Excluding or Including

I’ve been reading, from time to time, a diary that Henri Nouwen kept while he spent several months living in a monastery in upstate New York. The book is titled “The Genesee Diary” and it is not unlike other journals and diaries that Henri published or that were published after his passing on to glory. Like many of us, our deepest questions are sometimes answered in the most common of readings and experiences. It seems that the Holy Spirit enlightens our hearts and minds when we are not expecting it. That is, if we have trained our hearts to listen or are open to hearing.

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So, this was on an ordinary Tuesday that the Spirit spoke to Henri as he had been reflecting on the writings of the desert fathers from the 4th Century and, no doubt, examining his temporary life in a monastic order. His insight or “revelation received” gave me an answer to a larger practical, yet theological question this morning. Perhaps it will provide some guidance to you as well.

“In the writings of the desert fathers there is much emphasis on renunciation and detachment. we have to renounce the world, detach ourselves from our possessions, family, friends, own will, and any form of self-content so that all our thoughts and feelings may become free for the Lord. I find this very hard to realize. I keep thinking about distracting things and wonder if I ever will be “empty for God.” Yesterday and today the idea occurred to me that instead of excluding I could include all my thoughts, ideas, plans, projects, worries, and concerns and make them into prayer. Instead of directing my attention only to God, I might direct my attention to all my attachments and lead them into the all-embracing arms of God. When this idea grew in me, I experienced a new freedom and felt a great open space where I could invite all those I love and pray that God touch them with his love.”

Praying for you today that God would touch you with his love.

Letting Go

I’ve promoted the books of Dr. David Benner before. Like many of my favorite writers, David has that great combination of training in psychology and spirituality. Thus, his books often integrate the two disciplines into more fully developed frameworks for our inner lives and how we can apply our beliefs in our daily activities. [David’s website]

From David G. Benner, PhD, in “Soulful Spirituality: Becoming Fully Alive and Deeply Human” on pages 151-152:

Letting go is an important spiritual practice, but it is counterintuitive because the default posture for most of us is to clutch, not to release. If we are to be truly present to ourselves, we must let go of the preoccupations that fill us up and keep us from stillness and presence. To be fully present means that I must be temporarily absent to the things I normally carry with me in consciousness. They are the noises that drawn out inner silence, the distractions that keep me from a deep presence to my self and my world. For when I am caught in the rut of my ordinary inner self-chatter, all I am present to is this background static.

This ties in beautifully with what I’ve been learning over the past few years about “praying without ceasing” and the inner dialogue versus the monologue that I so often have with myself. The “background static” that Dr. Benner refers to is the re-hashing of our past that tends to dominate our thinking. Or, for some, it is the anticipation and rehearsing for our future performances that pre-occupy our minds so that we can’t hear the voice of the Holy Spirit who indwells us and speaks comfort and wisdom into our daily activity.

It also meshes with Jesus’ teaching on “go and sin no more” and the idea of “fast repentance” that I’ve been mulling over for a while. I’ll be posting more on these themes soon.

What do you expect God to do? Part 1: Respond

If you are a person of faith or a person of prayer, you must’ve asked that question in your conscious or unconscious mind at some point. And if you are a person who reads the Bible or listens to others read it in a house of worship or in your own house, you may wonder what should you expect to happen after you read a few or several sentences in one of the books of the Bible.

Just this morning I read Psalm 106:1-5 in the October 21st liturgy entry in “Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals” (Claiborne, Wilson-Hartgrove & Okoro) and I was struck by what I was reading. Even more, I was thinking that these verses were a prayer or song directed to God when they were originally written, and that I had a choice in my own heart as to whether this was my prayer, my spoken words to the Holy Spirit. Or, I could just mindlessly and heartlessly read them and go ahead and finish the whole liturgy for the day. Do you ever do that: Read something of profound value without any engagement whatsoever? Do we expect that through some mystical operation we will derive some benefit from silently mouthing the words of Scripture? Thus, the bigger question: What do we expect God to do?

First and foremost, we should expect God to respond. At the most basic level, it is fair to expect engagement from God if we have engaged with the words we are saying/thinking that are addressed to our Creator. Now, do you wait for a response?

Let’s look at the prayers that I read today. This is verse 4: Lord, remember me when you show favor to your people. Help me when you save them.

So, if you said that to a friend, a parent or a sibling what would you expect in response? Maybe a quick, “OK,” or perhaps a “got you covered!” would be fine or perhaps a more in-depth, “You are one of mine, so, yes I’m going to save you when I save all of my children.”

Would that be a fair expectation? Does that seem too casual for God?

Jesus and Thomas by Caravaggio (1602)
Jesus and Thomas by Caravaggio (1602)

Or would any of those sound like the resurrected Jesus when he said, “Put your finger here (in my side),” to Thomas in response to his indirect request for concrete evidence that the same Jesus who was crucified was now alive.

Don’t you think it is fair to expect that statements, conversations and requests that are recorded for our benefit in the Bible should be actionable for us today?

And Thomas wasn’t even in the same place with Jesus when he made his request. And it was a random request that didn’t follow any liturgical framework or Jewish tradition. [the painting was by Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio whose works I have used before]

And Thomas’ response to Jesus’ response was worship. Not surprising either. So, I would suggest to you to try expecting God to respond when your words are heartfelt and expressive of your true desires. Listen for his reply. Give some time to the conversation as you would anyone else in your life. Expect God to do something. I really don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

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Look for “Part 2: Offer a new idea” at this same site next week.

Redemptive poetry from John Donne

I was an English & American Literature major in college. And one of my favorite courses was in Renaissance Poetry. There was a freshness and romantic tenor to many poets of that time. John Donne who was a metaphysical poet and a pastor in England was my favorite.

He wrote beauty and truth painting a picture for his parish and followers. Here is one such poetic description that gives us the picture of redemption:

There we leave you in that blessed dependency,
To hang upon him that hangs upon the cross,
There bathe in his tears,
There suck at his wounds, and
Lie down in peace in his grave,
Till he vouchsafe you a resurrection, and
An ascension into that Kingdom, which
He has purchased for you with the inestimable price of his incorruptible blood. ~ John Donne (1572-1631)

A Personal and Heart Update: The interplay of physical and spiritual

{One of the tools I’ve learned from my experience with the Wellspring Group is a “State of Your Heart” update. This is sort of a personal inventory of how you’re living life in terms of your own heart and God’s Larger Story. It is a way to provide a status report for those in your small group, work team or family/community. This was my update from last week.} 

I’m still trying to figure out what just happened. For some three months, I’ve been feeling depressed with low energy. I had come to think that this was the new normal. And bouts with skin cancer and pseudo gout after pancreatitis and heart failure had me wondering if my body was just falling apart. I had lost interest in my writing, which was probably the most disappointing. At first, I had thought that I had just lost momentum from my illness in March, but as time went on that, too, seemed like just another body blow in a continuing string. My family and friends were aware that I didn’t seem to be myself in stressful situations or have the energy I once did. Some of you had probably noticed it, too.

I had a check up with my cardiologist on Thursday, September 25th. He did an EKG, checked my numbers from recent blood work, and other tests and all looked good. I had told him about the low energy and then he asked the magic question, “How is your depression?” I said that it comes and goes and I wasn’t really sure why. He said that I was less upbeat now than right after my heart attack when he first met me in January of 2013. I almost started to cry as I talked about my frustration. He said that depression is pretty common with heart attack survivors and that he looked for it. Since my internist had retired in August and I’m between personal physicians, he offered to write me a prescription for an anti-depressant medication. He also suggested that I reduce one of my heart medications by 1/4. I filled the prescription, but was hesitant to take it. I did, however, begin the reduced heart medication regime on Saturday the 27th. In a word, the change in my energy and attitude was like re-birth. Instead of dragging myself out of the house to go for a walk, I was running again. And I’ve run every other day since in increasing distance and reduced times. I’m writing again and have energy to do more of everything. Primarily, I feel better and am more hopeful.

Thinking: Did reducing that little bit of chemical compound make that much difference in my attitude and energy? Are my feelings of depression gone? Should I still consider taking the anti-depressant meds? Where is God in the midst of this?

Feeling: Freed from the fog of uncertainty. I’m patient to sit before God and listen for his direction. On Monday the 29th, as I read the Word and prayed, the Holy Spirit said, “Good to have you back.” Feeling loved, accepted, grateful.

Desiring: To do all that the Father tells me to do.

Commitment: To re-vision my personal future. To get back on track with the calling the Lord has given me to write and to help others write their stories.

Going to the temple at the hour of prayer: Who does that?

It seems crazy, but I’ve recently been thinking about the concept of having a regular hour to pray. When it comes to exercise, reflection, quiet time or personal study time, most of us establish a pattern. Many of us like routines, habits and schedules. And those of us who don’t like schedules realize that with our busy or over crowded lives we have to schedule some things in order to meet the expectations of others.

I’ve come to see prayer as a conversation with the triune God: Father, Son or Jesus and the Holy Spirit or the Spirit of God who lives in our hearts. Unfortunately, I have too often felt or believed that there is a fixed distance between God and me, so I’ve often felt that I was speaking to someone “up there.” You know, “the Man upstairs” or the “King who sits on a throne high and lifted up.” It makes it hard to feel any intimacy with God with those images. But I’ve more recently come to see God as a real father and Jesus as the one that so many people – especially the weak – approached when he walked the streets of Israel’s cities and villages and the Spirit as actually, truly residing in my heart. I’ve come to take the teachings about God in the Bible as actionable. Our re-born bodies are even described as the “temple of the Holy Spirit.”

Needless to say, that has improved my relationship with God in some amazing ways. With the Spirit living with me, I can have an ongoing dialogue instead of always talking to myself like I used to do. I’ve turned the monologue into a dialogue. With the closeness of God being a reality, I now realize that I don’t have to talk ABOUT God when I could be talking to him. I don’t have to try to impress others with my theological depth or saying things in a certain sequence (Jesus called that “piling up empty phrases” in Matthew 6:7), but I can be real and speak directly to God. It’s amazing, but it’s been God’s approach from the very beginning. Like when he used to walk through the garden in the cool of the evening to check in with Adam and Eve. Our relationship was broken, but then Jesus paid the price for our restoration.

Certainly there are enough illustrations in the Bible that would lead us to accept that we can pray most any time and most all the time. Is there also a place for a scheduled time to pray? Do we want to make sure that we not only pray in the quietness of our own souls, but also in community or family?

Although I don’t know how the tradition came about, in first century religious practice there was a “Jewish” or faith community habit of a daily hour of prayer. We first see this in Acts 3 when Peter and John went to the Temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour or 3:00 PM.  This seems like the perfect time to pray, especially as a community. It is usually a time when we are looking for a second wind for the day. This is a coffee break time for many. It is the break from an after lunch siesta or a short nap in some cultures.

If you try to work at your vocation until 5:00, 5:30 or 6:00 and you are a knowledge worker or even a physical worker, this is a critical time to decide if you’re going to accomplish anything else during today’s work segment. If you are a fulltime parent or caregiver, you may have a different routine. But it is pivotal. It can be a time of temptation or it can be a time of miraculous healing. For Peter and John it was a common activity based upon a desire to connect with each other and with God. But for those who were crippled, it was a time of deep longing for wholeness, for help.

Here’s the story,

Acts 3 Now Peter and John were going up to the temple at the hour of prayer, the ninth hour. And a man lame from birth was being carried, whom they laid daily at the gate of the temple that is called the Beautiful Gate to ask alms of those entering the temple.  Seeing Peter and John about to go into the temple, he asked to receive alms. And Peter directed his gaze at him, as did John, and said, “Look at us.” And he fixed his attention on them, expecting to receive something from them.  But Peter said, “I have no silver and gold, but what I do have I give to you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, rise up and walk!” And he took him by the right hand and raised him up, and immediately his feet and ankles were made strong. And leaping up he stood and began to walk, and entered the temple with them, walking and leaping and praising God. And all the people saw him walking and praising God, 10 and recognized him as the one who sat at the Beautiful Gate of the temple, asking for alms. And they were filled with wonder and amazement at what had happened to him. (ESV)

But for those who were crippled, it was a time of deep longing for wholeness, for help. In some way that applies to all of us. This man was not even expecting healing – perhaps he had given up – but God heard his deepest longing.

Have you given up on the healing of your deepest brokenness? Have you given up on praying at all, but you can still muster a cry for help to people who will listen and help? Even if you can’t bring yourself to pray, ask somebody to pray for you. And if you pray, think about setting a time each day to go with others to the temple.

 

 

The Other Love Chapter

Too often we label things for convenience and it ends up undermining impact. I think that is true of different books and chapters in our English Language Bibles. We categorize I Cor. 13 as the love chapter and Rom. 12:1-2 as the commitment verses when just the opposite could be true.

While 1 Corinthians 13 is more like an argumentative essay convincing us that love is the best approach in matters of faith and community. “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”

I can’t remember if I’ve ever tried to decide between love and speaking in tongues or prophesying, but I’m sure I’ve chosen selfishness over loving many times. Upon closer examination, I’m surprised at how much play chapter 13 has received over the years as the headline on godly love. Truly, it uses such “insider” language about technical church business that I would’ve thought it a distraction to non-church folk. I guess those simple adjectives in verse 4 are a strong enough catch phrase that they carried the rest of the chapter into their wake.

Meanwhile, Romans 12 is much more about how we actually “do love” and put it into practice once we decide it’s a good idea. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve memorized verses 1-2 of this chapter and thought there was nothing else important in this chapter. I thought it was about “renewing my mind” and thinking more “Christianly” about social, political and marketplace issues. I’m embarrassed, as I’ve realized that I’ve been missing such practical and life-giving teaching available for the Holy Spirit and I’ve been skipping right over it. It’s about the transformation that occurs as the Spirit transforms our minds AND hearts. I’m not saying that chapter titles are evil, but they’re not inspired. And it is not surprising that the new Bibliotheca project looks like a success. It reminded me of doing manuscript Bible study where there were no chapter and verse delineations. And certainly there were no book or chapter titles!

Read these words from Romans 12, “I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and the members do not all have the same function, so we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another. Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads,with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness.

Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord.  Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality.

Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight.  Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all.  If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”  To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.”  Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” (ESV)

I’m just thankful that on a recent morning when I had nothing to read during a coffee break that I pulled out my iPhone version of the Bible and read Romans 12 and was captivated by the words of truth that I could live by today. “Weep with those who weep…, Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly.” Sound like Jesus. Sounds like love.

 

Reflections from John 4 and Jesus’ Encounter at the Neighborhood Well

Painting by Annibale Carracci from 16th Century
Painting by Annibale Carracci from 16th Century (public domain)

The life we receive is the life we give. There is a 1 to 1 relationship between our receiving and our giving. We love because God first loved us.

Water is life. Jesus promises us that if we drink the living water he gives us, we will never be thirsty. This is profound because it seems that we are always thirsty. We are thirsty for relationships, for affirmation, for unity, for forgiveness, for self-esteem and for cheering our sadness.

Have I been receiving this living water? Am I missing something?

1. Admitting our thirstiness. Jesus was tired and thirsty from the work of the day. Differently, the woman was tired of her broken relationships and thirsty to be known and loved. Receiving the living water begins with a recognition that I am thirsty and I need help.

2. Ask Jesus for the water. It seems simple, but we ask all kinds of folks and experiences for water, but it is only temporarily satisfying. Jesus said that the water he gives is living. It is not stagnant or deadly, but it brings life.

3. Drink the water that Jesus gives us. Like finding an eternal spring, finding Jesus is an ultimate solution for our thirst for meaning, relevance and affirmation. Daily, we need to drink the living water. We can’t survive long without water.

a. Communion with God
i. Pray/converse
ii. Listen
iii. Read scripture
iv. Listen

b. Communion with people
i. Fellowship – do something
ii. Worship
iii. Act on your compassion; serve

c. Share the living water with others
i. Point others to Jesus
ii. Offer them a drink
iii. Humble yourself
iv. Hangout with the outcast like Jesus often did

Like Jesus did, you only examine a person’s past when you are showing how they can be released from it.

Emotions and Our Spiritual Life

jpegSome of our most common questions are about emotions. As we share in small groups or one-to-one, on some of the daily struggles we face as we live “in the Spirit” or attempt to “walk in the Spirit,” we often struggle with feeling up or down or sideways! We start our days well, but a word or a glance or smirk can turn us around or throw us into chaos and essentially, “ruin my day.” What is that? Why does that happen? I’m not a psychologist or professional counselor. And I’m not pretending to be here. I do know that we often, in the words of the title of Dr. John Townsend’s book: “Hiding From Love – How to change the withdrawal patterns that isolate and imprison you”, cover up what we are feeling and how we are responding to the people and situations in our domains or life settings. Instead of engaging, we often withdraw and in so doing we ignore or repress things that are true about ourselves and how God made us. And we cover up some of the ways sin and fallenness have broken and short-circuited us.

This has come up in a couple of conversations that I’ve had recently and it’s been on my mind. So, I was struck this morning when I read this from my friend, priest and psychologist Henri Nouwen (this is from “Bread for the Journey” from Henri Nouwen Society):

The Dynamics of the Spiritual Life

“Our emotional lives and our spiritual lives have different dynamics. The ups and downs of our emotional life depend a great deal on our past or present surroundings. We are happy, sad, angry, bored, excited, depressed, loving, caring, hateful, or vengeful because of what happened long ago or what is happening now.

The ups and downs of our spiritual lives depend on our obedience – that is, our attentive listening – to the movements of the Spirit of God within us. Without this listening our spiritual life eventually becomes subject to the windswept waves of our emotions.”

Of course, this is not the complete answer to my question above, but it does give us a key. We can not expect to be be stable and balanced (in our brokenness; while still on earth) if we are not “listening” to the Spirit’s voice. A.W. Tozer says that we must go to scripture as a story, not as an encyclopedia. And to God as a person not as an abstract entity. That all becomes a part of our listening.

Hiding from Separateness

Both Nouwen and Townsend talk a lot about how we look to others to be something that is impossible –> being God for us. This shows up in a number of ways. Townsend wrote, “Our second major developmental need is to become a person with will, boundaries, and an accurate sense of responsibility. This is our need for separateness. Our need for separateness can be damaged by relational experiences where either we say no to taking biblical responsibility for ourselves or we say yes to taking unbiblical responsibility for another person.” Townsend goes on to say that the fear we have in separateness deficits is that being separate will cause abandonment and isolation. The prospect of setting boundaries strikes terror that we will be forever alone. And it is that fear that Jesus wants us to bring to him. He can and will be God for us. He can be our home and protection.

In the title track of her latest album “Desire Like Dynamite”, Sandra McCracken sings: “Sweeping it all inside with dynamite…” Our desires, our emotions are very powerful. They can control us. As we understand and take ownership of the person God is making us into, we learn to live in community with our identities from the creative hand and voice of God. We receive the voices of those with whom we journey as what they are: fellow travelers. No more and no less. Brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers. Yet, there is one voice that we listen for above all the rest. It is the voice of the Spirit who stirs within us a life of freedom and joy in the midst of whatever challenge life might bring us.

So, I remind us to cultivate a listening ear and a listening heart that receives God’s words that he has “crowned us with honor and glory.” He is the only one who can give us all that we need.

Swing Thoughts

I think more than any other sport or athletic activity, playing golf presents some of the greatest challenges. It’s generally not a team sport and it requires superior concentration by you, but with relaxed muscles. It’s almost impossible. And few can do it perfectly (par). Sometimes I feel that way about following Jesus and living in the Four Realities of my Wellspring Group experience. I’m working through the personal reflections and Bible readings for today and just read this list as I launched into the week.

“To experience that Fellowship that desires to protect us we must:

face how we have fallen short of the glory of God;

face our deepest fears;

mourn the effects of our fall and out choices to live in our fears;

repent of our choices not to surrender to the love and will of the Trinity;

surrender to the divine love of the Trinity;

vitally connect to the body of Christ;

be grounded in the scripture;

be surrounded by the eternal communion of saints.

 

It’s like my swing thoughts when I’m swinging a golf club:

Balance

Focus

Low and slow

Turn, don’t sway

Clear the hips

Knee flex

Drive through with the big muscles

Don’t jump at it

Left heel down for control

Don’t make the ball the target – drive through –> complete the circle!!

Wow. That’s overwhelming!

In John 13:1-17 we are told an amazing story. And given some guidance from our brother and friend Jesus. Like the consummate teaching pro, Jesus shows by example what he has been teaching his devotees and, thus, sets the tone for their final days together. He takes off his robe, wraps a towel around his waist, picks up a wash cloth and a basin of water and kneels down to wash their feet. “I’ve taught you all about love and told your stories and parables to illustrate love, now let me show you how it’s done,” Jesus said.

Like the teaching professional he is methodical, but simple. Here’s your swing thought: love. As always, there is the eager student who asks, “What if I swing harder? Won’t that be even better?”

Jesus explains that we must keep it simple. Only one thought. He even says that you probably won’t even understand what I’m doing until later. “I have set you an example that you should do as I have done for you.” It’s that simple.

It would follow that we could “break down” what Jesus did. You’ve probably read commentaries or heard sermons that did that, “…the water represents atonement and salvation…and the washcloth is the Holy Spirit, etc.”

Obviously, we have a tendency to over analyze things. Jesus helps us keep the focus on one thing: love. He said, “Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet…. Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them.”

There are days that we need to hear all of the angles on how to do something. God made our complex brains and we can take in a lot of information. That’s why there are numerous books and magazines on golf. And on living the Christian life. But many golfers will trace their success back to one teacher and even one lesson when all of the teaching came together and suddenly they could relax and swing freely.

And encountering Jesus is like that, too. I saw his example and suddenly all of the teaching made sense. I didn’t understand when he first told me or showed me, but there was a point when I was playing back the video of his washing the disciples’ feet when I saw him washing my feet. And he looked up at me as I wept and he said, “You will be blessed as you do this for others.” It all made sense.

Swing away, my friend, swing away.