Spiritual Formation


As I perused the blogosphere yesterday, I wrote a rather lengthy response to one of the articles I read. I have been asked to share that response here and allow others to share it on their blogs as well.

I have yet to meet a believer who agrees 100% with the doctrines and theology of his or her faith community. Over the years of my own life and sometimes leadership in my faith community I have grappled with significant areas of theological disagreement and what to do (or not do) about it. Yesterday’s comment that I share below shares some of what I have learned from God about such struggles.

As you read I ask you do so without making any assumptions or conjectures regarding what specific doctrines or theology I struggle with. The lessons God has taught me around this are lessons of submission and love, not of who is right and who is wrong. I urge you instead to read this with a mind to how it might apply in your own life’s experience.

Be blessed! christine

Unasked-for advice from a 40-something fellow Christ-follower:
1. I am not the first person to experience this disconnect. Indeed, similar disagreement has come and gone for decades, centuries, eons. Some believers engage the disconnect well. Some do not. I must be in the first group (which you are so clearly working to do).

2. Although the divide in the present may appear fall along generational lines, I have always been surprised to find many older than myself who experience the very same disconnect. They just have been done talking about it (which is where you seem headed to some extent).

3. My theology comes from a place of devotion to discerning God, a great deal of scholarly study, and a strong commitment to living a life true to my theology. So does the theology of most of those with whom I disagree. I must honor that truth and forgive their sometimes ugly ways in expressing themselves to me. I hope they forgive mine ugly ways as well.

4. My theology is not perfect (although I do pretty much think I’m right). I am better off when I look for the truth present in the “other side” that may sharpen my theology.

5. In the presence of deep theological disagreement which results in significant disconnect in practice there often seem to be only two options: 1. Give in. 2. Divide. Yet there is a third option: 3. Submit to God, not man.

6. When I submit to God and where He has placed me to serve in His Kingdom, my discontent over the disconnect with my faith tradition fades. It never disappears, but fades.

7. My primary task in all things is to continually practice discernment as I follow God alone.

8. The best advice I have EVER heard regarding criticism in ministry: Avoid the temptation to defend oneself. Be who you are, listen for the truth in the criticisms you receive, discard the untruth, and allow the truth to surface on its own. Engaging accusations with defense often leads the accuser to dig in even more. Not engaging it while continuing in a godly fashion along the path God is guiding you is often disarming to the accuser.

9. All of this is incredibly HARD, often the opposite of what I want to do, and only possible in Christ. And even with all His help, I fail miserably more often than I prefer to admit (and likely more often than I am even aware).

I do not pretend to have all wisdom on this struggle. These are merely reflections from my own journey. Listen for the truth of my words, and discard the rest.

God bless you as you continue your entire journey of faith.

I woke to a long day with no plans. A rare and precious gift. One I am very blessed to have in a world of activity and toil.

As I continue to focus my life on soaking in the presence of God I decided to simply let the flow of the day carry me where it would, which I assumed would be to my backyard with my Bible and laptop, my phone turned to silent so I can more easily ignore it. That seemed like a good plan for settling into a nice contemplative mood.

After my ritual morning coffee with Matt and Meredith I tried to sit longer and just enjoy the nothing-to-do-ness. After about 2 minutes I found myself stressing over not wanting to sit there. That seemed counterproductive, so I picked up some of the clutter around the house and tried to sit again. No dice.

By 8:30 I had donned by running shoes and headed out for an easy workout thinking maybe that would burn off some of the extra energy inhibiting my plans for soaking today. But at 10:30AM I have yet to make it to my backyard. Instead I am sitting on my front porch where I can enjoy neighbors walking by (or at least wave at the trash collectors as they pass). The only thing I’m contemplating is a trip to Bed, Bath, and Beyond for some storage for my sweaters I replaced with summer-wear in my closet yesterday.

All of this reminded me of something I wrote 2 years ago. So, in recognition of the multiple ways I have learned for soaking in God’s presence, I present a portion of that post below. Meanwhile, I’m off to be among people!

 

I am not a mystic. I have no monkish leanings.

I am all for the silent, isolated, cloistered experiences that we all need at times in order to revel in the presence of God. What I am dissatisfied with is that, according to much of what I am reading, a monastic lifestyle is THE way to spiritual formation. I simply cannot imagine spending significant time cut off from the world around me as I try to forget everything but the existence of God.

I know, love, and respect a significant number of people who are more mystically gifted, so to speak. I admire their ability to sit in silence for a long time and simply be. Consequently, for a long time I thought the problem was me. I must be too socially focused and need to break myself of this. My desire for external stimulation in the learning process was a weakness I should overcome. And so on.

Certainly there are times when it is necessary for me to move towards God in ways not a part of my natural mode of relating to the world around me. But I am beginning to believe that maybe there is more than one path to the kind of closeness to God that I see contemplation bringing for many of my friends.So I lay myself open to God hoping He will show me how to revel more and more in Him without having to deny the way He created me to be.

 

I am an unabashed lover of the book of Hebrews. It’s not that I don’t love the rest of God’s word, but Hebrews speaks to my soul in a unique way. Hebrews tells the story of Jesus to Christ-followers who live in a world that would shun them for their faith in one who died on a cross.

Although there is some debate among scholars, it would seem the audience is primarily Jewish. The use of Israelite history and symbolism suggests that the readers were individuals who would understand Jewish history. These Jewish readers were among the thousands of Jews who believed Jesus was indeed the Messiah, the Christ, they had waited for through generations. The Hebrews author’s exhortations to his readers to continue to follow Jesus no matter what suggests there were forces in their lives that were trying to pull them back to traditional Jewish worship under Mosaic Law.

Imagine with me for a moment the social milieu the Hebrews readers may have lived in. They likely lived their lives in a primarily Jewish community. Household and holiness codes formed the tapestry of their daily living. Their moms, dads, spouses, bosses, children, and friends were Jewish. Every part of their lives revolved around daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly ceremonial events as they lived out the worship of their communities.

To follow Christ in such a context meant to live counter to an entire culture. Many communities simply could not (or would not) support such counter-cultural living. Indeed, ancient philosophers have noted that to follow Christ meant to be cast out by the very people they loved the most. Not only were they outcasts, there are indications in the book that the readers faced persecution, or at least knew of significant instances of persecution of Christ followers.

All this for a savior whom the Hebrews readers had never seen. Jesus’ ministry on earth had ended decades before the writing of Hebrews and many of Christianity’s earliest leaders had already died or been imprisoned. Not only had these Christians never seen Jesus for themselves, it is possible some of them did not even know anyone who had.

So for the first time we have a Christian audience with no direct connection to the savior himself. What they do have are Jewish communities that would urge them to turn their backs on a man whom they had never seen and call them back to the ways of Jewish life and worship.

Enter the book of Hebrews. All the reasons Jesus is the perfection of the Law: perfect High Priest, bearer of the perfect covenant, better than angels and even Moses. All the reasons Christ is the next phase in God’s redemption of his creation. All the people whose lives from as far back as the first children of creation testify to the God who sent his son, Jesus, to bring salvation for those who wait for him. All in an effort to say to the Jewish Christians torn between two apparently different worlds to persevere in the salvation they found in Christ Jesus.

Enter me, today, living in a world hostile to Christianity. I have never seen Jesus with my own eyes. I do not have an ancestors I can trace who were there at the cross. I know only what God’s stories tell, the testimony of faithful witnesses in my life, and the experiences that reveal Christ to my heart, soul, and mind.

As I cruised CNN.com this morning for updates on world events, I came across the following statement left as a comment on one of the stories I read:

Atheism isn’t a religion, it is just the lack of one. It is simply asking people to behave in a sane manner. Psychology defines religious belief as a form of schizophrenia, because you live in a world in your head that is disconnected from physical reality.

While I wholeheartedly disagree with the above statement, it does reveal a truth in which Christians in the modern Western world dwell everyday. A culture hostile to those who follow Christ. A culture which proclaims that belief in a Creator points to a psychological profile that requires the creation of a god to whom the insane can anchor their insanity.

I love the book of Hebrews because the social milieu in which the original readers lived mirrors my own in myriad ways. Hence, the message to “pay the most careful attention, therefore, to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away,” resonates deeply in my soul. While the world insists I am merely insane, I return again to the written testimonies of the biblical authors. I heed the witness of those who lead and teach me. And I pay the most careful attention to ways in which God reveals himself daily.

And so the book of Hebrews speaks deeply into my soul.

Suffering. Gotta hate it. No one wants to go through it. No one wants to watch others do it. And certainly none of us wants to cause it.

But we do want to explain it, yet rarely do our attempts to understand or explain suffering assist those who actually are suffering.

Most of us can easily see the theological errors committed by those who would claim natural disasters such as earthquakes and hurricanes are God’s wrathful punishment of sin. We can see why Job’s suffering was neither his fault nor God’s plan for making him a better person in the future. Sadly, though, our means of understanding and explaining suffering are often no better. They are only more subtle.

For the past couple of decades I have been deeply honored by individuals and families who have allowed me to enter the sacred space of their suffering. Indeed, many times I have been called to bring the love of God to bear in the most painful of situations. The death of a child, the death of a mother, the sins of a husband.

Inside the sacred space of suffering I have heard many lovingly whispered explanations for and answers to suffering.

  • You child is in a better place, you should be happy for that.
  • God is making you a better person with all of this.
  • God will punish [insert name of the errant spouse].
  • Things could always be worse.

On the surface there is truth in all of these statements; it is when we peer below the surface that we can see the difficulties in them. Yes, heaven is a better place. But the grief of a parent screams, “I want my daughter here now! This world is not a better place without her!” Indeed, God will make us better people as he redeems our suffering through our growth in him. Does that mean I must welcome suffering with open arms? Of course vengeance is the Lord’s, but for a man or woman who loves the betraying spouse that is little comfort.

Things could always be worse. But that does not ease the real suffering of the present (though it is quite effective at inducing guilt for the sufferer).

In the sacred space of suffering God calls me to bear witness to pain. To acknowledge the unfairness and injustice of suffering. To be a quiet whisper of his love in the midst of it all, reminding that he is present and loving and always will be. He calls me to walk through it with his children, not to understand it or explain it away.

Into the sacred space of suffering God calls us all to enter softly.

Spring break is here!!! And it’s half over….

Despite my efforts to plan a week of nothin’-much, I am half-way through a week that keeps filling itself up with extraordinary but urgent things.

Not being a glass-half-empty kind of girl, I’ve laid out a plan for today that will involve significant nothing time. I have my favorite camping chair (it’s a full-length lounge chair that reclines and has a foot rest that raises up!), my Bible and current book, and 7 kids who want to go to the park down the street. In short order we will be heading out, balls and yard darts in hand, to run and jump and scream and play…and soak in the newly returning sun and in the ever-present Son.

It’s odd, sometimes, the places we must look to find space for soaking in God’s presence. At a park amidst 7 kids (five of whom are not my own, two of whom are mine and will be compensated in kind for coming and playing with all the little ones whose own parents are taking a much-needed break of their own today) may not sound like an ideal setting for a good soak, but God does indeed present himself in rather unusual places.

The LORD said, “Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.” Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper.

1 Kings 19:11-12

Where do you find God’s gentle whispering?

 

 

 

Today has been set aside for study for a couple of weeks now. Several uninterrupted hours in the library of Harding Graduate School, resting in the space of God with his word, his Spirit, and the treasures he has revealed over the centuries. That’s how I planned this day. But, one interruption after another changed the shape of my day.

A friend invited me to join her at a Lenten service preceded by a lunch of Fish Pudding and Boston Cream Pie. My first response was, “Fish pudding?!?” My second was, “No, I’ve committed tomorrow to study.” But then, in the spirit of soaking in the presence of God, I decided perhaps I ought to join Linda for an adventure into Lenten Land.

The fish pudding was, of course, not pudding per se. It was more of a fishy casserole. Not bad, but not one I’m likely to repeat. The Boston Cream Pie, however, was the best ever! The conversation with a fellow-sojourner was delightful. And the Lenten service provided just the bit of calm soaking in God’s presence this day called for.

As I listened to the gentle voice of Rev. Dr. Mitzi Minor speak of the love of God that initiates the healing process, I felt my mind, spirit, and body relax. Dr. Minor told engaging stories as she invited us not only into the healing love, but to be conduits of the love that heals to this broken world.

And I realized, this is the day God planned for me. This was the space he wanted me to enter to find his treasure for today. The library will always be there, but rarely is there an opportunity to stop in the flow of the week and simply be in His presence with His people to soak.

Several weeks ago I came across the idea of “Soaking” in the presence of the God. Soaking struck a chord with me. I’m not much of a sit still person. I don’t quiet and listen well. I’m a thinker, speaker, writer, dreamer…

But I get soaking. I understand the peace of a long soak in the hot tub. I love the feeling of soaking up the sun. Soaking in the presence of God speaks to my soul.

The Hebrews author tells us to rest in the kingdom we are receiving. John tells us to stand in the light of fellowship in Christ. We are called into the presence of the Almighty simply to be there…and to be there together as well as alone.

For the next few weeks I will focus on soaking in the presence of God, beginning with memorizing Psalm 134.

Behold, bless the LORD, all servants of the LORD,
Who serve by night in the house of the LORD!
Lift up your hands to the sanctuary
And bless the LORD.
May the LORD bless you from Zion,
He who made heaven and earth.

I invite you to join me as I take a good long soak in the presence of God. Feel free to share your reactions and/or ideas by posting comments.

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