Glass Full, Glass Empty

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A couple of weeks ago at a taekwondo class an instructor walked up to me and said, “Have you ever heard the ‘glass full, glass empty’ talk?”

As someone who has heard their fair share of illustrations, it sounded familiar. But I wasn’t sure. “Say more,” I invited.

He continued, “It’s a talk given to students who are so filled with information that you can’t give them anything more. It can apply either to a person who is on overload, or a person who has such an inflated sense of their own know-how that they’re in need of a reset.”

“‘What you do is you take a full glass of water, filled to the brim, and set on a tabletop.’ Then, you say, ‘This is you.’ Afterward, you take a full pitcher of water, and you say, ‘This is what I’m trying to offer you.’ Then, you proceed to pour. Overflow occurs. A mess is made. Water is wasted. The point becomes obvious: just as the cup is unable to receive and retain the inflow of water from the pitcher, so too is the student unable to receive, retain, and then apply new information, insight, and knowledge from their instructor.”

“Then what?” I asked.

“‘Then, you pour the water out of the cup,’ he said. ‘You set it down on the table, point to it, and tell them to be more like the empty cup.'”

The applications of this illustration are wide. For the Christ-follower, self-emptying opens up the possibility to receive from Christ the wisdom he offers concerning a life well-lived, as well as the gift of life itself. He fills us with good things, and imparts to us the gift of the Spirit, who not only satisfies our soul, but also wells up, and so springs forth from us an overflow of the eternal kind of life.

The Laboratory of Life

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Isaiah 55:6 says, “Seek the Lord while he may be found; call on him while he is near.”

Proverbs 8:17 promises, “I love those who love me, and those who seek me find me.”

Jeremiah 29:13, likewise, promises, “You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”

1 Chronicles 16:11 exhorts us, “Seek the Lord and his strength; seek his presence continually!”

Perhaps most famously, Jesus, in Matthew 7:7-12, says, ““Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.”

Jesus then assures his hearers of God’s goodness, saying, ““Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!”

But then interestingly, right on the tails of his invitation to ask God for anything, Jesus offers a command: “So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets.”

Seeking doesn’t only involve asking, it involves acting.

Seeking is an invitation. And it is open to everyone. I can respond to the invitation to seek everyday. I can ask, and I can act. Then, I can see what happens. Just like in lab work, I can develop a hypothesis, I can conduct an experiment, I can make observations, and I can evaluate the results. The hypothesis is simple: God is active and at work in our world and in my life, invites me to seek him, and in seeking him, I will find him.

In Letters by a Modern Mystic, Frank Laubach put this to the test. In his ministry, he saw those of another faith seeking obedience to God. He was challenged, not only as a human being, but as a Christian. He wanted to be in fellowship with God, and to live a life of faithfulness. He believed Christianity was true. Since he believed God was active and at work in the world, inviting us to seek him, and that in seeking him, we could find him, he gave it a try. In his journals, Laubach wrote:

But this year I have started out trying to live all my walking moments in conscious listening to the inner voice, asking without ceasing, ‘What, Father, do you desire said? What, Father, do you desire done this minute?’

It is clear that this is exactly what Jesus was doing all day every day. But it is not what His followers have been doing in very large numbers.

What would occur if more of Jesus followers did this every day, all day?

It sounds like a worthwhile experiment. Let’s try it, and see.

Constant Vigilance

HARRY POTTER AND THE ORDER OF THE PHOENIX, Brendan Gleeson, 2007. ©Warner Bros./courtesy Everett Collection

In the Harry Potter books and movies there is a character named Alastor “Mad-Eye” Moody. While there is debate among fans as to whether or not Moody actually said and encouraged “constant vigilance” against those who have committed themselves to the “dark arts” of magic, it is a phrase widely attributed to him. Hermione Granger attributes the saying to him, which is good enough for me.

The phrase came up in a conversation awhile ago, while I was talking to a friend about the insidious nature of sin and the dangers of temptation. Proverbs 4:23 says, “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.” Philippians 4:7 promises, “And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” We stand sentry. But so does Jesus.

The spiritual life is active, not passive. Be on guard. Be active. Constant vigilance.

In Secret

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“Let there always be quiet, dark churches in which men can take refuge. Places where they can kneel in silence. Houses of God, filled with His silent presence. There, even when they do not know how to pray, at least they can be still and breathe easily. Let there be a place somewhere in which you can breathe naturally, quietly, and not have to take your breath in continuous short gasps. A place where your mind can be idle, and forget its concerns, descend into silence, and worship the Father in secret.”

Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation

I’ve been in many a silent church, a place of worship, ground designated for meeting with God. Most of these spaces have been found in cities. Those spaces are a gift. During my youth ministry years I traveled to Philadelphia, Chicago, Omaha, Minneapolis, and Houston to serve in urban contexts. If I’m in a downtown and I come upon a church, I pull the door. If it is open, I go inside.

A church building is, on the one hand, just a building like any other building. On the other hand, whether it be a simple A-frame building located in the countryside or an elaborate cathedral, there is something special about those spaces. There is a spirit to them, a character. There is a sense of history. Even if the singing in that space has long since ceased, and the prayers offered on those grounds have long echoed into silence, there is a resonance. It invites me to sit awhile, and wonder, think, pray.

Let there always be such spaces.

Seeking Silence

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A friend of mine sent along a newsletter written by Tish Harrison Warren, published in The New York Times. The article is titled “How Silence Became a Luxury Product.” The article is behind a paywall. If you subscribe to paper, you can read it in full. Here’s a section that caught my eye:

In his book “The World Outside Your Head,” Matthew Crawford advocates for what he calls an “attentional commons.” We as a society hold certain resources in common, like air and water. These vital resources are available to everyone as part of the common good. Crawford says that the “absence of noise” — auditory silence but also freedom from things like advertisements that intrude on our attention — should be seen as just such a resource. He writes, “As clean air makes respiration possible, silence, in this broader sense, is what makes it possible to think.” He argues that we all need access to quiet, undistracting spaces.

Crawford brings up the pricey quietude of the business class lounge at Charles De Gaulle Airport. I have only been in an exclusive airport lounge once (a friend got me in), but the sheer decadence of silence there — with its soundproof doors and walls — compared to the beeping, dinging, blaring in the rest of the airport was both delicious and disturbing. The silence was worth every penny, but why did only those who could pay those many pennies (or have friends who could) deserve it?

On weekdays in cities, churches sometimes keep their doors unlocked to provide a literal sanctuary from noise. This is an unsung kindness to the public, and every church who can do this, should. Still, not many can and this practice is more difficult now due to Covid precautions. As churches in urban areas close and are remade into trendy condos or restaurant space, we don’t just lose a worshiping congregation. We lose one more silent space.

It all leaves us asking, where can we go to find silence? There is an increasing need to preserve and protect publicly accessible silent spaces.

Where do you go to find silence?

The Impact of Reading on the Soul

I’m reading along with 100 Days of Dante, and learning new things each canto.

Dr. Jane Kim provides a helpful analysis of the Inferno’s Canto V. Her concluding remarks struck me powerfully. In Canto V, a woman named Francesca reveals to Dante that her descent into hell was a consequence of reading the story of Lancelot alongside her lover, Paulo. In that story, the two found inspiration for the fall that led to the tragedy of their death, and now, the two find themselves forever confined to hell’s second circle, where those who fell victim to lust now dwell.

Reading is formative. I am being formed as I read Dante in community with others. I probably wouldn’t be following this journey at all if not for my friend, Matt.

The same applies to reading the Bible, or any other great text, with others. What we read shapes us. Who we read with, likewise, has the power to transform. Therefore, choose what, and with whom, you read wisely.

The Spiritual Discipline of Doing Nothing

In a couple of recent conversations I have mentioned the spiritual discipline of doing nothing. These individuals were very performance driven people, and incurred a lot of guilt when they weren’t “productive” with their time.

I invited them to set aside time to do nothing with God. Just be, not do. Try it for fifteen minutes. It isn’t as easy as you might think.

The Christian gospel means that in Christ you are loved by God, not because of your deeds, but because of the completed work of Jesus. Once you have discovered that you are so loved, you are freed for good deeds which evidence salvation. You are also able to reject the assumption you could earn one’s place, position, or status in God’s household on the basis of your own merit. Christ spanned a gap, paid a debt, mended a tear that you, by your own effort, could never cross, pay, or repair.

While we are to be good stewards of our lives, doing nothing with God reminds us that apart from God, we could do nothing. So, even the things that we do are a gift of grace, a return of thanks, an act of service, freely given, in response to the love that has been so freely given to us, and freely received.

A Prayer as a New Semester Begins

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O Lord,

Help me to do the things you want me to do,
Know the things you want me to know,
Seek the things that you want me to seek,
Feel the things that you want me to feel,
Think the things that you want me to think,
Speak the things you want me to speak.

Nothing more.
Nothing less.

For the glory of your coming kingdom,
And for the honor of your name, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Benner: Beyond “Conversational” Prayer

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The problem with understanding prayer as conversation is that prayer is so much more than communication. Reducing it to conversation makes it simply mental activity–words and thoughts being a product of the left hemisphere of the brain. Prayer includes the mind, but is not limited to it. God invites engagement with more of our brain and more of our being. The glorious truth is that I can be praying to God without speaking to God, or without even consciously thinking of God. If this wasn’t true, how could we ever hope to realize the ideal of continuous prayer that is encouraged by the Scriptures (1 Thessalonians 5:17; Ephesians 6:18)? Obviously we cannot be thinking about God all the time. Nor can we be talking to God all the time. But prayer can be as foundational to our daily life as breathing. It can become a part of living, not just a religious practice or spiritual discipline.

A better starting point for an adequate understanding of the breadth of prayer is to view it as communion with God. Communion includes conversation but is much broader. Because it involves union, not just closeness and connection, it also entails much more intimacy than mere conversation. We are, as Paul reminds us, in Christ, just as Christ is in us. That language reflects the intermingling that is part of true communion. It does not get much more intimate than this–an intimacy that is based on the reality of a mystical union with Christ, in the present moment, not simply something to be hoped for in the future. Our experiential knowing of this reality may be limited. But the union is real, even now. And the communion that we experience in prayer is also real–so real that, more so than anything else that I know of, this prayer communion has the power to transform us from the inside out.

David Benner, Opening to God: Lectio Divina and Life as Prayer (Expanded Edition)

That pretty much nails it.

Oswald Chambers: “Prayer is the practice of drawing on the grace of God.”

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We tend to make prayer the preparation for our service, yet it is never that in the Bible. Prayer is the practice of drawing on the grace of God. Don’t say, “I will endure this until I can get away and pray.” Pray now — draw on the grace of God in your moment of need. Prayer is the most normal and useful thing; it is not simply a reflex action of your devotion to God. We are very slow to learn to draw on God’s grace through prayer.

Oswald Chambers, “Drawing on the Grace of God–Now