A Simpler Approach to Spirituality

I’m going to close with a simpler way to process your spirituality if looking at all the individual puzzle pieces (as we’ve done the past few days) isn’t all that interesting to you.  

What constitutes a good day?  Do you ever ask yourself that question?  What do you need to do today, that you can (in reality) do, that would contribute to experiencing a meaningful day?  

It tends to be that we’re so bogged down trying to get done the things that need to be done that we don’t think about building meaning into our day.  Or, we don’t consider what it would take in order to create space to create meaning in our day.  

Of course, building meaning into our day such that we spiritually flourish requires a little bit of planning.  But it’s not just about planning- it’s about intentionality.  Intentionality is at the heart of a flourishing spiritual life.  

Are you living as you intend to be living?  

Spend some time with that question.  It’s not an easy one to answer.  And, the answer will always be a little bit yes and a little bit no.  

Life will be more spiritually enriching if we’re living as we intend to be living.  This means we regularly evaluate how we’re living and intentionally seek to adjust the areas where things aren’t going well.  This process allows our lives to become more full, more spiritually enriching, in part because we confidently know that we're approaching our lives wholeheartedly.  That requires courage.    

If we’re living intentional lives then we will experience ourselves as being more whole, or unified, persons because there will be, over time, fewer discrepancies between our desires and our actions.  There will be less hypocrisy, less internal tension, and the joy that comes from knowing we’re doing the best we can.  

Character: Part I

22 By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. 24 And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. 25 If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. 26 Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.  
Galatians 5:22-26, NRSV

Spirituality is life in God’s spirit.  Whenever Paul writes about life in the spirit he is casting vision for Christian spirituality.  Additionally, whenever Paul writes about life in the spirit,  he discusses character.  Almost without fail.  He writes very little about prayer (although I haven’t done a formal analysis of this- I’m sure someone has).  Interesting stuff.  

So, we can’t talk about spirituality without talking about character.  In the days on humility before God and the communal mindset, we wrote that spirituality asks us to consider who we are to others or, in other words, our character.  Spirituality and character are not separate entities.  I probably haven’t been clear enough on this before, so I’m going to be bolder than I’m normally comfortable being:  One does not shape the other, one does not inform the other.  They are inherently intertwined and cannot be separated out and studied separately.    If we aren’t paying attention to our character then we must question whether or not we are pursuing any meaningful spirituality in our lives.  

Prayer

14 And this is the boldness we have in him, that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. 1 John 5:14, NRSV

Prayer is one of the “obvious” spiritual disciplines, but can look many different ways.  We talked in earlier days about how prayer can be a more active experience, one in which we are talking to God (whether out loud or not), or a more passive experience (such as centering prayer’s focus on sitting in God’s presence).  

Rather than saying anything about “how to pray,” that’s a separate conversation, I want to offer a few practical thoughts on prayer.  I know most people struggle to pray at all.  I am one of these people.  If this is you- find the style of prayer that you can do.  In an ideal world we would all have wildly exciting and diverse prayer lives.  We don’t live in an ideal world.  Don’t think about time or frequency.  Focusing on those things is just shame attack waiting to happen.  Spend your energy discovering a form of prayer that you enjoy (or can at least tolerate) and do that when you can.  It’s easier to stick to it if you schedule it and make it a habit but, if that’s not happening, do it when you can.  Any amount is valuable, there is no minimum.  

There is no right or perfect way to pray.  Some people use acronyms or other tools as guides.  That’s fine if it helps you.  Centering prayer is no more correct than a more active form of prayer.  They are all strategies and approaches, they all have value, and they will speak to, or connect with, different people differently.  Find something you enjoy- but be willing to try uncomfortable things.  It took me years to be willing to experiment with centering prayer- now it is my go-to.  So, don’t be afraid to revisit something you’ve previously rejected.  We change.  

There are “talking” prayers and “silent” prayers.  There are also other options.  You can get the Book of Common prayer, for instance.  You can read these prayers, and take them as your own.  You can do the same with Psalms, or Lamentations, or even the Prophets.  Or you can simply pray the Lord’s Prayer.  Or the Serenity Prayer.  You can use pre-written prayers as guides so you do not have to form your own words.  This can be one of the simplest ways to get started.  

Prayer is our conscious contact with God but, don’t forget our communal mindset.  Prayer is also one of the ways in which we serve our community and our world.  It’s far bigger than us.  Community is always first!

A Sense of Wonder

The Lord created me at the beginning of his work,
    the first of his acts of long ago.
23 Ages ago I was set up,
    at the first, before the beginning of the earth.
24 When there were no depths I was brought forth,
    when there were no springs abounding with water.
25 Before the mountains had been shaped,
    before the hills, I was brought forth—
26 when he had not yet made earth and fields,
    or the world’s first bits of soil.  

Proverbs 8:22-26, NRSV

I’m not sure I’m totally equipped to write about “wonder.”  I’ll begin with three recommendations.  Two books:  Sacred Sense by William P. Brown and Beauty by John O’Donohue.  One film:  Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life.  

Wonder is the combined sense of the complexity of creation and the knowledge of our inability to comprehend it.  In it’s most potent form, wonder is a kind of gut-level joyful glee in response to something rather shocking and rare (but we can have this experience over simple and common things in life too- this is, perhaps, wonder at its best).  

When we were in Texas back in the fall, a group of us saw a shooting star almost too large to believe.  The only way I can think to describe its size is this:  Imagine holding a ruler up above your head at arm’s length, pretending it was far off in the distant sky, and not in your hand.  That was roughly the size and shape of the shooting star, only it WAS way up in the sky (millions of miles away???) and not just a couple of feet from our eyes.  

In Texas, at night, you can see all kinds of shooting stars.  We stood around for a while and saw several small ones, and we were amazed (To use the same exercise:  imagine holding a small blade of grass above your head at arm’s length.  Nothing in comparison to that ruler.).  And then came this bad boy.  We started shouting and jumping up and down.  For those of us who hadn’t seen shooting stars before, we found a sense of wonder in the small ones, and that sense of wonder grew exponentially when the giant one flew across the sky.  That is a sensation you just don’t want to find yourself too distanced from.  

Wonder is ever-present in scripture.  It can be a positive or negative experience.  The people sometimes maintain a sense of awe over their disappointment in God (Job 38 or so).  There is wonder over creation (Gen. 1-2), wonder over sex (Song of Solomon), wonder over the meaning of life (Ecclesiastes), wonder over the incarnation (John 1), wonder over the scope of God’s plans (Colossians 1).  

Wonder is connected to humility.  It is the reminder that there are forces far greater than ourselves operating in the world, but it also carries with it a sense of appreciation for these forces.  I believe “wonder” is what happens in the moments where we experience joy as a result of how small we are.  This is a very odd and bizarre kind of joy.  It makes us appreciate the little things in life, fleeting moments of awe that pull us out of our worries and grant us the privilege of perspective, however briefly.  

I don’t know why this strikes me as being one of the “top 8” aspects of a well-rounded spiritual life.  It just does.  

A Communal Mindset

13 Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other; just as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. 14 Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. 15 And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful.  Colossians 3:13-15, NRSV

A communal mindset is, well, what it sounds like.  We learn to see ourselves as part of a group- God’s family.  We understand our responsibility for living as a reflection of God’s image and character to be a group responsibility.  We cannot shoulder this burden as individuals.  This is good news- there is no alternative universe that exists where we, as individuals, live perfectly.  It’s never been asked and it’s never been expected.  Part of living as a holy community means seeking God’s way of dealing with imperfection.  By responding to challenges with gentleness and loving concern, we represent God.  We assume, perhaps, that we only represent God when we avoid temptation and imperfection altogether.  Not so.  

This means we will sacrifice some personal wants, desires, dreams, or goals in order for the community to operate as a collective unit.  It means there will be disagreements and conflicts and hurt feelings.  It also means we are committed to doing the difficult work of resolving those conflicts and hurt feelings because we are spiritually connected (literally, by God’s spirit).  It means we’re committed to voicing the ways in which we have been harmed so as to give the community the opportunity to respond with love.  

The good news is, this communal mindset also means we will benefit from the “goodness” of others.  We are spiritually linked, and the community’s work reflects on the individual and vice versa.  When we are not doing well in life, we are carried by the community and still get to take credit for the work of the community as a result of this spiritual link between us.  

God works in the world primarily through people.  This is a great responsibility.  Yet, at the same time, it also means we have many opportunities to see God visibly on display, at work.  

Banishment

Over the hours that this team sweated large and small stuff related to the recovery ministry woes they faced, they had to face a hard truth:  relationships are conditional.  Yes, yes, love is unconditional.  But healthy relationships have conditions.  This doesn’t sit well with our desires to be merciful and gracious.  Mainly I think because we have failed to fully develop our own deep and wide understanding of the concepts of grace and mercy.  But also because let’s face it - love is yummy.  Limits are sometimes challenging to accept. One afternoon we looked at two passages of scripture that dealt with banishment: 2 Samuel 14:14 and Deuteronomy 30:4.  We also hopped over to Jeremiah 29 and considered what God asked the Israelites to do while living as slaves in Babylon.  (Lest we forget, they were experiencing a GIANT timeout/banishment as a result of their own stubborn resistance to God.)  Here’s what we noticed:

 

  1.  No wonder Paul was ragging on the Corinthians!  They were proud of the "restoration" but missing the point of what restoration truly is.  Yes, God is ALWAYS finding ways for banished people to find their way back home.  Banishment isn’t intended to be punishment so much as it is a tool for restoration.  True restoration could not happen for the Corinthians without a "time out" to show the community that they were valuable enough to protect.  
  2. Banishment is sometimes necessary.  In this church's situation, they had to at least determine (see how they are progressing through the stages of change?!?) if it was the tool they needed to use in their particular situation.
  3. Even in the midst of suffering, God’s people are given a way to move through the suffering.  They accomplish this by keeping a rigorous eye on thriving.  Thriving is described in Jeremiah 29 as suffering AND continuing the work of building community.  Sometimes building community means protecting community.  

 

Part of our contemplation as a working team involved calming down and remembering our core values; next, we made a conscious choice to live by them.  This required us to practice making amends.  The guy who muttered the “too much estrogen” comment had to make amends not only to the female he poked, but he had to deal with the larger issue of gender bias.  The team then had to identify how their core values would change the way they were processing.  This took FOREVER!  They worked for several meetings just on how to have crucial conversations without decreasing safety in the room.  They had to learn about active listening.  Look, it’s possible to get really old and never acquire these skills.  But this team was willing and ready to learn.  This posture of humility helped them when the time came to analyze the failure of the staff person that caused all this mess to begin with.  Having had their own shortcomings exposed at times during this process, they were a gentler, kinder crew when they got back to tackling the original issue at hand. Are there skills that you lack that you need to go acquire before you can expect to see the fruits of your transformational labors?

Sneaky, Sneaky Shame

Everyone is quick to point out how much they hate being shamed but it rarely provides an automatic insight to help us not act as shamers.  Shame is sneaky and shows up sporting a bunch of different looks.  It can be kind of punky, aggressive and direct - attacks on others’ looks, character, ethnicity, etc.  It can hide out in silence - when we fail to speak up against wrongdoing.  It can really go stealth and try to mask itself as righteousness.  It can go underground and manifest as a critical voice in our heads.  It can develop strength and stamina for running and keep us from living our one wild and wonderful life.  Shame has mad skills of disguise.

 

When the group met to discuss the problem with their recovery ministry shame was in play big time.  The Senior Pastor looked serious and stern, but he was playing a game on his iPad.  The Care Minister was extremely emotional, crying and sobbing when discussion arose about staff termination.  The Missions Minister muttered that there was too much estrogen on display for the team to get much accomplished.  And the content of the discussion?  Wowser.  Brutal.  All of it.  Every stitch of it was completely unproductive.  Eventually people wore out or grew so frustrated that an uneasy silence emerged.  Soon folks were stirring as if waking from a nap; catching sight of me and our team the Senior Pastor suggested without much enthusiasm, “I guess maybe you should offer a couple suggestions for us to consider.”

 

“Glad to.”  I said.  And I asked them to turn in their bibles to this:  Everyone has heard that there is sexual immorality among you.  This is a type of immorality that isn’t even heard of among the Gentiles - a man is having sex with his father’s wife!  And you’re proud of yourselves instead of being so upset that the one who did this thing is expelled from your community.  1 Corinthians 5:1-2

 

Tomorrow I will continue the discussion on shame, but today do me a favor.  Read these verses as if you’ve never seen them before and see what you notice.