Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Thinking About It

I'm basically a lazy person, especially in the area of physical exercise.  But as I get older, regular workouts become more necessary to keep me strong and able to move around.  The same is true with the human brain:  if it receives regular workouts, it stays more limber, focuses better and keeps its memory better. Clear thinking is also important to a clear path in life; without it, we can't know how to conduct ourselves, or where we might need to change our actions.

Thinking clearly, especially about God, is work. But without it, we can't hear from God.  One of the spiritual disciplines we find practiced in the Bible is meditation, which sounds to some like daydreaming and to others like a weird practice bordering on the occult.  But the real definition of it, according to Richard Foster in his classic book Celebration of Discipline, is "the ability to hear God's voice and obey his word" (p.17).  The references in the Bible refer to placing ourselves humbly before God in repentance and submission, and "changed behavior as a result of our encounter with the living God" (p. 15). 

Jesus practiced meditation as part of his spiritual life. That guidance was crucial to him:  in John 5:19, he says "I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself. He does only what he sees the Father doing. Whatever the Father does, the Son also does."  One of many places he is described as seeking time alone with the Father is Matt. 14:13.  Being away from the crowds gave him the time and freedom from distractions to hear from his Father.  And though Jesus no longer is physically present on earth, he is still active through his followers and expects us to seek him, as shown many times in the book of Acts.  

Individually, meditation is a growing, familiar relationship with God through his son Jesus, as led by the Holy Spirit's work.  It's a divine-human encounter; God-centered, not me-centered.  It is a driving force behind a healthy daily experience of God's presence and will for us.  If we don't stop to ask God "what should I do?" for our daily routine or for our emergencies and puzzles, how will we know his will?  Stopping to have an internal conversation with God about our lives is one way we can be led and corrected by God.

We can meditate while we are reading scripture; looking at the wonders of Creation; thinking over a problem we face -- and stopping to ask God's direction; during prayer, when we've said all we can say and pause for God's prompting; and many other times and ways.  It's best to avoid distractions, so we could predict that meditating in a quiet place would be more helpful than while driving!  A good way to practice meditating is to start by reading scripture and then humbly praying for God's guidance in applying it.  That's similar to what Luke says about Jesus's mother in Luke 2:19:  "Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often."

Not familiar with meditation?  Today is a good time to start. Worried you won't be good at it?  Nobody is, at first; but as we practice meditation, it becomes more a part of our daily habits and gives us strength for the day's journey.  It's worth the trouble and will give you many spiritual rewards.  Why not start today?

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Gardening and Eternity

Since buying our house, The Amazing Joanne and I have been trying to grow things outside -- some to look at, and some to eat -- with different amounts of success.  It's no secret that our soil needs to be improved (I wrote about that awhile back) and here in Colorado, one of the biggest tricks is knowing when to plant which thing.  But one fact is sure:  to get something to grow, you have to actually plant it. 

Paul knew that was a fact in spiritual life too.  In Galatians 6:7-8, he writes "You cannot fool God, so don't make a fool of yourself! You will harvest what you plant. If you follow your selfish desires, you will harvest destruction, but if you follow the Spirit, you will harvest eternal life."  He wrote this in the context of selfishness versus generosity, but I think it applies pretty much across the board.

What's important, then, is to find ways to 'follow the Spirit' as a habit -- to put ourselves in the position of being able to hear the Spirit's voice of guidance, so we can respond.  From earliest Christian practice, people have used spiritual tools called "Discipines" to help them hear from the Spirit.  Earlier in Galatians, (5:16) Paul wrote "So I say, let the Holy Spirit guide your lives. Then you won’t be doing what your sinful nature craves."  In verse 19, he says "When you follow the desires of your sinful nature, the results are very clear" and then he goes on to list the kind of sins and addictions that are all around us -- the kind of sins we have all been guilty of!  Then he says "the Holy Spirit produces this kind of fruit in our lives: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."  Which of these lists would you rather have characterize your life?  Whether we like it or not, that will depend on what we invest our time and effort in.

Richard Foster defines some of these spiritual disciplines as "Inward"; that is, dealing with our thoughts:  meditation, prayer, fasting, and study of God's word.  Outward disciplines he notes are:  simplicity, solitude, submission, and service.  Corporate disciplines, those that we can practice together, include confession, worship, guidance, and celebration.  Jesus used spiritual disciplines, and so should we.  I'll be writing on these disciplines as a series, and hope that they will help you as well as me.

What we put in the ground determines what kind of garden we grow.  What we invest our time and energies in, determines the shape of our lives.  I suggest we invest in the disciplines to allow the Spirit to shape our lives in the way he wants to.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010


Have you ever been working on a project and plugged one too many tools into an electrical outlet? Suddenly, the power for that outlet cuts off, and you're stuck until you can re-set the circuit.  Despite its frustrations, this is a safety feature to keep you from frying yourself or starting a fire somewhere.  An overloaded circuit simply won't do what it's designed to do -- deliver power. 

I get into that state sometimes:  four writing projects, three meetings, two emergency phone calls (somebody will start singing "and a partridge in a pear tree" pretty soon) and my nerves are fried.  Sometimes I find my thinking going around and around the same little racetrack of all there is to do, without being able to get a real start.  Or fear starts in and tells me I'm going to miss getting something done and end up on the sidewalk with a cardboard sign.  All of it is foolish thinking, of course, but it sucks up the available energy and I start reacting with frustration instead of the love I should have. It's time to focus on the one, most important thing. 

What's the 'most important thing'?  Getting back to relying on the love and power of God, instead of staying on the hamster wheel of relying on myself and my energies. In Psalm 142, after several verses talking about being overwhelmed, David says "Then I pray to you, O Lord.  I say, 'You are my place of refuge. You are all I really want in life. Hear my cry, for I am very low. Rescue me from my persecutors, for they are too strong for me.' " 

When he wrote Psalm 142, David was reflecting on his experience hiding in a cave, running for his life from Saul's entire army.  And to think I get worried over a messy office!  David said: "You are all I really want in life" and he was exactly right.  Sermons, study papers, meetings, conference calls, home repairs, dirty floors, fussy children, and lost dogs will all come and go.  Only God is forever. 

"They are too strong for me" says David.  Mine are too strong for me, too, and only God's strength can keep me from being swallowed up by too much stress (or paper).  I need to ask God for the calm, and his love, to do each task with love, which is not my natural thought when I'm overloaded.  Only his love flowing through me will keep the circuit alive, and the real power available.  Then maybe I can get some of this done!

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Cleaning & Maintenance

The Lovely Joanne came home from a business trip, walked into our bedroom and started sneezing.  I knew she hadn't become allergic to me (and I'd had a shower that day) so it had to be something in that room.  Out came the vacuum, furniture cleaner and window cleaner, and the room got cleaned out. We found dust bunnies under the bed and behind the furniture, and a lot of dust from places we had forgotten we had.  But a week later, it was coming back, so we've had to do it again. And again. The lawn needs mowing, weeds keep growing, and the house needs different repairs -- it seems impossible to keep ahead of it all. 

Isn't it like that with our spiritual lives too?  We just get one thing under control -- so we think -- and something else pops up.  Like dandelions in green grass, we seem to have problems popping up one after another, and they sometimes get ahead of us.  Just when we think our anger is defeated, lust pops up, or envy or resentment.  And when we work on those, anger makes a comeback. 

David prayed in Psalm 51: "For I recognize my rebellion; it haunts me day and night."  He had learned what he was like, and he felt helpless against the power of sin in his life.  David's release from guilt was through repenting, throwing himself on God's mercy and leaving his guilt behind through the forgiveness God gives. 

But he also knew that sin would never leave him alone.  He prayed "How can I know all the sins lurking in my heart? Cleanse me from these hidden faults." (Psalm 19:12).  Part of David's spiritual life was maintenance work -- stopping to ask God to show him what he needed to know about himself, looking in the deeper corners of his thoughts and emotions, and asking for forgiveness from sins he hadn't recognized before. 

Prayer, study, meditation, fasting, solitude and silence, simplicity, service, confession, worship and other spiritual disciplines are the 'maintenance tools' of our spiritual lives.  Like the extension wand on the vacuum, they help us to get into the recesses, the little-seen parts of our lives that accumulate sin and bad habits.  Like window cleaner, they help us see better.  Like cleaning and oiling a bicycle, they help us function as we were designed to, walking alongside God and hearing from him all the time.  On the other hand, if we neglect these disciplines, then the dust and rust, and the sin and guilt and shame and pain build up in our lives, and we start falling apart.

A couple of highly useful books in this area are Richard Foster's "Celebration of Discipline" and Dallas Willard's "The Spirit of the Disciplines."  A daily devotional, either in book form or as an online tool coming to your phone or email inbox, can also help keep us in front of God.  (Biblegateway.com and Crosswalk.com are two of hundreds of online resources.)  Whatever way we do it, spiritual maintenance is a necessary, not optional, part of life with God.  So if you don't have such a plan, now is a good time to start one.  Need help designing one?  Just ask.