Thursday, June 22, 2006

A Deeper Understanding of God as Refuge and Strength

The early life of King David has been rattling around inside my spirit this week. I’ve been thinking about his early life before Saul tried to have him killed, before he assumed the throne of Israel and certainly before the whole business with Bathsheba. I’ve been reflecting on what his early life might have been before he was anointed by Samuel to be King over Israel. In those early days, David, being the youngest of the family, had the dubious job of tending the family’s herds. He was a shepherd. Not that this was necessarily a throw away job, it was very important, but it didn’t carry with it a lot of honor or prestige. You wouldn’t think it to be fit training for a King (or would you? This might be the subject of another posting). What it did bring was a lot of work. It brought a lot of solitary hours. It also brought a certain aroma.

We don’t know what David did with all of those lonely hours tending the family herds. Although, one of the seminal early stories of David’s life might give us some insight into what he might have done to pass a good many of those hours. When David went out to the field of slaughter, where the Philistines, led by Goliath, were wreaking havoc on the Israelites; instead of being terrified at the carnage he was indignant at what he saw. When he saw the warriors of Israel shrink in the face of the danger and the chaos he became outraged. He determined to fight Goliath himself. He would not let this Gentile humiliate God’s chosen in this way. He went into battle supremely confident; not in his own ability, but in God’s great power and promise. He knew the Lord to be with him. He chose not to wear the armor offered to him by Saul; instead, he took the weapon he knew how to use, a sling and five smooth stones. He went into battle not on Goliath’s terms but on his own and he was assured of God’s presence.

We don’t know where this confidence, trust and assurance came from, it isn’t recorded. However, my recent experiences with God have given me a viable theory. It seems plausible that during those lonely hours of shepherding, God and David spent a great deal of time together. Before the ancient forms of Israelite worship had really taken hold, while they still worshipped in the Tabernacle in the days before the Temple, I believe that David learned a life of spirituality, one on one with God out in the pasturelands of Israel. David himself recounts the times that he knows the Lord delivered him from the dangers of herding sheep in the wild. David knew first hand the providential care of God. I am persuaded that David knew his strength was in the Lord and that is all that he needed.

In the face of the battle and the chaos that Goliath represents, David remained secure and assured in his faith. Chaos is not something to be feared, because there is not chaos that God’s power and providential care can not subdue. This has become an important lesson for me. As I continue to learn and grow and as I continue to experience God stretching me into new and ever changing landscapes there is a certain amount of chaos that can be expected with it. There are times in my life when I can take the chaos personally, as if it was my fault. Chaos brings out the worst in me. I feel as though it is my sole responsibility to overcome it. I turn into a control freak as if I had to wrestle chaos to the ground in a WWF Smack Down style contest. There are other times when the chaos simply paralyzes me. I begin to second guess myself and my decision making. It can simply grind me to a halt.

And then there’s David, confident in the face of chaos and imminent doom. He is confident not because he is cocky and self assured. He is assured of God and for him that is enough. There is a lesson in that for me. When chaos seems to break all around me, it is through the time that I spend with the Lord in prayer that I come to a deeper understanding that God is my Refuge and my Strength. Just as David must have been shaped in all of those solitary hours with God so God can shape and assure me as I continue to grow in grace and my experience of God’s abiding presence.

Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Answering a Question
I’m blessed by the input that I’ve received from the people who are sharing this journey with me. I’m not sure how many people read this effort, and in the end the numbers aren’t that important. If one person is finding blessing from my sharing I count it as blessing. One of the e-mails I received last week requested that I share some of the tools, methods and habit changes that have helped me to more effectively deal with the distractions to discipleship that can be so evident in our lives. So here it goes.
I’ll begin with tools and methods. For the purposes of this discussion, I’ll refer to them as spiritual practices. The primary experience that has opened the door to this change is learning (or more specifically relearning) the discipline of silence. As I stated in a previous posting, I’ve come to understand more deeply the power, purpose and nature of silence as a spiritual discipline. The intentional act of engaging in silence as a spiritual discipline is the act of connecting with the Holy Spirit who is always present and active in our life. Silence as a distinct form of prayer (distinct from praise, intercession, petition, etc.) in which we open our self to the voice of God. For me time spent in silence is not a void, rather it is a conscious effort to seek out and tune my life to the movement of the Holy Spirit.
A second spiritual practice is one that I would call “remembrance.” Following Paul’s admonition to the church to “pray without ceasing”, living in a way that our life is filled with reminders of the ongoing presence of the resurrected Christ with us is what I mean when I talk about the spiritual practice of remembrance. In this act of remembrance we remember not only that Christ is with us but that Christ has claimed us opens the gateway to an intentional way of living in a world that often stands in opposition to the Gospel. Finding ways to remember that are authentic to our life and experience are the determining factor for an effective spiritual discipline of remembrance. For instance…I use an Anglican Rosary as a means of being intentional in my prayers for others. After a while, I came to realize that that simple ring of beads could be used for another purpose. After reading a quote by Mother Teresa where she essentially prayed “may I never let go of the hand of Jesus, even under the guise of serving the poor,” I was claimed by a new prayer: may I never let go of the hand of Jesus, even under the guise of preaching the Gospel. To that end, my rosary spends a lot of time in my hand through the day and becomes a tangible reminder that my life belongs to Christ and it is Christ who I follow in the world.
A third spiritual practice is to read more in the realm of spirituality. In essence, I’m filling in learning in a discipline that has been, until now, widely absent. My reading those is not a merely academic exercise. I’m not reading so much for learning knowledge but reading to experience the witness to the transforming truth of grace. My reading list includes ancient and modern writers in the spiritual disciplines. This list includes Augustine, Thomas a Kempis and Carlo Carretto just to name a few.
What has brought all of these disciplines together is a change of perspective which has led to a change of habit. I’ve been learning to approach the entirety of my life as a spiritual practice. Everything, from my morning and evening prayer to the completion of my daily “task” list, are being transformed into spiritual disciplines. I’m learning (and it will take a while) to more completely see the totality of my life as an act of prayer and worship. Every act of my life is an act that either draws me closer to Christ (where I breathe the Spirit with every breath) or leaves me mired in the muck of “Caesar’s world.” There is a time in my life when I would have thought a life of this kind of discipline as a tall order and well beyond my reach. However, I’ve come to realize that by God’s grace this is a worthy, necessary and meaningful goal to work toward. I may or may not achieve the discipline and intentionality I envision; but I realize that the character of the journey is more important than the destination.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

A Beautiful Day Apart
Monday was my monthly retreat day. The idea of a retreat day, a day apart to pray, study, meditate and simply be with God, was born out of my experience of the Academy. I’ve come to appreciate more and more the time that I spend alone with God. This last retreat day was the most powerful yet. Each one of these experiences adds to my understanding of spiritual formation and deepens my relationship with God and the cumulative affect is blowing me away.
The human condition is stressful; that is a given. Regardless of our chosen vocation, family structure or lifestyle, stress goes with the territory. There are few days that go by when we don’t encounter hurt feelings, broken relationships, pain, shame, guilt, regrets or anger in some way, shape or form. These could be our feelings or they could be someone else’s feelings projected toward us. This is not meant to be a “woe is me” attitude; this is an observed reality. It is an observation. Given the likelihood of encountering stress in our life it is a wonder that any of us get anything done.
If you browse the self-help shelf of your local bookstore you’ll notice that they are crammed with a wide variety of options for dealing with the stresses of life in the skin of humanity. From the academics to Dr. Phil everyone has an opinion and a regimen for handling stresses. I don’t know if it is stubbornness, self-reliance or something else, but I don’t often put a lot of stock in the growth industry that is the current self-help phenomenon.
In dealing with the stresses of life, other people’s and my own, I’ve had a tendency to internalize them. I have such deep empathy for other people that I can easily carry their pain as my own. This sort of internalizing of other people’s pain is an engraved invitation to any number of psychological problems. Over the years, I’ve learned how to be empathetic but not so deeply internalize the pain that is shared with me. In the last few months, I’ve learned more about my empathy and how to care for people who share their pain with me. I’ve learned more fully that I am not the source of another person’s healing. I may be an instrument of healing through my love and my empathy, but it is God who brings the healing. Through my own growth in the spirit, through prayer, silence, Sabbath, worship, study and intentionality, I’ve learned how to be present and care for people without letting their hurts become so internalized that it paralyzes me and diminishes my ability to serve for the long haul.
So now on to Monday…As I sat in the empty monastery chapel to do my morning worship I could feel the presence of the Spirit wash over me. Wave after wave, with each deep breath, through prayer, scripture, silence and journaling I could feel God’s Spirit washing me clean. For what must have been an hour this experience continued. I came to recognize that all of the stresses that had stuck to me and could have rooted like weeds in my spirit were still at the surface of my spirit and were easily washed away. Likes scales they fell off around my feet and I found myself refreshed. The things that caused the stress, the hurts, the failures, the anxieties were still present. I didn’t care less about the people or the hurts that had been shared with me. There was no thought of cutting and running from these sources of stress. Instead, this experience of being washed clean empowered me and strengthened my compassion for all of the situations. As I have grown in grace and spirit, through the disciplines I’ve learned through the Academy, I’ve discovered a new understanding of myself as an instrument rather than the source. I’ve learned new levels of trust in God. The taproot of my spirit runs more deeply into the nourishing wellspring of God’s grace.