This morning I was reading the New Testament book of Hebrews, chapter 6, in which the writer is urging readers to seek greater maturity as followers of Jesus, and not forget the foundations of what they had learned. Verse 7 draws parallels between discipleship and tending and stewarding the earth, noting that ‘the ground that has soaked up the rain that frequently falls on it and yields useful vegetation for those who tend it receives a blessing from God’. Increasingly I’m noticing how often growing in spiritual maturity is compared to earth or plants which are well-watered and grow good fruits – a natural allusion for a culture which needed to set so much store by the success of the harvest. Take Psalm 1 (the one who delights in God’s law is like a tree planted by streams of water, which yields good fruit) or the parable of the sower (Matthew 13) or Jesus’ frequent references to the need to bear good fruit (Matthew 3 and 7, Luke 3 and 6). Cultivating spiritual growth demands care and attention in the small stuff as well as the big stuff. To make a small side-step, whilst there’s much focus on mission rather than maintenance these days, but there’s also a grain of spiritual truth in U A Fanthorpe’s poem Atlas, which begins ‘there is a kind of love called maintenance…’. Amongst many of the clergy I meet in my working life, particularly in more challenging or deprived areas, there’s a real sense that a chaotic life is a barrier to growing as a Christian disciple, and that enabling people to bring some order and stability to their lives is an important support for spiritual growth. Much writing on spirituality readily talks about spiritual disciplines (for a holistic but balanced view, see Richard Foster’s great book Celebration of Discipline). All this is, in microcosm, the kind of order that is brought out of chaos in the Genesis narrative.
Whilst in many ways I think the connection between a disciplined watering and tending of one’s own, and each other’s, spiritual lives, seems inescapable, I also have a nagging question in the back of my mind: does discipleship really ultimately require self-discipline? Do the two words have the same stem for a reason? And if so, what are the implications for people who struggle to bring order to the chaos in their lives or who, despite their best efforts and hopes, are unable to ‘water and tend’ (or receive watering and tending) in the way one might hope for? This is not to say anything about God’s grace, which I believe and trust can pierce the chaos regardless of what we are able to do for ourselves. But it is to ask a serious question about the nature of discipleship and whether at root it boils down to the ability to be self-disciplined (or at least, whether this is our default cultural expectation – in this sense it is easy to see why Christian life came to be identified with respectability in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, albeit that this is a connection which has had some highly problematic legacies). In one sense, chaos and order are not wholly mutually exclusive and so the question has a slightly artificial tinge to it. But there remains an important question about how we help people acquire both spiritual self-discipline and receptivity to the ‘tending and watering’ which enables good fruit to grow, whilst at the same time not consigning those whose lives are more chaotic to the status of second-class Christians. In this sense, it’s a question which reflects the inherent tension within Christianity between grace and works, and (to borrow William James’ terminology) the tension between ‘once-born’ and ‘twice-born’ religiosity.