Monday, July 29, 2013

Some Practical Tips on Practicing the Presence of God

[this is my fifth and final post for the month of July for The Society for Christian Psychology]

For several months now I have been experimenting with the idea and practice of what Brother Lawrence called “Practicing the Presence of God.” I am finding the practice essential to walking as a disciple of Jesus in my everyday life. Few practices address the sense of abandonment and loneliness I often struggle with like this one. I am amazed at how the practice runs up against and provokes corrupt and false views of myself and God. I am forced to really consider and work out what kind of God is with me, and to reconcile this with what I know of myself – no easy task!

Recently I picked up a book again that I had read years ago by John Ortberg titled, God is Closer Than You Think. Ortberg has a chart on p.27 that is titled “Foundational Truths of My Life with God,” with the helpful suggestion to read through it daily for two weeks, so that it becomes part of the thought life. I am finding it extremely helpful in remembering God throughout the day and having conversations with him. I hope others will benefit from it too.

  1. God is always present and active in my life, whether or not I see him.
  2. Coming to recognize and experience God’s presence is learned behavior; I can cultivate it.
  3. My task is to meet God in this moment.
  4. I am always tempted to live “outside” of this moment. When I do that, I lose my sense of God’s presence.
  5. Sometimes God seems far away for reasons I do not understand. Those moments, too, are opportunities to learn.
  6. Whenever I fail, I can always start again right away.
  7. No one knows the full extent to which a human being can experience God’s presence.
  8. My desire for God ebbs and flows, but his desire for me is constant.
  9. Every thought [and I would add, “feeling”] carries a “spiritual charge” that moves me a little closer to or a little farther from God.
  10. Every aspect of my life – work, relationships, hobbies, errands – is of immense and genuine interest to God.
  11. My path to experiencing God’s presence will not look quite like anyone else’s.
  12. Straining and trying too hard do not help.

One of the things that strikes me about Ortberg’s list is how it strikes the unusual balance of being both highly ambitious and utterly realistic. It assumes that anyone can learn to cultivate this daily practice, but it also provides ample room for failure. Both the ambition and the room for failure are due to the goodness and faithfulness of Jesus and his desire for us.

Further, the list assumes that God is the kind of God who is interested in the mundane details, patterns and rhythms of my daily life, which has been one of my biggest struggles in practicing the presence of God. However you want to theologically couch it, God considers me worthy of hanging out with every minute of every day. This blows my mind.

Living “in the now” has been a recurrent theme in my experiments. There is literally no way to practice God’s presence if we are being pulled into the past (via shame, regret, etc.) or into the future (via worry). The only time in which we meet with God is the present moment, but very few people actually know how to live there. Hurry and worry are usually what we practice! I look forward to any thoughts you, the reader, might have on this.

Resources cited:

John Ortberg, God is Closer Than You Think. Zondervan, 2005.

Friday, July 26, 2013

A Prayer for the Weary Soul

[this is my fourth blog for the month of July for the Society for Christian Psychology]

Lord, I am exhausted. I feel fractured and strained. I feel myself coming apart and degrading into something that cannot continue. Pulled apart and left to rot.

If you don’t intervene, I will end up a pile of goop on the floor.

Please, Lord, have mercy on me.

Restore my soul. Restore my fractured sense of self. Heal my fearful and ravaged mind. Bring calm to the chaos I feel inside. Bring rest to all my restless places. Breathe life into all my barren places.

I despair of my ability to restore my sense of self or any feelings of calm. I have tried this on my own, but only end up making it worse, like pouring gas on a fire. I am utterly insufficient.

My only hope is Jesus and his all-sufficient grace which surrounds me, permeates me and fills me. Jesus, take me from the pit and place me in your kingdom of love and light. In my loneliness and fatigue I seek refuge in your Trinitarian fellowship, your all-sufficient loving fountain of reverberating pulsating life, life, life! Surround me with your sufficiency and lift up my gaze from the floor. Lift me up from the dust and draw me into your lap so I can hear your heartbeat and see your delight.

Please, Lord, have mercy on me.

I praise you for your sufficient grace which covers and fills all my insufficiencies, fractures, corruptions and wounds. You pursue me, fill me, saturate me, go before me and walk beside me. I trust in you; your joy, your light, your sufficiency, your life, your strength, your guiding and teaching presence through all dark valleys. I trust your joy. Continue to reveal your heart to me as I walk this dark and weary road. Grant hope and comfort so that I might share these gifts with other weary travellers on their way to you.

Thank you, Father.

Friday, July 19, 2013

The Dangerous Adventure of Bible Reading

[this is my third post for the month of July for the Society for Christian Psychology]

“It's a dangerous business, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no telling where you might be swept off to.” (Bilbo Baggins)

Many of us are too familiar with the Bible. This is especially true for those of us who have had formal training in its teachings as seminary or college students. The stories, the idioms, the metaphors, words and phrases wash over us like water off a duck’s back. Familiarity has bred contempt. When the preacher reads a text, most of us instantly access the dozens of sermons, articles or studies we have heard about this text; our eyes glaze over and we pretend to listen for 40 minutes, not realizing that we are completely disconnected from our hearts and our God. What can we do? Can we recover a different way of reading? Is it possible to approach the familiar in a way that is new and fresh? Is there a way to access the Scriptures that breaks through the “eyes glazed over” and the wandering mind?

I believe there is a way, but it is not the way that “seems familiar.” We often have to try different approaches, different translations, different ways of reading that shake things up. Sometimes it’s enough to change the wording of the familiar text and the place and time in which we read it. By far, though, the best way to shake things up in your Bible reading to get your imagination talking with your mind again is to become a different kind of person.

The work of the Spirit in conforming us to the image of Christ can be a daily reality that constantly breathes newness into our minds and hearts (Rom 8:28-29; Gal 4:19). That is, if we’re working with him on that project. If we’ve got our own projects going on, we will miss this process for the most part. Jesus assumes that his disciples will be about this (Matt 6:33; 11:25-30; 28:18-20). To the extent that we share this project with Jesus, taking up his easy yoke, to that extent we will grow and change. If we’re paying attention to the God who is in our midst (Zeph 3:17) over time we will become a different kind of person who sees and thinks differently. This is the best way to read the Bible afresh, to first seek God and His Kingdom (Matt 6:33) and allow him to “transform [us] by the renewal of our minds” (Rom 12:2), so that we no longer approach the Scripture text as we were, but as the new persons we are becoming.

“When a minister reads out of the Bible, I am sure that at least nine times out of ten the people who happen to be listening at all hear not what is really being read but only what they expect to hear read. And I think that what most people expect to hear read from the Bible is an edifying story, an uplifting thought, a moral lesson—something elevating, obvious, and boring. So that is exactly what very often they do hear. Only that is too bad because if you really listen— and maybe you have to forget that it is the Bible being read and a minister who is reading it—there is no telling what you might hear.” (Frederick Buechner, Magnificent Defeat, p.10)

The next time you are exposing yourself to the text of Scripture, ask for God to speak in fresh ways; seek to become a different kind of person, so that you might knock on the door of the text in a different way. There’s no telling what you might hear.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Desire Sucks

[warning: raw post ahead, proceed with caution]

At a retreat this past weekend, a brother asked me “When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?” He is in the midst of writing a book and wanted to prove his thesis on me, something about purpose in life (I didn’t stick around long enough to find out). I was shocked and a bit embarrassed when I could offer no answer. I scoured the scraps of memory of what I knew from my childhood, and other than a delusional desire to be Superman, I had nothing. I think my friend was a bit annoyed that his theory didn’t work on me, and so was I frankly.

Sure, like many other kids, there were “faddish” desires, when for a few days I wanted to be a cop, a few days I wanted to be a weatherman, etc. But nothing lasted very long or went very deep. No abiding desire. Maybe this is more common than I realize, but for me it seems different from what all my childhood friends experienced.

Honestly, the first time I felt purpose was when I felt called to the ministry after becoming a Christian. My years as an unbeliever were spent lost, in pain and completely without direction. After becoming a Christian in 1989, I took up reading quite a bit, esp. the Scriptures (I had never really been interested in reading before). Eventually this grew into research skills and teaching gifts, flowering into what I perceived to be a calling - according to my reading of Ephesians 4 the “pastor/teacher.” I longed to teach God’s word in such a way that people actually came to know and experience God.

I began developing this gift, this calling, through various means - teaching Bible College classes, attending graduate school in theological studies, researching and writing a thesis, etc. (particularly in the years 1998-2001) I thought I had finally found my purpose, what I had been put on earth for.

The dark spectre of “whatever the hell God is up to” began knocking on my door in 2001 (more like, knocking down the damn door - sorry for the language folks, I’m feeling a lot of pain as I write this, deal with it). As external circumstances fell through and internal resources dried up, my calling all but disappeared except for a few scraps, a few pieces of rubble here and there. Testaments to a life never to be, it seems. Despite numerous attempts to re-build some sense of calling, of purpose, I remain, sometimes excruciatingly, without a sense of purpose. A frequent pattern for me is to see someone’s earthy passion in an area that mildly interests me (e.g., spiritual formation, pastoral work, etc.) and to either feel jealous and collapse into sadness or try to “try on” their perspective, their vision to see if there is some form of “fit.” (what I mean by “earthy passion”: passion with clay feet, from someone who feels strong desire but who has enough brokenness in their life to not be an ass about it).

I’ve learned to accept it (maybe resignation?) and try to be present with what is before me and not worry about what “could” be, what should have been, or what might be. It’s just too damn painful to think of “what do I want to do?” questions. There have been definite benefits to this - I have let go of a great deal of anger with God, I’ve become a safe place for broken people to walk with, I’ve discovered aspects of God, his heart and his Word that I’ve never dreamed possible. I treasure these, I really do. Part of me longs to share what he’s given me, though, longs to lead others in similar experiences and understandings; but I don’t have any hope or indication that such a thing could even be possible or if that is what I really desire.

You see, I hate that word right now - Desire. “What do you want?” “What do you want to be?” As these questions provoke desire to be able to give an answer, they provoke a raw nerve, stir up a deep pool of pain that I have no clue what to do with. Desire only seems to equal pain. It’s easier to just survive and do the best with what I’ve got, try to help the next generation (my kids) find hope and meaning in life even though most of the time I feel completely lost myself.

To get back to my friend’s question this past weekend, I think I just had a new train of thought regarding all this crap. I wonder if the last 10+ years of purposelessness is actually just returning to what was always there when I was younger and not necessarily a new phenomenon. Maybe it has to do with something deep that was lost in my childhood years, something that never developed as it does for most other “normal” kids. I’ve often wondered what was lost back then with all the betrayal and abandonment I experienced, but little memory. Parents are supposed to provide kids with categories with which to navigate life, right? What happens to a kid when that doesn’t happen? What happens to dreaming, desiring, wanting to be something? I don’t know if I’ve ever looked at it that way before.

I know lots of people struggle with their vocation, feelings of meaninglessness, but I don’t think this is the same thing. The people who struggle with this seem (my perception here) to have a general direction in life peppered with occasional (perhaps even frequent) bouts of confusion and listlessness. I can’t claim to have any such direction, I only seem to live in the confusion.

I will try and talk to God about this, but it’s still pretty raw. The trust I have in him through years of wandering and being cared for will help me have some boldness now. I need to be honest about this pain; I take comfort in the fact that this is all he expects of me. Part of me doubts he’s able to do anything about it either. I wonder what he’ll have to say about that.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Live As Well As You Dare: Some Practical Suggestions for Depression Sufferers

This is my second post for the month of July for the Society for Christian Psychology.

For those of us who have tasted the dark waters of depression, the attempt of others at helping often makes things worse. I can remember the all-too-often phenomena of Bible verses being tossed in my face like prescriptions, if only I had the faith to swallow them. Other times I was smothered in flamboyant flattery, the kind that has little or nothing to do with actual virtue or skill.

There are many things that can be said along the lines of what actually “helps” sufferers of depression, but one of the most basic and easily missed is the value of regular routine and paying attention to the concrete realities before our faces. That is why I found this letter so delightful. The blog Letters of Note brought it to my attention, which introduces it this way:

In February of 1820, on learning that his good friend, Lady Georgiana Morpeth, was suffering from a bout of depression, noted essayist and clergyman Sydney Smith sent her the following precious letter, in which he listed twenty pieces of advice to help her overcome "low spirits."

The letter encourages Lady Morpeth to live as simply as she can stand it, which also means living as well as she can dare. It takes great courage to walk through depression, and often the best help is found in returning to the bedrock of our reality, the simple dusty ground beneath our feet. We find little hope in untangling the great mysteries, but can find the energy needed to walk another step by watching a bird fly or by taking a bath. Below the letter is listed in its entirety. What would you add to the list?

Foston, Feb. 16th, 1820

Dear Lady Georgiana,

Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done—so I feel for you.

1st. Live as well as you dare.

2nd. Go into the shower-bath with a small quantity of water at a temperature low enough to give you a slight sensation of cold, 75° or 80°.

3rd. Amusing books.

4th. Short views of human life—not further than dinner or tea.

5th. Be as busy as you can.

6th. See as much as you can of those friends who respect and like you.

7th. And of those acquaintances who amuse you.

8th. Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely—they are always worse for dignified concealment.

9th. Attend to the effects tea and coffee produce upon you.

10th. Compare your lot with that of other people.

11th. Don't expect too much from human life—a sorry business at the best.

12th. Avoid poetry, dramatic representations (except comedy), music, serious novels, melancholy sentimental people, and every thing likely to excite feeling or emotion not ending in active benevolence.

13th. Do good, and endeavour to please everybody of every degree.

14th. Be as much as you can in the open air without fatigue.

15th. Make the room where you commonly sit, gay and pleasant.

16th. Struggle by little and little against idleness.

17th. Don't be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.

18th. Keep good blazing fires.

19th. Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion.

20th. Believe me, dear Georgiana, your devoted servant, Sydney Smith

(Source: The Selected Writings of Sydney Smith; Image of Sydney Smith: Replica by Henry Perronet Briggs, oil on canvas, 1840 (1833) NPG 1475 © National Portrait Gallery, London.)

Thursday, July 04, 2013

Grace Interrupts

(this is my first post for the month of July for the Society for Christian Psychology).

If we are honest about our experience with God, we have to admit that God sometimes does things we would not expect or want. In fact, if you walk with God long enough he will disappoint and annoy you. He will come in ways we don’t expect, upsetting plans, dashing expectations and interrupting schedules. Sometimes these interruptions can be received as grace, an invitation to enter a different kind of life; but in order to be received in this way it requires a different kind of seeing and hearing. I often miss these opportunities, much to my dismay.

Today, God came for me in the form of a soaking rainstorm. I was in the middle of doing penance to feel better about myself (in the form of exercise to appease guilt for a couple of “bad food days”) and God showed up and messed everything up, turning over the tables of my schemes and plans for self-improvement.

As rain soaked through my clothes, cutting short my walk, I felt annoyed and frustrated. Didn’t God know I had important penance to perform? How else was I supposed to feel better about myself and appease the guilt of making bad food choices? (It’s ok to laugh here).

Though I was feeling some frustration with the interrupting rain, experience has taught me to wonder, to look for symbols, to be curious - I wondered if there might be something else going on. As the rain fell and saturated my clothes and the world around me, I tried to become aware of God and what he might be saying. I tried to let go of my expectations and to really look and listen. I had been praying for help in writing this blog (feeling stuck in a lack of inspiration) and I wondered if this rainstorm had something to do with answering that prayer. I thought of being inundated with grace in spite of my efforts (or lack thereof), for he is that type of God. I thought of Matthew 5:45, “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (ESV). I noticed that even though I was being soaked, there was a entire world outside of me that was drinking this in as well. I was part of something bigger. Even though I was experiencing saturation, I was one among many pieces of creation drinking in this gift from above. There was a larger story being told, a larger world being cared for. This helped me let go of my narrow agenda and embrace whatever God was doing.

I thought further of all the times I’ve been interrupted recently and how I typically respond - in frustration and anger, often with a sense of an offended ego. How dare they (this person, this circumstance) violate my will?? I am an important person doing important things!! Again, laughter is very appropriate here, because there is obvious absurdity to behold.

Eventually, I couldn’t help but laugh at the insanity of grace. Grace had met me in ways I never would have guessed or even wanted. This made it free of my control and manipulation (since I could never make it happen or keep or sustain it), which helped me receive it without condition. In this work of giving and receiving I could hear the Father’s laughter, his rejoicing in me and in giving me good things (this was another answer to prayer - “let me hear your rejoicing, Lord” - Zeph 3:17).

God’s laughter of grace enabled me to laugh. There I was, drenched to the skin, chuckling about it all. Laughter is a sign that we are in touch with the irony of living in a world of extremes, order and disorder, beauty and affliction, dignity and shame. It is an essential element to earthy spirituality, a life lived before God fully aware of surrounding conditions. As Dallas Willard reminds us,

“[Our] condition is one of labor, glory, dust, and death. It is one of constant incongruity between human dreams and dignity, on the one hand, and human realities, on the other. We are incarnate and finite beings, trailing clouds of overaspiration and ragged incompleteness. When our ‘spirituality’ disconnects from the natural contexts and relationships that are always there nevertheless, one of the chief signs of what is happening is that we lose our ability to laugh. Laughter is the automatic human response to incongruity, and incongruity is never lacking on the human scene, no matter how far advanced we may be into the kingdom. It is indelibly imprinted in our finitude” (Divine Conspiracy, 238).

In the soaking rain I see the Father’s care for me - saturating, surrounding, enveloping, but not necessarily comforting or clarifying. I didn’t feel all warm and fuzzy inside, but I could feel his joy, receive his grace, and his life. His grace is of such a kind that it can sometimes envelop at the same time as annoy. He comes, yet again, in his own way and in his own time. I am reminded of the words of the wise old beaver from Lion, Witch and the Wardrobe who declared to the children, “Safe? . . . Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you” (86).

Pay attention the next time something goes wrong. It just might be God sending another annoying love note, inviting you to pull aside and meet with Him.