in our world, where nobody goes hungry, where all have dignity and fulfilling work. That would be the shalom of God. · And a favourite Scripture? It\’s in Matthew 25: \”Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.\”

Next I would like you to meet: 3. Eddie EvangelicalThe most important day in Eddie\’s life was the day he went forward at a Billy Graham rally in Toronto to indicate that he wanted to accept Jesus Christ as his personal Saviour. From that day on everything has been different for Eddie. He joined a church where he feels the Bible is faithfully taught. He reads the Bible and prays every day, and tries to follow what he learns there. He goes to a midweek Bible study group where people sing and share, study Scripture together and pray for one another. Eddie is a clerk in a law firm, and he does his job well, trying to be a good witness for Jesus by his conscientious work and his good humour, and, whenever he has a chance, he talks about his faith in Jesus. · So, I ask him, Eddie, how do you know God? His face lights up as he replies: \”I know God through his Word. He speaks to me and I try to listen and obey.\” · And the kingdom, Eddie? What is the kingdom? He replies with passion, \”When every man and woman has acknowledged the Lordship of Jesus Christ in their lives: that\’s the kingdom.\” · Choosing a favourite verse is harder for Eddie. (He knows a lot of them.) He can’t decide between 2 Timothy 3:16: \”All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for training, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness.\” And, on other days, the great commission of Matthew 28: \”Go, make disciple of all nations.\” Both are very central to Eddie\’s understanding of what it means to be a follower of Jesus.

My next friend is: 4. Chris Charismatic

Chris would describe his faith like this: \”I had been a Christian for some years, but somehow I had never knew much about the Holy Spirit. It was as though I believed in a Holy Binity rather than a Holy Trinity.\” Then one evening, some friends of Chris had dragged him off against his will to a service at the Airport Christian Fellowship in Toronto. There Chris had been prayed for, had been, as the terminology goes, \”slain in the Spirit\”, and, from that night on, his outlook on the Christian life had been quite different. Although he hasn\’t given up on his high Anglican church on Sundays, he goes to an interdenominational prayer group during the week, where there is lively worship and speaking in tongues, and where the sick are prayed for and sometimes dramatically healed. Chris is praying that his priest will discover what he has found; the priest meanwhile is praying that Chris won\’t go over the edge–though he\’s not quite sure what that edge might be.

· So what does it mean to you to know God, Chris? He smiles and says, \”Easy: in Spirit-filled worship: that\’s where I feel God and I see God.\” · And what for you is the kingdom? \”No question: \’the Kingdom of God does not consist in talk but in power\’: wherever the Spirit is free to work, that\’s where the kingdom is.\” · His favourite verse, not surprisingly, at least since that fateful night at the Airport, is Acts 1:8: \”You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you.\”


Last and by no means least is: 5. Samantha Sacramental

Samantha returned to church in her late thirties after the breakup of her marriage. She came in the first place because she needed the spiritual strength the church seemed to offer, but to her surprise it was actually the beauty and the mystery of the Eucharist that drew her and fascinated her. After a couple of years, her priest encouraged her to think about ordination, and, as she began to study theology, she came to understand more of why she loved the sacraments: it was the sense that the God who had been present in the human form of Jesus was also the God who was present in bread and wine, and was also the God was present everywhere, making all of life sacred. That understanding began to transform her whole life, and breathed life into everything she did, even the most menial tasks. The sacrament on Sundays was a reminder that the other six days of the week were also sacramental. The sacramental nature of the six days focussed and climaxed for her in the sacrament at the altar.

· So where do you know God, Samantha? I know God most intimately in the Eucharist. · And the kingdom? Well, in a sense, the kingdom is everywhere because all of life is God\’s, but in the Eucharist the reality of the kingdom is made visible in bread and wine. · And do you have a favourite Bible verse? Sure: at the end of the Emmaus Road story in Luke 24: \”He was known to them in the breaking of the bread.\”

My guess is that you have met all of these five at different points in your life. My guess too is that you feel closer to one, or even two of these, than you do to the others. (I think it\’s unlikely that anyone will feel an equal affinity for all five—but I could be wrong!) Now I probably don\’t need to tell you that there have been times when these five have been mortal enemies. In fact, I deliberately didn’t tell you what each of these characters thinks of the others, but I have to confess that some of them don’t have a very high opinion of some of the others. There have been times in living memory when a church has gone from (let us say) Anglo-Catholic to evangelical (or vice-versa) and half the congregation has left, while the other half has gritted its teeth and said, \”We can outlast whoever the bishop throws at us. And, if necessary, we can even outlast the bishop.\” There have been times when contemplatives have felt pity for the noisy-ness and superficial piety of the charismatics, and times when evangelicals have felt that social activists lacked spiritual depth. (I am putting these criticisms in polite language, you understand.) The list could go on: after all, each of the five would have criticisms of each of the other four, and that would make twenty points–but you can probably figure out what they would be, and we have more important things to think about! I want to argue, however, that there is strength in each one of these, and that we need each of these traditions. (Richard Foster has written a wonderful classic on this subject entitled Streams of Living Water, and some of what I have to say is taken from him.) One reason I think that is that each of these is clearly rooted in Scripture and in Christian tradition. Let me illustrate. It just so happened that our five friends (friends with us, that is: not necessarily friends with each other) were at a diocesan conference on spirituality (these things happen all over the place, you understand), and that at the beginning of the day, the reading during worship was from Acts 10, Peter\’s speech to Cornelius. Listen to what it says: \”You know the message God sent to the people of Israel, preaching peace by Jesus Christ–he is Lord of all.\” Colin Contemplative heard that sentence and nodded gravely. There it is, he thought: the message of peace. That\’s what it\’s all about: peace with God, peace with one another, peace with the world. And if he had not been feeling particularly gracious, he might have said, I hope these other folk are listening. But, actually, he was feeling gracious. As for other folk, well, they were listening, but they didn\’t hear what he heard.

The reader hadn\’t stopped: \”That message spread throughout Judea . . . how God anointed Jesus of Nazareth with the Holy Spirit and with power; how he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him.\” And Chris Charismatic suddenly sat up straight, and surreptitiously looked around to see if his priest had been convicted by that powerful sentence.

Now it came to pass that Chris happened to be sitting next to Astrid Social-Activist (whom he hadn\’t met–yet), and she just happened to notice something different in the same sentence that she felt was just for her: \”Jesus of Nazareth went about doing good.\” That\’s what it\’s all about, she thought: he went about doing good. In her more cynical moments, she felt that most Christians just \”went about\”: Jesus, however, went about doing good. Why didn\’t they get it?

But the reader hadn\’t finished: \”We are witnesses to all he did, both in Judea and Jerusalem\”. Now it was Eddie Evangelical\’s turn: ooh, witnessing he thought. That\’s what we need round here: real witnessing. Telling people what we know about Jesus. You don\’t have to be a great preacher to do that. And Samantha Sacramental? You won’t be surprised to know that she wasn\’t disappointed either. \”They put him to death . . . but God raised him on the third day and allowed him to appear . . . to us . . . who ate and drank with him after he rose from the dead.\” There\’s the Eucharist right there, she thought: eating and drinking with Jesus after he rose from the dead. \”I could preach on that tomorrow,\” she thought (since she hadn\’t quite got her sermon together yet). You see what I mean? Each of these types, at its best, seeks to know Jesus Christ, to be faithful to him, to know him, love him, serve him. Each of these is a way of being faithful to our Christian heritage. And each of these is a way to grow into all that God has in mind for us. Yet each does it in a different way: > The strength of the contemplative is to know God in quietness and silence, and to call the church back to that. > The strength of social activist is to challenge the comfortable middle-class assumptions of the church, and to remind us of the uncomfortable truth that though God loves all people, God has a bias towards the poor—just as you might love all your children equally, but if one is in pain or difficulty, your heart goes out to that one first. > The evangelical shames us by his enthusiasm for the Gospel of Jesus (very un-Canadian), and by his knowledge of the Bible (very un-Anglican) and by his warm spontaneous praying (very non-liturgical). Maybe he too knows something we don’t.

> The charismatic holds our feet to the fire, and says, Every Sunday you say you believe in the Holy Spirit, but in reality you are more worried about whether the Spirit comes from the Father and the Son or from the Father alone than you do about allowing the Holy Spirit to come at all! Hey, get with the program!

> And the sacramental says, Do you realise that God may be known in all of life? You say \”he became incarnate by the Virgin Mary\”, but do you realise what that means? That there is no longer any division between sacred and secular?

My question would be: Which of those emphases can the church do without? Which one can we dare to be without? Of course, you may argue that each has its weakness, or potential weakness, and that is perfectly true. I’m quite sure none of these weaknesses would be true of any of the representatives of these five streams here today, so nobody should feel got at, but nevertheless: Colin Contemplative may sometime forget that it is possible to know God in the middle of a traffic jam, or while changing a baby\’s diaper, or even at a riotous party. Astrid Social-Activist can get so wrapped up in her social concerns that she forgets the Jesus who inspired her in the first place. Eddie Evangelical can end up treating people as one-dimensional souls needing to be saved rather than people who are body, mind, emotions and soul in community, in the image of God. Ironically enough, Chris Charismatic can actually end up putting the Holy Spirit in a box–this is where the Spirit is, this is what will cause the Spirit to act, this is what enables the Spirit to work. Forgetting that the Holy Spirit is the Third Person of the Eternal Trinity and that Aslan is not a tame lion. And Samantha Sacramental can get so wrapped up in the details of doing everything exactly right that she forgets that Jesus was the friend of sinners, that he had messy friendships with messy people who lived messy lives, and that this is the Jesus who is there at the heart of the Eucharist she loves.

All five of our friends can become pretty legalistic–these are the rules for doing it the Right Way, which just happens to be my way. All of them can become so wrapped up in their distinctive religious stuff that they forget the Jesus who inspired them in the first place. And all of them can reduce the grandeur of the Christian message to something trivial and unworthy.

C.S.Lewis believed the devil didn\’t have a sense of humour, so if we have a sense of humour, we know where it must come from. I don’t know about you, but sometimes God\’s sense of humour seems a little (what shall we say?) dry, so it seemed like rather a twisted kind of joke when the conference divided into table groups for discussion, and (by a strange coincidence) Colin, Astrid, Eddie, Chris and Samantha ended up in the same discussion group. It didn\’t take them long to figure out where each was coming from—the name tags were a dead give-away.

Fortunately, the questions they were given headed off some potential nastiness at the pass: Question 1 was: say something about your tradition of Christian spirituality which might make someone from another tradition want to try it. And question 2 was: Choose one thing that you think you could benefit from in one of the other streams of Christian spirituality.

There was silence at the table for what felt like a very long time. Finally, Eddie said: \”I have to say I think one of the best things in my tradition is my small group Bible study. It\’s become an amazing support group for me: there\’s warmth and laughter and prayer in the group, and we feel the presence of Jesus right there, and I wouldn\’t miss it for anything.\” The others looked thoughtful. Then Astrid said, \”Maybe I could check it out one of these Wednesdays. To be honest, I sometimes get very drained in my work with street people and advocacy groups, and I would love to have a Christian support group like that. Do you think that would be OK? They wouldn’t try to get me ‘born again’?\” Eddie looked earnest: “It’d be OK. I’d protect you.”

Chris was next. \”I know that sometimes our enthusiasm is, well, just that–enthusiasm–and it\’s not always the Holy Spirit. But I’ve also known some times when the Spirit really is present but the experience is very gentle and quiet and non-threatening. And I think anyone could benefit from that. And as for the other question, I think I\’ve got kinda cut off from God\’s heart for the poor. So, Astrid, maybe I could come with you one of these Saturday nights when you go and give out sandwiches and coffee to street people. Maybe the Holy Spirit will be there too!\” She nodded, pleased but a little nervous.

Then Colin chipped in. \”Chris, what you just said about the Holy Spirit: I\’ve never heard a charismatic talk that way. I thought it was all noise and drama and showiness. I never thought I could find myself at home in a charismatic meeting, but if I could come with you, I think I\’d like to try it. And, as for a strength, I have space for someone to come for spiritual direction. I really think it\’s something my tradition has to offer, if you don\’t think that\’s presumptuous of me to say so.\”

Samantha responded immediately. \”I have to confess the life has been going out of my relationship with God recently, even at the altar. I still feel badly how I snapped at the president of the Altar Guild last week. She almost cried. I\’ve been thinking for some time that maybe what I need is some spiritual direction to keep me fresh in my ministry. I think the fact that you\’re here means I should take you up on your offer.\” (Chris chuckled: \”That’s the Holy Spirit: see?\” But Samantha went on.) And as for something to offer: I do think the Eucharist is a window through which to marvel at the activity of God in the world. I don\’t know how other Christians survive without it!\”

Eddie shrugged. \”OK, I\’ll come clean. I\’ve never understood why communion is so important to you people, but the way you talk about it makes me feel I must be missing out. I\’d better not start coming to your church or my pastor will get mad at me, but maybe you could suggest a couple of books for me to read.\” \”Glad to,\” replied Samantha. Then the emcee called them to Eucharist, and, to their surprise, they found that they wanted to sit together for the service. And, when the peace came, they hugged each other, and some found they had tears in their eyes.

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. (1 Corinthians 12)

The Diocese of  Ontario

May 2001

Part 2 can be found at

2 thoughts on “Christian Spirituality Part I: FIVE STREAMS”

  1. Absolutely wonderful post.

    I found you after reading some of Richard Foster’s devotional classics and reading an expert about the five streams in the introduction. Your post summarizes my heart in powerful ways. I have always been perplexed and, to be honest, many times angry at the dissension and hatred between different streams and sects within Christianity. Especially after just studying through a class on the history of Christianity. I would be honored to chat to you over phone or email if you have the time and hear more of your wisdom and heart on the matter.

    Thank you.

  2. Pingback: Holy Connections / Surprising Connections | St. Matthew's United Church

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