Monday, March 20, 2006

Learning to Roll with the Cyclical Nature of the Spiritual Life
A couple of weeks ago I found myself with a little extra time before a meeting and I did my morning devotion at Torrance State Beach (which incidentally is 3 blocks from my first appointment after seminary). I’d just driven through early morning Los Angeles/Orange County traffic to get there. I had to get up early to make sure I made the meeting on time. It was shaping up to be one of those days.
As I began my usual routine I was very much looking forward to my time with the Lord, but I could feel that my heart was heavy and I didn’t feel as though I had much energy. It was a down time. I have these times before. I think everyone has. Our spiritual mothers and fathers have used phrases like “dry”, “wilderness experience” and even the “dark night of the soul” to describe these experiences. There is something that is natural about these downturns in our spiritual life. When I’ve had these periods before, it was natural for me to have one or two days of this down part in the cycle quickly turn into four or five days (or more). Once one of these down slopes started I usually couldn’t stop them until I hit some sort of natural bottom. I’d fight against the feelings of dryness. I’d feel guilty for the feelings of malaise. I would allow these spiritual down times to weigh like an anchor around my soul. I just didn’t know another way.
As I sat at the beach that morning, I could feel that same feeling of malaise and dryness starting to creep into my life. Somewhere though, in the fog of my spirit, I could feel that there was a difference. As I sat watching the waves roll into the sand and then recede I remembered the classic piece of Christian prose we know as “Footprints”. I remembered my very recent experiences of being carried by God. I remembered the feelings of holding the risen Christ by the hand. The feelings of malaise didn’t evaporate…I guess I really didn’t expect them to…but I was no longer freaked out or afraid of them. I wasn’t fearful of any kind of prolonged experience. I knew…I just knew that I wouldn’t walk through this period of dryness alone. I knew that this period was not marked by an absence of God’s presence. On the contrary, I knew that I would have a constant companion through this time. I knew that Jesus would lead me through this time. I was able to engage a deeper level of trust as I moved forward in faith. This continues to be a profound realization for me. It is easy to trust God when things are going well. Trust has a profoundly different quality when it is engaged in the face of adversity or failure. I know that as long as I keep my eyes on Christ He will lead me.
The last ten days have had a wide variety of challenges…some of my own making and others that have been thrust into my life…but through it all, I’m learning to trust in ways I never have before. The foundation of this knew learning has come as I’ve been able to learn how to see, experience and grow in my ability to find God in silence. I’ve always know that God was never far from me. In these last few months I’ve learned to live into that truth.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

So What Happens When We Get Distracted?
There was no doubt that things were changing in my life, my spirit and my ministry. In September, after the first week of the Two Year Academy, my spiritual horizons expanded exponentially. I had no doubt that God was powerfully at work in these changes and I was excited for them. The energy of these fresh spiritual experiences did last, however, in the face of life, schedule and the normal “stuff” of the human condition the energy did wane. The desire to continue to grow, explore and extend these changes was strong; however something quite predictable happened. Previously scheduled and planned for events, emerging crises, illnesses and the normal elements of leading in a large ministry setting began to exercise their power. As much as I tried to stay focused on establishing new patterns of work, new approaches to ministry and new approaches to spiritual formation and practice, the push of the routine and the urgent knocked out the underpinnings of even my best effort.
As I stated above, the desire to grow on this new trajectory was always there, but what I discovered is that it was still very easy to be distracted. The inertia of life was a more formidable force in my life than I realized. Before I knew it I had fallen back into old habits, old patterns of thought and old patterns of organizing my ministry and life. This backsliding created something of a spiritual struggle for me. It wasn’t a cataclysmic struggle; but it did shake me up. I began to understand Paul’s lament that “the spirit is willing but the flesh is weak.” In spite of my best desires, I struggled over this conflict for a few weeks.
Over this period of weeks, I began to realize that even though the experiences of the first week of the Academy that were so life changing for me were indeed a gift from God, true transformation would only come when I claimed the gifts (just as I was claimed by them). Through the work of intentionally adjusting my habits of spiritual discipline, including the work of attending to my spirit independently of my vocation, the seeds that God had sown began to take root more deeply. In my battle with distractions, life and the ordinary diversions began to turn. Day by day, and sometimes even moment by moment the more I was able to turn my eyes to what the Lord was doing in my life, the broader my vision for life and ministry became.
Through this very intentional work of spiritual formation I’ve discovered one of the more interesting paradoxes of my life. A singular focus on God isn’t an escape from the world. It isn’t the act of a hermit seeking to remove the stain of a broken world. As I have learned to live in a more focused way, my view of the world, my life and my ministry have been expanded. I feel like I see more and understand more of the world and my calling as a result of keeping my eyes focused on God.
Do I still get distracted from time to time…yes? Do I still feel the pull to old habits and patterns…you bet? What is different now is that I can recognize these distractions more quickly and I’ve learned my way home. I may still find myself off the path from time to time, but I do know my way back.