Beyond Words

While on a road trip last week I listened to a few podcasts by Ruth Haley Barton from her Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership series. In one of them she talked about communing with God, as opposed to communicating with God. It’s easy to settle for communicating with God–pouring out my heart, submitting my list of requests, and then moving on with my life without waiting for or being attentive to God’s response.  What might it look like to really commune with God…?

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day…     -Genesis 3:8

Can you imagine walking in the garden with God in the cool of the day?

A few years ago as I was “communicating” with God, I asked him to help me learn to listen. I knew well my tendency during a conversation to be thinking about what I wanted to say rather than truly listening to what the other person was sharing. It’s rude and dismissive, shutting down the opportunity for vulnerability and meaningful conversation. My communication with God was not much different. I was convicted of my need to change, but also of my powerlessness to do it without some divine intervention! So I asked for help…then went on with my life…which happened to include becoming a spiritual director. Much of the coursework for spiritual direction revolves around listening, so for two years I read book after book and had plenty of opportunities to practice active listening. Real change, however, felt pretty elusive.

But as I’ve reflected on that podcast differentiating between communing and communication, I realize that I more often commune with God these days than ever before. It comes at the strangest times…

  • as I watch the critters in our back yard–a chipmunk, squirrels, and a bevy of birds–all gathered together on and under the birdfeeders to gather nuts and seeds
  • as I meander down to the garden to harvest peas or lettuce and am surprised to see another plant has burst its pod and pushed its way up through the dirt, opening itself to the sun
  • as I sit in my prayer garden in the early morning quiet and simply listen to the sounds around me–all sorts of birdsong, the splashing of a robin taking her bath, squirrels rustling in the bushes, the buzz of bees as they pollinate my flowers
  • as I marvel at the fireflies that light up the back yard as the sun goes down, to the accompaniment of a mourning dove’s soft coo

…and my heart feels so full of wonder that the God of the universe has created such beauty, and has given me eyes to see and ears to hear. And suddenly I’m intensely aware of his gentle, loving presence all around me and rising up within me all at the same time. That’s the moment when I know I’ve finally found my way from communication to communion, from talking at God to intimacy with God…when Love is so powerful that words are no longer necessary.

My prayer for you today is that you will slow down and create time and space to set aside communication in favor of communion with our Creator God, and in so doing you would know the intimacy of that Love which is deeper than words.

 

Listen, Lord

O Lord, we come this morning
Knee-bowed and body bent
Before Thy throne of grace.
Bow our hearts beneath our knees
And our knees in the lonesome valley.
We come this morning—
Like empty pitchers to a full fountain,
With no merits of our own.
O Lord—open up a new window of heaven,
And lean out far over the battlements of glory,
And listen this morning.
-James Weldon Johnson

The imagery in this poem is rich… What resonates within your soul this morning?

…the humble posture of prayer before God’s throne?
…the lonesome valley?
…the empty pitcher?
…the full fountain?

Imagine God opening his window and leaning far out, listening to every word of your prayer, whether it is full of thanksgiving or lament, anticipation or dread, confidence or fear…He listens intently, as though he has all the time in the world and you are the only person in the universe…because he does and, in this moment, you are…

Speak, child, for your Father is listening.

From discipline to practice to rhythm

Several years ago Richard Foster wrote a book titled Celebration of Discipline. It’s really a classic when it comes to Christian discipleship and I’ve often used it as a resource not only for my own growth, but when teaching and training others. But a few years ago I became aware of resistance to that word “discipline” as I work with younger generations. The word feels stern and slightly oppressive in this milieu, more like punishment than something desirable or helpful, and definitely not cause for celebration!

While it has seemingly developed a negative connotation for many, discipline really is not bad word. In fact, scripture has much good to say about the necessity of discipline for our healthy growth and development. Discipline doled out in excessively punitive measure is a reason for the word’s bad rep and, as we are often inclined to do, the good is thrown out with the bad as we delete the word from our vocabulary!

Spiritual disciplines, however, are not intended to be punitive. They are, and always will be, necessary for the Christian who desires spiritual maturity. Daily Bible reading, prayer, fasting, service, worship, and so on are essential nutrients for growing up into Christlikeness, which is God’s ultimate purpose for us (Romans 8:29). In the beginning of our faith journey, however, it can require a fair amount of effort to engage in these activities–hence the reference to “disciplines.” We must discipline ourselves to adopt these essential rituals.

After some time of consistent effort, however, we find that the disciplines have become practices. The word “practices” doesn’t carry the weight that “disciplines” does, and so we probably don’t think of these acts as quite so laborious.. While they may no longer require as self-discipline as they originally did, intentionality is still key to taking them to the next level: sacred rhythms.

Rhythm: a strong, regular, repeated pattern. What began as a discipline requiring much effort and intentionality eventually becomes a practice in which we more easily engage, then ultimately it becomes a rhythm that is so strong in our life of faith that is sacred–time and attention set apart regularly and repeatedly for the service and worship of God. We know its become a sacred rhythm when we can’t imagine going a day, week, month, or year without it…when we make sure it’s on our calendar (e.g., a day of silence and solitude or an annual retreat) or when it marks the time of day for us (e.g., praying the hours).

Can you identify disciplines in which you have engaged that no longer require heroic effort? Do they feel more like practices than disciplines? And are there practices that have become so essential to your spiritual maturation that you can’t imagine life without them? Those sacred rhythms are definitely worthy of celebration!

If you want to learn more about spiritual disciplines, practices, and/or sacred rhythms, here are three excellent resources

 

Cross-carrying

 Jesus said, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.  -Mark 8:34

Lately I’ve been pondering cross-carrying. On the one hand, that concept is not a familiar one within our culture. On the other hand, Jesus said that I need to take up my cross if I am to follow him. So it begs the question, What kind of cross am I to carry? What’s it for?

There are so many crosses to choose from: duty, obligation, penance, martyrdom, suffering, longing, care-taking, shame…and the list goes on and on. But I’m more and more convinced that the only cross I need to carry is the cross to which I nail my false self.

False self…that persona I’ve so carefully constructed over the years, the one I’ve created in response to the expectations of the world I live in–culture, community, workplace, church, friends, family. It’s the mask I wear in hopes that you approve, like, and accept me. It is manipulative and self-protective in that it seeks to control my environment so that my status quo is not disturbed or disrupted.

While I might choose to carry other kinds of crosses, the cross God chooses for me to carry is the one to which I nail my false self.

In his book, The Deeper Journey, Dr. Robert Mulholland makes this distinction:

There are two fundamental ways of being human in the world: trusting in our human resources and abilities or a radical trust in God…You might describe these two ways of being in the world as the ‘false self’ and the ‘true self.’

Dr. Mulholland goes on to point out that when Jesus says we should deny ourselves, he’s not talking about giving up chocolate for Lent. “He is calling for the abandonment of our entire, pervasive, deeply entrenched matrix of self-referenced being.”

Jesus is calling for me to nail that false self–the one that’s more about shame than grace–to the cross. It’s not a once and done deal, however. It’s not that easy! The false self is shed in layers, one after another, as I go through life. That’s why I need to carry that cross…the one that’s just waiting for the next abandoned layer of my false self.

What takes the place of my false self, though? What’s my identity as this false self is being stripped away? The Apostle Paul suggests that I am to put on Christ’s identity…

Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, the new creation has come: The old has gone, the new is here!  -2 Cor. 5:17

But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.  -Rom. 13:14

If then you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth. For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  – Col. 3:1-3

Most days Christ’s identity feels too big, but that’s OK. I trust that God is growing me into it as I obediently and gratefully carry my cross.

 

For or Against?

 “Master,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.”

 “Do not stop him,” Jesus said, “for whoever is not against you is for you.”  -Luke 9:49-50

How often have I looked at someone who is not demonstrably accepting or approving of me and assumed they were against me? Nothing specific has been said or done to indicate any animosity towards me, and yet I am suspicious and wary.

Case in point: my church previously worshipped in an urban setting. This particular area is on the cusp of one of the more dangerous neighborhoods of the city and so we were advised to excercise caution. Occasionally I was the first person to arrive at church early Sunday morning and, if I met anyone on the street as I approached our building, I immediately felt distrustful and apprehensive, especially if they did not smile or nod a greeting. While there is a case to be made for caution, my subconscious response ran deeper than that. I assumed they were “against” me. Why? I was not born with that instinct. However, I grew up with a fearful parent whose default response to a stranger was distrust. My apprehension was something I learned.

Jesus teaches a different posture. Jesus says that if someone isn’t against me, I should assume they are for me. That’s a big paradigm shift! As I have worked to un-learn what I was taught, I remind myself when encountering a stranger that I don’t need to lower my head and avoid eye contact, assuming they are “against” me. Rather, I choose to believe that they are for me (or at the very least neutral, which they most likely are!), greeting them with a smile and perhaps a kind word. In the process, I pray that they will know that I am “for” them, too…and in the process maybe our little corner of the world will become a gentler and more gracious place.

Do you subconsciously assume people are “for” or “against” you? What’s your natural instinct? Does it align with your behavior? Is it time for a paradigm shift?

Before I see someone as a problem, may I see him or her as a human being.  –Prayer: Forty Days of Practice, by Justin McRoberts & Scott Erickson.

 

A Wren’s Song

Nearly every morning this little Carolina Wren sits atop the feeder pole, her perky little carolina wrentail cocked up as she surveys her domain. While she is a small bird, her great big voice belies her petite body, and her song is unmistakable as she greets the morning. She strikes me as being bold and confident and joyful as a new day begins. She inspires me!

How do I greet each new day? Altogether too often, I have allowed the past to influence today. Yesterday’s screw-ups, missed opportunities from days gone by, consequences of poor choices made years ago…all these can hijack my day almost before it begins!

And then there’s the future. What lies ahead? Will I be able to provide for myself for the rest of my days? Will I remain healthy, or will I develop Alzheimer’s or some other form of dementia like my grandmother and my mother before me? Will I get to the place where I can no longer care for myself? Will I be a burden to my kids? Anxiety about the future is just as detrimental as regret over the past when it comes to the fresh start today offers .

Today is a new day! God has new things for me today–new experiences, new insights–that won’t fit into an old me. (I’m reminded of Jesus’ words in the second chapter of Mark’s gospel about putting new wine in new wineskins.) Each new day brings the same opportunity to start fresh, to be ready to grow and expand with whatever comes! Regret over the past and anxiety about the future simply shrink me to the point where there is no room to receive the newness of today.

How are you today? Are you ready for a fresh start? You, too, can learn from my little wren friend, lifting your head to sing a bold, confident song to greet the morning. It’s a new day… Sing!

But encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today”…  -Hebrews 3:13

 

 

 

Monday Morning Second Thoughts

Yesterday was Good Shepherd Sunday according to our liturgical calendar and I had the privilege of providing the sermon.  I love the John 10 passage in which Jesus identifies himself as the Good Shepherd. He speaks of how he knows his sheep and his sheep know him. He says his sheep listen to his voice, trusting him enough to follow where he leads. Great stuff for a sermon on listening for the voice of God through prayer, which is one of my favorite subjects!

Our prayer team has had a fruitful year thus far. We have had an often urgent, ongoing medical crisis in one of our families that we’ve been praying for since February. We have rejoiced when God has answered some of our specific requests; we have persevered when he hasn’t. Yesterday seemed like the perfect opportunity to share with the parish what God has been doing as the team has prayed, and we wanted to give him praise and honor and glory as we shared the highlights of our prayers this year. We shared the wonderful ways God has answered our prayers for wisdom, for healing, for a much-needed car, for a new home, and then we wound it up with Psalm 100, a prayer of thanksgiving. I thought we did well!

But I woke up this morning feeling burdened by what we didn’t share. As I re-lived that testimony time yesterday, I saw the faces of the people whose prayers had not been answered in the way they wanted–the people who have not been healed, the job that has not been provided, the one who struggles to know the love of God. What about those prayers? We didn’t give God glory for those answers, did we?

As I wrestle with these questions, I sense the Holy Spirit gently reminding me that I carefully prepared that sermon, that I sensed his direction to remind people that the Good Shepherd knows and cares for his sheep, that he never abandons those who are in his charge, and that we can faithfully follow him, trusting in his goodness. The team’s intention was to share the blessing we have experienced as we have prayed together, and to give glory to God for the ways we can see he has answered. Our motives and intentions were not wrong or bad.

Wait…did you catch that? “…the ways we can see he has answered…” To say that God doesn’t answer a prayer is a lie. He always answers. What’s more, he always answers in the way that brings about the greatest good for everyone involved, some of whom we may not even know. It’s not unusual for it to take years before we can see how God answered. Sometimes we can’t see his answer until we step into his presence at the end of our earthly life.

We see this quite clearly in the life of Jesus. He didn’t always get what he asked for. Jesus prayed first that the cup would pass from him. It took him three attempts before he could finally and whole-heartedly pray, “Not my will, but your will be done, Father,” and then to step out in faithful obedience. (Matthew 26:36-45)

There is a holy mystery in suffering. We don’t want it, we don’t like it, but we can’t avoid it. Here’s the good news: We can trust that God will indeed work good out of it in his time and in his perfect way. We can trust that scripture is right and true when it says that there will be no more mourning or tears when the Kingdom comes in its fullness. We have this hope, this blessed assurance in Christ.

The day will come when we won’t second-guess anything we’ve said or done, when our best intentions will be perfect. In the meantime, my prayer is that God will redeem my clumsy attempts at sharing his perfect love, his goodness and his faithfulness to all, especially to those who are suffering. I know that prayer will be answered!

If you are struggling today with the disappointment of seemingly unanswered prayers, my prayer for you is that you sense the comfort, care, and protection of the Good Shepherd who is devoted to you and will meet your every need for understanding in the fullness of his time. Until then, may you trust in his ultimate goodness. Amen and amen.