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    Entries in Spiritual Disciplines (18)

    Monday
    Jul092012

    Prayer: What Does it Accomplish?

    Irresistible Attraction

    Of all the Christian spiritual disciplines, prayer is the most difficult for me, at least as I have come to understand the practice. We are commanded to pray, and taught to pray by the Scriptures, most notably by Jesus, who taught us to pray, "Our Father..."

    And our pastors and leaders exhort us, telling us to pray, and from time to time they even give us a glimpse of what prayer looks like, earnest and transparent before the throne of God, offering praise, asking for divine help, confessing sin.

    But still, prayer remains difficult. Is God listening? Is his ear inclined to my prayers? Are my prayers, in effect, answered? Are "no," "yes," and "wait" the full range of responses God may offer? Could it be that the conversation is the end, and not the outcome or the result? Might it be that simply entering God's presence is enough? Could it be that prayer has other outcomes, other purposes, other transformative ends in the life of the faithful person, beyond the thrills of a spiritual experience, beyond the chiseling of character, or the witnessing of God's sovereign acts in accordance with our supplications? Or could it be that prayer is all of these, and more? That the facets, the effects of prayer are beyond our imagining? The privilege itself is ineffable.

    Here is a story that may capture one meaning, one end of prayer.

    I once heard a wise elder relay a story of a young monk who had become frustrated by the practice of prayer. He approached an older monk, his spiritual mentor, and asked, "What does prayer do? I am tired of praying! Prayer doesn't accomplish anything!"

    Instead of offering a theological rebuttal, the older monk simply said, "Here is my basket, woven together and made of straw. Please, take this down to the river and fill it with water, and return it to me."

    Again and again, the young monk filled the basket. And time after time, the basket slowly drained as he made his way back to the monastery. Finally, the young monk returned to his master, basket in hand.

    "Each time I attempted to return, the water ran through the basket. I attempted to do as you had asked, but to no avail," said the young monk.

    "Look inside the basket," the older monk offered. "What do you see?"

    The younger monk replied, "When I began, the basket was lined with dirt and a trace of filth, but now, the dirt has been removed. It is clean."

    The older monk then said, "This is what prayer does. It cleans."

    As you pray, remember, God may be at work exposing dirt and rinsing it away. The work may be slow and tedious and gradual. Your patience may wear thin. But take heart. Return again and again to the Water of Life.

    Let him cleanse you.

    Monday
    Oct102011

    Formation in Christlikeness Conference at Friends University

     

    This post is a little late in coming, considering this conference was three weeks ago.  But what follows are my reflections from the Aprentis event, written at various intervals since returning home.

    Molly and I recently travelled to Wichita, Kansas to be present at the Formation in Christlikeness: The Process of Change Conference, hosted by the Aprentis Institute for Christian Spiritual Formation at Friends University.  Keynote speakers were Dallas Willard, James Bryan Smith, Scot McKnight, Mindy Caliguire, James Catford, and Eduardo Pedreira.

    Our time couldn't have been more delightful.  I ran into some of the friends I met last spring at Barclay College.  I saw others that I have come to know over the past few years, and finally introduced my wife to some of these extraordinary folks.  The content was profound, with an especially interesting dialogue begun by Dallas Willard on the nature of the atonement and it's meaning for our conception of God.  The music was moving as well.  Christian conferences are often remarkable because of the music.  I have found this to be so not because of the performance of the musicians or the talent of those leading.  Rather, I have found this to be so because of the fervor with which those in attendance sing.

    The conference centered on the theme of formation.  How do we become spiritually formed?  What are the practices, the ideas, the narratives, the postures that shape us?  And how does our formation influence and determine the witness of the church?  An oft made point, by Willard and others, is that we are always undergoing a process of formation.  The challenge comes concerning our responsibility to conceive of a vision for our lives, a decision to live in accordance with that vision, and our engagement with the means necessary for our us to embody and embrace that vision.  For Christian people, this includes developing our conception of God in accordance with what we find in the person of Jesus and the testimony of the Bible, making a determination not only to be converts to Christ, but disciples, and utilizing exercises such as prayer, service, study, worship, and other such disciplines to create a space wherein we might be shaped us as followers of Jesus.

    Three conversation capture the essence of our weekend.

    Conversation One: The Kingdom is Safe

    While speaking with a gentleman after arriving at Friends University, I asked a question about this person's history with Renovare, with Jim Smith, with Dallas Willard, and their particular church background.  I asked about his familiarity with The Apprentice Series, and with what Friends currently was seeking to develop on campus through the Christian Spiritual Formation Institute.  He was enthusiastic to be present at the event, knowing much about these materials and these developments at Friends, and was encouraged by the tone of the presenters and of the conference attendees.

    Having a very diverse church and theological background, this gentleman remarked that what had impressed him most in his experiences with Renovare, and what excited him about this event, was the fact that there was a feeling of safety at these events, a sense that a variety of traditions and perspectives could be presented and heard with grace.  This does not negate the fact that there is some Truth all are seeking; only that the quest for Truth is conducted in a gentle manner, allowing for diversity, listening to the other, while at the same time thinking critical about the accounts of formation, of Jesus, of the Bible, or other doctrinal concerns that are offered.

    And this is right.  Christian people who have been formed in the image of Christ will embody the ideals of seriousness and safety.  Within the Kingdom, our longing for union with God is affirmed, and the seriousness of life within that Kingdom is palatable.  The Kingdom is safe, never in trouble, and open and available to all whom God calls.

    Conversation Two: Spiritual Growth Requires Attentiveness and Self-Awareness

    Molly and I were blessed to discuss growth in the Christian life.  This conference gave us an opportunity and a language to assess our own spiritual well-being, our own health as disciples of Jesus.  Molly found that she is spread very thin, and does not often take the required time for rest and reflection and prayer and study.  She realized how critical this calling is for her congregation.

    I spend a great deal of time in study; reading and reflecting on that which I read.  But I also spend too much time looking at screens, or being distracted by social networks, or failing to slow down long enough to pay careful attention to what God might be saying.

    Together, me and my spouse were fortunate enough to explore the type of environment we are fostering in our home for our spiritual development, as well as the development of our daughter.

    Conversation Three: Christian Spiritual Formation is a Growing Edge in Publishing

    Lastly, for those that are writers, there is a need for resources in the area of Christian spiritual formation.  Many of the existing resources are autobiographical, or along the lines of memoir.  Spiritual formation books are criticized for being too individualistic.  There is a hunger for sophisticated, theologically complex accounts of the spiritual life, and, according to one voice in the room, there is a need for more reflection on the role of the body in spiritual formation.

    Christian Spiritual Formation is a growing edge in publishing.  If you've got a book proposal, you should submit it to a well respected publishing house.

    Wednesday
    Jul272011

    Writing a Rule of Life :: A Guest Blog From Matt Johnson

    This week I have invited my friend, Matt Johnson, to stop by.  I asked Matt, "What would you say to someone looking to compose a rule of life, perhaps who was doing so for the first time?"  A rule is a simple approach to one's spiritual formation, a self-composed guide to spending time with God for facilitating growth in Christlikeness.  With a BA in Religious Studies from Friends University, Matt has served at Andover United Methodist Church (Kansas) for almost a decade and has led several Apprentice groups.  He received training in spiritual direction through the Souljourners program in Atchison, Kansas.  He is a good friend and an excellent listener.  I hope you enjoy his words.

     

    I am sitting at my laptop looking out my bedroom window at my friend Merle’s garden. One of the most fascinating plants is a vining gourd called a dinosaur gourd (is that the scientific name?). It gets its name from the dark green, wrinkled skin that covers the gourd, making it look like a dinosaur (yes, definitely scientific). This peculiar vining plant has been very happy with the hot summer we’ve had. As a result, it surpassed its six foot tomato cage and began growing over the yellow squash and amaranth that are nearby. Fortunately, Merle is not only a good gardener, he is also creative. Using a fence post and some plastic twine he created a support for the dinosaur gourd vine, so that it would grow up and away from his other plants. Because of his work all the plants are doing well. 

    In modern language a rule of spiritual practices can be compared to Merle’s temporary support for the dinosaur gourd plant. Its purpose is to help create structure and space so your soul may grow toward the sun of God’s love. As we work with our individual rules they help us set boundaries so that various aspects of our lives do not overrun other areas. Of course, grace directs all that we do and outweighs even our personal rules, but on a general basis, the rule can help us dedicate time to spiritual practices and relationships that might otherwise be neglected. Ultimately, the rule of life should lead to a deeper relationship with God and resulting joy, peace, and love. 

    Right away you can see that I’m pushing for the rule to sound more like a nurturing device, rather than an oppressive and rigid obligation. Please hear this difference, because if you can start seeing the rule as a healthy and life-nurturing document you’ll be more inclined to engage this practice and discover the gifts it can bring.  

    First, let’s consider a simplified approach to creating a rule for life. Begin by writing a list of the spiritual practices that are most nurturing to your soul and help you awaken to God’s work in your life. This list will include your favorite practices, but it should also include those practices that stretch and challenge you to a new depth of awareness of God’s presence. The list could include personal practices such as solitude and meditation as well as corporate practices such as worship or meeting with an accountability group. 

    Next, add to the list items that are not considered classic spiritual practices, but that give you a sense of joy, peace or connection to God, family, or friends. On my list you’ll find guitar playing, jogging, and a weekly date night with my wife. Sometimes in our zeal to achieve spiritual perfection we ignore our basic human needs. Adding these non-traditional practices will help you keep your feet planted on the ground. 

    Look over your list and in a column next to each practice write how often this particular practice can be done. Then create a second column noting how much time this practice requires. So in the row next to “worship” the first column might contain “once a week” and the second column would specify, “75 minutes.” [insert denominational-worship joke here]

    Hopefully as you begin creating these two columns you’ll start to see the tension that exists when it comes to creating a rule: while spiritual exercises are good for our soul, we are finite beings and cannot do all of them. Here are two ideas that have helped me in shaping my rule. First, there is nothing we can do to change God’s love for us—so whether you live like Benedict of Nursia, or a scallywag, God loves you and delights in your very existence. Second, you are simply looking for the practices that connect most powerfully with this season of your faith journey in this season of life.  

    With this grace applied it is now time to narrow the rule down to a feasible number of practices. Prayerfully look over your lists and notice the practices that God seems to be drawing to your attention, if any surface put a star beside them. Next, consider any practices that don’t seem to resonate with your soul, these practices could be removed from your rule. Once you’ve emphasized the key practices and removed the misfires, you need to make adjustments with the columns that line out the frequency of the practice and the duration. Be realistic and practical in how often you will engage each practice and how long you will spend with that particular practice. My experience is that when people first attempt to write a rule, they often create an impossible ideal and proceed to not follow their rule.

    Depending on the types of practices you include you may have a very short rule or you may have many practices listed. Either is fine. 

    Once you feel the rule is set, make copies of it and keep it where you will see it often. My first rule was hidden inside a few cupboard doors, my Bible, and my car. We need these constant visual reminders to help us frame our days. 

    Decide how long you want to practice your rule before you come back to it for revisions. I would recommend that you work with your rule for a month and then give it a thorough revision, removing the lifeless practices and adding the disciplines that your soul longs for.  

    For a more detailed process for writing a rule I would recommend the ninth chapter of Jim Smith’s book, The Good and Beautiful Community. 

    Wednesday
    May112011

    It's Jesus Calling...

    I do not enjoy talking on the phone.  Often I avoid it.  Allowing calls to go to voice mail is a gift of technology.  I do not have to answer, I can review the message, and I can call at my convenience.  I own the phone.

    Those in the Benedictine tradition would challenge this.  John Ortberg brought this to my attention.  Just as Benedictines greet every guest as they would Christ, so too can one answer the phone as though it is Christ who is calling.

    With this at the forefront of my mind, I'll never answer the phone the same way again.

    Monday
    May092011

    Ancient Practices and the Porous Self

    In a 2008 article written for First Things, Alan Jacobs turns his attention toward Hugh Halter, Matt Smay, Brian McLaren, and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, examining contemporary authors in Christianity that harken back within their published works to an "ancient faith."  In the three books linked above, each author turns the attention of the reader to the past, and in one way or another seeks to reclaim some old facet of the Christian Tradition they believe has been lost.  Having read McLaren and Wilson-Hartgrove, I was intrigued.  Like many reformers of old, I too have longed for a re-emergence of Christian faith as it has been expressed and lived in the past, a purer, even "mythic" faith that taps into that same energy discovered and exploding forth from the pages of the New Testament.

    I first encountered this article, entitled "Do-It-Yourself Tradition," in Jacobs' collection of essays, Wayfaring: Essays Pleasant and Unpleasant.  This selection is an excellent critique of contemporary popular writing that attempts to point us back to the past.  Jacobs exposes critiques of the church that are too simplistic, outlandish, and historically ill-founded (and not exclusive to the authors cited above), while calling the reader to a deeper, more analytic and theologically well grounded attempt to forge a way forward for the contemporary church.  Jacobs calls his reader to be more daring, more brash in their attempts to re-enliven Christianity.  A tweak here, a tweak there, a practice now and again with a dash of spiritual razzmatazz won't do.

    You can read the article here.  As he reaches the end of his argument, Jacobs interjects a small amount of contemporary cultural and philosophical analysis that may be the greatest contribution given therein.  In his concluding remarks, Jacobs states:

    The practices of the ancient Church were forged in eras of the porous self and were responsive to its fears and vulnerabilities. Can they be nearly as meaningful to us, surrounded by our protective buffers, as they were to our ancestors? Does their evident power suggest to us that we have paid too high a price for our buffers, that we may need to be more exposed? The self that can pursue the via illuminativa—that can be illuminated by God—may open itself to the demonic as well as the divine. The disciplines and practices of our Christian ancestors are not toys or tools; they are the hope of life to those who are perishing. This is what Alasdair MacIntyre had in mind when he said that, here among the ruins of our old civilization, what we may be waiting for is a new St. Benedict: someone who can articulate a whole way of life and call us to it.

    The turn to the Christian past is indeed welcome, but it may demand more of us than we are prepared to give. In contemplating the witness and practices of our ancestors, we may discover that we'd rather remain within our buffers—if we can. But can we? Current electronic technologies—from blogs to texting to online banking to customer-specific Google ads—may be drawing us into a new age of porousness, with new exposures, new vulnerabilities. And in such a new age the hard-earned wisdom of our distant ancestors in the faith may be not just a set of interesting ideas and recommendations but an indispensable source of hope. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.

    While I have spoken often of the spiritual disciplines as "tools," Jacobs posits that they are indeed much more.  I think he is right.  I also think he is right to point to the changing existential dynamic that may be taking place--the reinsertion of the porous self--within history.

    If Jacobs is right, and the current technological conditions are opening avenues for the reestablishment of mystery and deep spirituality alongside the minimization of those "buffers" we place around ourselves to insulate us from transformative spiritual fanaticism, a new day may be dawning before us.  Jacobs is then right to see ancient Christian practices as "an indispensible source of hope" and "the hope of life to those who are perishing."  He is right to invoke Alasdair MacIntyre's observation that we may need a new St. Benedict.

    The project of "new creation" is larger than we have imagined.

    As conversations continue regarding the future of the faith, between myself and colleagues and friends across denominations and non-denominations, we are in need of honest historical reflection concerning where we stand, as well as sound, well-informed philosophical and theological reflection that can set us on a truthful trajectory toward the fullness of the Kingdom coming.  Along the way, we'll also need practitioners--pastors and church leaders--for the outcome of our ruminations cannot remain in the abstract, if we are to truly see a renewed and more hopeful Christianity.