Spiritual Discipline, or Disciplined Spirit?

I recently read a devotional written by Christian philosopher Dallas Willard. I’ve read Willard’s other works on Christian prayer and have found it to be insightful and quite helpful. The excerpt that I read was from a collection of devotional readings produced by Richard Foster entitled, “Devotional Classics.” This particular reading was taken from Willard’s, “The Spirit of the Disciplines.” While I appreciate where he is coming from, I have some reservations. For those Pentecostal type folks out there, I had a ‘check in my spirit.’

I wondered why those feelings were present. It was a simple reading. No big doctrinal discussion. Something to contemplate. Then it hit me. The term ‘disciple’ smacked me upside the head. Why, though? That word is used throughout the New Testament to describe the followers of Jesus. Hey! I’m one of those! Then I realized what triggered me. Willard coupled the word ‘disciple’ with the word ‘obedience.’

Now, many in the Evangelical traditions may ask, “So what? Disciples are obedient to there Master.” Nothing out of the ordinary with that. That’s true. Regardless of the tradition, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, fill in the blank, disciples follow a Master. Christians are followers of their Master, Christ. Or, so the saying goes. The last time I checked Jesus was nowhere to be found. At least not so we can see Him on T.V., or something. And that presents a problem. Who decides what Jesus would say or do in the 21st century?

Back in the early 1970’s I was part of what has become known as the ‘Jesus Movement.’ We were for all intents and purposes a rag-tag bunch of hippies who professed faith in Christ. I believe to this day that God was active during this period. It was exciting! We thought that we had somehow been called by God to reclaim and rebuild the original spirit of the Church that existed in the 1st century. We believed that what had happened in the book of Acts was happening again in our time.

We gathered together to worship and sing and hear brothers teach about the scriptures. Some of us moved into common households so that we could ‘hold all things in common.’ There were a few men who assumed positions of leadership. We believed that they were anointed in the same way that Timothy and Titus and the elders of the early church had been. And, we were taught that we were to be obedient to these men as ‘unto God.’

Now, I want to make it clear that there was no subterfuge involved. We, all of us, were truly trying our best to follow the words of the Bible as faithfully as we could. The only thing was, we were NOT the Church of the first century. We were not wrestling with what it meant to follow a dead Messiah in a pagan culture. We had 2,000 years of developed theology to follow. And, we lived in a culture unlike anything that the first church would have understood. Basically, we were privileged white kids trying to emulate a movement that began as an oppressed minority.

To return to the devotional, we were taught that discipleship has as its root the idea of ‘discipline.’ Physical, spiritual, and emotional discipline. We began to see the Bible as a User’s Manual. It had all of the answers on how to live a vibrant and successful life. That is, if one would follow all of the rules faithfully. And, the elders were there to make sure that we did follow them. In effect, we became disciples of those elders, who we trusted were disciples of Christ.

Alas, experience has taught me something else entirely. The Christian Bible is a collection of writings by many, many people from many, many different time periods. It has inconsistencies and contradictions and holes in it. For instance, there’s nothing in the Bible about water on Mars. The fact that our Sun is actually a star somehow got past the Biblical writers. What to do about global climate change isn’t addressed. Shoot! Global climate change itself missed the writers’ cut. The fact is that the Christian Bible does not, it CANNOT, have all of the answers for people to live vibrant and successful lives. And, it truly was never meant to fill that role.

So what? What does any of this have to do with my devotional? Willard made the statement that obedience, by  itself, was sufficient for a person to live the so-called ‘abundant life’ promised in the Gospel of John. In a way, that may be accurate. But, because of the manner in which it is taught to so many poor, unsuspecting people, it is not. In so many fundagelical churches people are taught that they must grit their teeth and press forward in order to reap the benefits of discipleship. They even have a saying, “Fake it til you make it.” Pretty cool, huh? No! It’s not. This is another link in a long chain that binds people. They try. They fail. So, they try again. They fail…again. All the time feeling inept, unloved, strange, or an anomaly. After all, didn’t their spiritual elders tell them that this would work? But, it didn’t. They think, ‘It must be my fault, my lack…my sin.’ So, the link is forged. From my perspective the link is forged in the fires of Hell.

The Psalmist wrote, “Be still and know that I am God.” I think that is pretty good advice. Truthfully, until we can rest and be still we cannot be transformed. No amount of sweat and grit will suffice. We can batter and bruise our bodies. Yet, we will still be lacking. In more than one place the writers of Scripture mention a ‘still small voice,’ or that God isn’t in the tempest and flame, but in the gentle breeze.

As I have walked, (maybe, crawled is a better word), along this spiritual path, I’ve found that the more I work and strive, the less I progress. It has only been in the last 6-10 years that I have learned that the Spirit of God doesn’t need our outward help. The Spirit needs us to shut up and listen. In the quietude of silent contemplation the Spirit, Ruach Elohim, chips and sands and refinishes. It is ALL grace and ALL God!

Perhaps, the most important insight for me is that I no longer have the shame and guilt that comes from FAILING to keep all of the rules. There truly is ‘no condemnation’ in following this path.

Please, if you’ve been troubled or weighed down by trying to follow all of those damnable rules; trying to force obedience; faking it hoping that you’ll make it; Take heart! Sit back! Relax! And, turn your heart toward the true lover of your soul. You’ll not be disappointed.

More on My Journey with Ignatius

ignacio1I had promised some months ago to share some of my experiences with the Ignatian Exercises. However, the Exercises took away most of my writing time. Now, with my new work hours, I can take a moment to share a bit.

Over the past 6 months I have experienced prayer and contemplation in new and refreshing ways. Perhaps the most dynamic way has been to visualize and ‘enter in to’ the various stories that Ignatius used for prompts. He chose stories from the Gospels and encouraged others to imagine themselves in the stories. I was encouraged to ‘walk’ with and ‘talk’ with Jesus, the disciples, Mary and others. I found this to be an incredibly potent tool in learning to know Jesus as friend and brother. And, for the most part, the images were vivid, full of light and full of hope and joy.

The past few weeks, though, have been spent contemplating the Passion story. Almost immediately I sensed a change. Where there had been light, there was now darkness. Earlier I had clear images and experiences. Now, the images were obscured, as if a dark cloud was between me and the other participants. Before I had sensed joy. This turned to hopelessness and fear.

I shared these things with my Spiritual Director. I was concerned that I was missing something. Or, that my own shortcomings were a wall separating me from fully experiencing the stories.

He said that this was not unusual since the stories, themselves, were of a different nature. In them, Jesus was separated from others. He was pulled away and arrested. He stood alone before the Council and Pilate. Beaten and dragged away to be crucified, he was alone. On the tree of crucifixion, he was abandoned.

Then he was dead.

Joseph and Nicodemus prepared Jesus’ body for burial. Mary and some other women were present. I looked on and felt the despair. They had all hoped that Jesus was the Messiah, the Anointed One of God who was going to restore Israel and reign over God’s kingdom. Now, all they had was a lifeless corpse. Hopelessness; fear; shadow; darkness; cloud; doubt.

I felt doubts creep in. Didn’t Jesus say that his followers would do greater things than he? He healed the sick and raised the dead! Where is that happening? Jesus taught that the Kingdom of God was at hand? Where is it? Why can’t I experience God’s presence throughout each day? GOD! WHERE ARE YOU?

I’ve read where pastors have asked these same questions. And, not having adequate answers, have left the faith entirely. After all, if we can’t hear it, see it, touch it, taste it or smell it…it must not exist.

However, that was not my experience. I know that God is not afraid of, nor hurt by, our doubts. In fact, I think that God encourages them. It’s easy to say, “I believe.” In fact, many in the Church look at doubts as obstacles to belief. They say that they will lead people astray or hinder their experience of God. I have found, though, that it’s much better to embrace them. It’s harder yet I think better, to doubt and still believe.

I suddenly realized that I had experienced these same feelings. Rather than the images and experiences of being in the story, I had been experiencing the actual emotions of those who lived through it. In the desolation of my prayers and in the depression of my days and in my doubts, God had allowed the reality of these stories to become my reality. I was not an observer, or even a participant. I had become one with the story.

I don’t know where the next stage of the exercises will take me. I am sure, however, that Jesus will continue to meet me and continue to say, “Come…follow me.”

What have been your experiences in your life’s journey? Have you encountered yourself revealed in someone else’s story? How are you writing your own story?

Behold, Lord, Your Servant

There has been a lingering question among Christ followers ever since the earliest days after Jesus rose to sit at the Father’s right hand. That question has driven people to take some rather bizarre actions. Jesus told his followers that, in some unexplained way, he would always be present with them. “Abide in me, and I in you,” Jesus told them. In another place he said, “As you are going on your way, make disciples of all nations, baptize them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Teach them to observe the things that I have commanded you; and look! I am with you always, even to the end of the age.” The question is a simple one…“How”?

This question is difficult to answer. Well, actually, there are probably as many answers as there are people asking. Some of them better than others. I have read many ‘How to…’ books and articles. They pore over the Scriptures and try to glean whatever tips they can. The Psalms are a favorite field from which they harvest seeds that sprout into various methods and procedures. A few years ago someone ripped a process out of context and made a lot of money on something called The Prayer of Jabez. There seems to be no lack of people who try to distill some easy, painless way to touch the heart of God. But, in my experience, our Western ‘have it my way…right now!’ mentality will not work.

There were people in the early years of this era who also searched for God. Some of these were called Anchorites and hermits. Men and women would go into the wilderness in order to separate themselves from the distractions of society. The wilderness served as a metaphor for the realm of the devil. This idea came from Jesus’ experience after his baptism. He was taken to the desert where he was tempted. Anchorites desired to follow his example. They spent hours each day in prayer and contemplation. Many reported receiving ‘consolation’ or a special grace from God during these times. God was present with them.

Throughout Church history there have been people who have experienced God’s special presence. These ‘mystics’ practiced many different ways of prayer. In the 16th century St. John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila offered their lives to God through prayer and service. They worked to establish a lay order called the Discalced Carmelites. (Discalced meaning ‘without shoes.’) Prayer and contemplation were their food and drink. Later, another monk named Brother Lawrence learned how to live in the presence of God through diligent practice. He spent his days serving his order in the kitchen. Nothing glamorous. But, he continually brought his thoughts and mind to dwell on God. These are but three examples of people who sought for God’s presence and found God to be a gracious friend.

As I have studied the lives of people like these, I have found that there is no simple method. There is no ‘Users’ Manual’ that provides step-by-step instructions with exploded diagrams and footnotes. I began my own journey in the inward life by realizing that being present with God was the first step. I took 3 words in Hebrew to describe this: hineni Adonai avedka. “Behold, Lord, Your servant.” These three words were the first ones out of my mouth each day as I prayed. They became a declaration to myself and to God that I was present. I worked hard to focus my heart and mind on being present. It is a discipline that takes time to learn and more time to practice. Please note the words ‘worked hard’ and ‘discipline.’ Evan as the days became weeks, then months, and I began to notice the task becoming more and more a natural part of my day, I had to work at it. After awhile, I realized that God had been providing the necessary grace for me to even begin. What had seemed like my own idea and practice was actually God fulfilling the words that Jesus had spoken to his disciples. Jesus was ‘with’ me. He was present. Maybe, he was just waiting for me to join him.

The Pot calling the Kettle Pot

This morning as I was praying and meditating I began to reflect on how God uses people and events for God’s own good purposes. I have been praying for many months that God would use me. I have been trained and am gifted in certain things that just don’t seem to be evident in my life. My life, in fact, is supremely ordinary and routine. I get up, get dressed, get breakfast, sit in my office to orient myself through devotion, go to work, come home, etc. “But, Yahweh,” I ask,”when are You going to start to use me? When can I see the evidence of those things that I have been gifted for? When will You allow me to use my training?”
Then, today, I read an excerpt by Karl Rahner. In it he voiced my same frustrations about being caught in the ordinary and routine. How this seemed to take him far from God’s presence. Then he wrote that it was in the ordinary stuff of daily life that God’s life is present. This got me thinking about the various places where the writers of scripture refer to God as the potter. Is the pot cognizant of being a pot? Does the pot know when, or with what, God fills it? Yet, we cry out to God, “Fill me with this or that!” Our voices raised, we shout, “Don’t feed that person or cause with what You have filled me with!” In our ignorance and arrogance we tell God that we must know all of the what, when, where, why and who before we will allow the Divine prerogative to be used.
We don’t even know that we are pots. So, I guess all of that to say, if the ordinary seems, well ordinary, perhaps that is what God has chosen to fill me with today. I just need to chill and be a pot.

God’s Furious Love

I just finished Brennan Manning’s The Furious Longing of God. I have always enjoyed reading Manning. He showed me that I am a Ragamuffin. That was a great help to me. It’s amazing how that kind of insight can help to do away with pretensions.
This book had as its underlying theme a verse from Song of Songs. It reads, “I belong to my Beloved’s. His desire is for me” (7:10). As I reflected on this I was taken back a few months to when I really began to realize Yahweh’s relentless pursuit of me. Yet, it has been so easy for me to slip into the notion that God is enthroned in a heaven that I cannot reach. God is attentive to my prayer, but somewhat aloof. We pray for God’s grace and wisdom. We pray for God to win our battles. We pray that others will see things clearly, (code for ‘My Way’). But, the Lover of our souls desires us. The Creator/Yahweh has walked among us because of that desire. Jesus, the one and only Son loved enough to change water to wine and to heal lepers. He, the true Image of God, went willingly to the cross because of Yahweh’s great passion for us. 
Yet, we debate about subjective genitives and whether Adam and Eve were actual people. We take the life, death, resurrection and ascension and call it ‘the Christ event.’ People debate about justification and sola scriptura, making these what the good news is about. We have to think and believe certain ways or else we are sliding down some slippery slope. (I don’t know about you, but sled riding is Fun!)
And, all the while God is still relentlessly pursuing us. The more I consider this love of God, the more I am being convinced that this other stuff doesn’t really matter. Frankly, it does not matter to me if the creation story is a factual news story or if it is Israel’s story written as a result of the captivity. God loves me. I am not going to get into discussions with people who think that they understand any of the so-called laws of thermodynamics. It simply is not important when one considers that “love is the fulfillment of the law” (Rom. 13:10b). John the Elder wrote that God is love. We are under compulsion to follow Jesus’ command to love one another as He has loved us. We are the recipients of Yahweh’s unrestrained and furious love. The rest is just fluff.

St. Patrick’s Lorica

One of my favorite heroes of old is St. Patrick. Very little is actually known about him. And, there is even less writing or other artifact that can be confidently ascribed to him. There is a prayer that has become known as St. Patrick’s Lorica, or Breastplate that is around in various incarnations. I have chosen the one below to give a glimpse into a distant, pre-modern past. It’s unlikely that Patrick actually wrote this prayer, but one source stated that it is ‘Patrician to the core.’ What I notice is how all-encompassing the prayer is. Whoever wrote it was, as one person said, ‘a Christian Druid.’ This person understood clearly the interrelationship between humanity, the good creation of God, and the unseen world in which angels, demons, and Yahweh dwell. While much of the language is archaic, the prayer can help us to reflect on our relationship with these elements. Are they relevant to a post-modern, post-Christian culture? Could we, perhaps, get a better handle on our place as God’s eikons? Enjoy!

I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity,
through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.

I arise today through the strength of Christ with His Baptism,
through the strength of His Crucifixion with His Burial,
through the strength of His Resurrection with His Ascension,
through the strength of His descent for the Judgment of Doom.

I arise today through the strength of the love of Cherubim
in obedience of Angels, in the service of the Archangels,
in hope of resurrection to meet with reward,
in prayers of Patriarchs, in predictions of Prophets,
in preachings of Apostles, in faiths of Confessors,
in innocence of Holy Virgins, in deeds of righteous men.

I arise today, through the strength of Heaven:
light of Sun, brilliance of Moon, splendour of Fire,
speed of Lightning, swiftness of Wind, depth of Sea,
stability of Earth, firmness of Rock.

I arise today, through God’s strength to pilot me:
God’s might to uphold me, God’s wisdom to guide me,
God’s eye to look before me, God’s ear to hear me,
God’s word to speak for me, God’s hand to guard me,
God’s way to lie before me, God’s shield to protect me,
God’s host to secure me:
against snares of devils, against temptations of vices,
against inclinations of nature, against everyone who
shall wish me ill, afar and anear, alone and in a crowd.

I summon today all these powers between me (and these evils):
against every cruel and merciless power that may oppose my body and my soul, against incantations of false prophets,
against black laws of heathenry,
against false laws of heretics, against craft of idolatry,
against spells of witches and smiths and wizards,
against every knowledge that endangers man’s body and soul.

Christ to protect me today
against poison, against burning,
against drowning, against wounding,
so that there may come abundance of reward.

Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ on my right, Christ on my left,
Christ in breadth, Christ in length, Christ in height,
Christ in the heart of every man who thinks of me,
Christ in the mouth of every man who speaks of me,
Christ in every eye that sees me,
Christ in every ear that hears me.

I arise today through a mighty strength, the invocation of the Trinity, through belief in the Threeness, through confession of the Oneness of the Creator of creation.
Salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is of the Lord. Salvation is of Christ. May Thy Salvation, O Lord, be ever with us.

The Obedience of God

As I was driving to work today I was struck with something that I should have known, and is most likely known by folks a tad quicker on the uptake than I. This AM I read John 17. This has become known as Jesus’ High Priestly prayer. What came to my mind and hung around for awhile was that Jesus used phrases like, “the words that You gave me” and “You sent me into the world.” Jesus, who as the eternal Word of God, who has been with the Father and the Spirit always, who enjoyed glory as God the Son was ‘sent’ and ‘received.’ In the first he humbled himself to become obedient to the Father. In the second he was not completely self-sufficient, but was required to receive from the Father as a humble person must. Now, I’ve read the kenotic hymn in Philippians many times. And, I’ve heard how Jesus was obedient and faithful in his life and death. But, as I reflected on the Son’s love for the Father and the very good creation, I had my breath taken away as I began to see this played out in the incarnation. How good is God?! How great is Yahweh’s love and compassion for the world? I cannot come up with words to describe this wonderful gift that God has lavished on us. Why? Because of Agape. How can we not respond to one another, to those who we may consider “other,” and to the very good creation with the same agape and with gratitude?

Preserve us, O God

This is the final part of the discussion on the “Our Father.” This has not been an attempt to present any kind of comprehensive understanding, much less, an exegesis of the prayer. It is simply food for thought and reflection. As a paradigm, the prayer allows us to contemplate our place before a loving and compassionate Father. Yahweh, who has allowed us to be adopted children of God, who has allowed us to be the sisters and brothers of Jesus, has given us this simple prayer on which to build our faith. My hope in these 4 short posts is that any who happen to read them will be encouraged to model their own prayers on it. To use their God given imagination to see into the depths of the Father’s love, compassion and concern for all of God’s children.

And do not lead us into a time of trial, but, deliver us from the evil one.          
Testing is something that we all experience. James wrote that testing proves our mettle. It builds and perfects our faith. The psalmist called on to “Try me and know my anxious thoughts.” Why, then, should we not embrace trials and testing? Why not expect that God, in all of the divine Wisdom, to try us and test us? After all, Jesus was tested in the wilderness and triumphed. This testing that Jesus instructed his disciples to pray that they might be spared is that from external powers. We may better understand it, “Father, do not take your protecting hand from us! Keep us from temptations from ungodly powers.”
We do not forsake the wilderness. It is the place where we are tried and tested, just as Jesus. The desert Fathers wrote about the aridity of the interior environment where the perfect faith was forged. We join with them in this. We agree with James and the psalmist in this. But, we must pray that Yahweh, the God who is near, will keep us and preserve us from the fiery darts and weapons of the enemy of our soul.

There is also a part of this plea that is eschatological. We pray the God’s hand will keep us from harm in the trials and tribulations that accompany the end of the age. Jesus saw this as immanent. The Kingdom of God was breaking into time and space, the end of the age was at hand. “Father, keep us from the persecutions and oppression that is to come. Through the righteous and just testing and proving of our faith, let us stand in Your strength and faithfulness when the time comes.”

Abba, Forgive Us

And forgive us our debts
“Abba, forgive us the debt of sin. We cannot repay this…ever.” Most of us will stop at this point. We jump forward to Paul and claim “Justification!” But, there is more to consider here. We are indebted to Yahweh for everything. Our pray can continue, “Abba, forgive…The debt of having been formed in the womb; of being given the precious Breath of Life. The debt of childhood play and skinned knees. The debt of 1st loves and 1st heartbreaks. The debt of experiencing life with family and friends. The debt of being alone and forsaken by family and friends. All that we are and have and experience are debts that cannot be repaid.
As we forgive those who are indebted to us.
Those who have outright wronged us. Those who have taken a small piece of our life; love; soul and spent it on trivia. Those who have stepped on our toes. Those who laughed when we cried. Those who stole a piece of our innocence and left a wound that scarred and remains with us to this day. Those who have rubbed us in such a way that callouses formed. “O Lord, let Your grace be on us to let go of anything, anything, anything that stands between us and our adelphoi. Let our souls be free from any hint of bitterness that may germinate from holding on to the debts of others. As we have freely received, we do freely give.”

More from the Pater Noster

In my previous post I started to look at the prayer Jesus taught his disciples as recorded in Matthew. I mentioned that the prayer has been viewed as a paradigm for other prayers. In its written form it appears to be what Richard Foster called a ‘simple prayer.’ That is, it contains the simple supplication of a person looking to have simple, basic needs met by God.
Today I want to look at this as it applies to the next phrase.

Today, give us the bread that we need.
 On the surface this appears to meet the criteria for ‘simple prayer.’ “O Lord, you know
that we have physical needs. Our very lives depend on the sustenance that comes from
your hand.” As we reflect, though, we can see that there may be more to this. In John 6,
Jesus spoke about the manna that Israel ate while in the wilderness. He said, “I am the
bread of life. Your forefathers ate the manna in the desert, yet they died. But here is the
bread that comes down from heaven, which a man may eat and not die. I am the living
bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. This
bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world” (John 6:48-51, NIV). A
couple things jump out at me. First, Israel received manna for the present day. God
literally provided ‘daily bread’ for them. This bread from heaven kept them nourished as
the trekked through the wilderness. It was received by faith. There was no guarantee,
other than God’s promise, that there would be manna in the morning. Every night they
went to bed hoping and trusting that when they awoke there would be God’s provision.
The second thing is that Jesus saw himself taking the place of God’s manna. He said,
“Hey, I AM the living bread! I AM the provision that brings and sustains life!” Like the
manna in the wilderness, Jesus also must be received in faith. We must ‘partake’ of this
living bread every day. What we received yesterday has passed into history. What we
may receive tomorrow is unknowable. “Today, Lord, we ask for the living Bread of life
that You provide. Today, Lord, give me Your body as true food that nourishes my soul.”
 There is much that we can meditate on in this single phrase. Our dependence; our need
for trust and faith; the truth about what is nourishment and what is not are all worthy of
our time and reflection.
May God fill you from the bounty of heaven’s storehouse.