Archive for the ‘Faith’ Tag

Organic Spirituality   Leave a comment

All my life I have tried to pursue God and his ways.  I’m just now waking to the possibility that this was working against my very nature.  A rose does not set out each morning doing rose exercises, studying rose botany, planning how best to scale the trellis at its leafy tips. It has within itself the seed of becoming, God has placed it there, and it simply becomes, living out of this true center until it slowly grows into the fulness for which it was designed.

My approach to spiritual growth was far more rational, organized, and disciplined.  I analyzed God into various character traits–patience, discipline, purity (a long list)–and then, seeing that I came up short, I worked to gain those virtues, add them to myself like so many prosthetic attachments.  Instead of understanding my own impatience and what drove it and why and how and discerning the particular shape patience might take were it to grow naturally from my own sanctified perceptions, inclinations, history and personality, I tried to adopt wholesale the patience I saw in others, force it on myself.  But like transplanted organs the body rejects, my soul did not know how to incorporate these foreign traits.

I didn’t realize that the meekness in Jeremiah is dramatically different than the meekness displayed by Moses or David, so I kept trying and failing to squeeze my soul into a shape not my own, find a champion of each virtue and imitate that rendition.  Learning to play another musician’s song is quite different from finding one’s own song, even when they are both acoustic ballads about love.  I can certainly be inspired and instructed by their example, but I must find my own voice.

I always understood Paul as saying, “Be not conformed to this world, but be conformed (to godliness)” and never noticed that his change in verb not only changes the goal, but changes the means to that goal: do not be conformed, but be transformed.  And this is effected not primarily by force of will (discipline), or miracle of faith (prayer and hope), but by a renewed understanding or insight (Romans 12:2).  Surely it takes focus and work to refine who I am and scrape off the accretions of sin that deform my true, God-given self, and it takes faith since I am completely dependent on God’s intervention to bring my soul to fruition, but this process integrates with who I am as a unique creation of God.  It is an affirmation of who I truly am, not a rejection of it.  I am discovering that spiritual growth is about becoming rather than adding, understanding my true self and setting it free into God rather than squeezing it into a virtuous mold.

Posted June 17, 2015 by janathangrace in thoughts

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Cursing My Way to Empathy   6 comments

Yesterday I applied for a groundskeeper position at Lynchburg College because it’s a full-time job and my current library position is part-time… and I enjoy yard work… and I’ve been thinking about starting an M.A. in counseling (free credits with full time work). Then I took Mazie for a walk as my agitation slowly crescendoed over my creaking joints, “What the blankety-blank am I doing?! My body can’t stand up under all that physical labor,” I griped as I limped along with a leg that’s been bothering me for… well… on and off for over a year.  “Why the blankety-blank are you going to study counseling?  One more degree to stack against the other useless ones after you discover you don’t like the work?”  This was just the latest on a life piled high with dead-end schemes, so I walked faster to drive out my perturbation… which just made my calf hurt more.

I was a couple miles down the trail, and as I’d left behind the other strollers, I was emboldened to turn my muttering into short, loud exclamations of woe.  Then I started singing a spontaneous dirge.  “I hate life on this wretched earth; full of misery, without mirth. What the heck were you thinking, God?  This is worse than a filthy clod.”  Hey, don’t criticize, I had to make up each line on the spot in 4/4 time.  I would tell you the chorus, but it was a pounding four-letter word, and some of my readers might be offended.  I swept other unfortunates into my lyrics, singing for all of us, and that curved around to lines of empathy for them and my wish to be supportive of them in their struggles.  And finally I came full circle to seeing God as understanding and empathizing, as being one of the wounded rather than the wounder.  That’s not a typical Christian approach: cursing my way back to faith.  But then, I’m not very typical.

Posted March 6, 2014 by janathangrace in Personal

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Sitting Still Is Hard Work   2 comments

I’ve been missing here for a month, not from depression or busyness or low energy as in the past, but from fence sitting.

doggie on fence

Not by choice.  I’m too weak to jump out of the yard and do anything useful–I’ve glanced at projects countless times, even started some, only to realize they would drain my soul.  in the other direction, the emotional gravity dragging me back down hasn’t found a grip as long as I’ve kept my shaky equilibrium.  I’m in a holding pattern on a narrow platform, and I sense that it is my task to wait and gather strength.

donkey airedThis is not easy for me.  My internal voices are always shouting for me to get busy, and ignoring them has always led me into a place of shame.  They drove me into more and more Christian service until it broke me. When I discovered the potholes this pounded into my soul, I thought I had turned onto the road to recovery, but the voices just switched goals, whipping me towards personal development, “figure out NOW what is holding you back and FIX it!”  I feel ashamed for not healing faster.  Patience with myself is rarely an item in stock.

I have lived all my life on the principle that rest must be earned.  After all, God worked six days and rested on the seventh.  I thought the Sabbath was simply a concession to our weaknesses: “Okay, you’ve worked hard enough, so now you get to rest.”   In fact, there was no command to work six days… that was simply a necessity for survival and advancement.  The duty, the order, the commandment  (one of the Big Ten), was not to stay busy, but to stop busy.  The Sabbath is not a reward for working all week.  The reward for working all week is the material benefits we reap.  The Sabbath was certainly a blessing, but it was a command, not a reward.  It had its own justification and importance quite independent of the other six.

The Fourth Commandment was also not a prohibition (“thou shalt not work”) but a prescription: “Remember the Sabbath to keep it Holy.”  It offered positive power and creative purpose for our lives, the one day to focus care on our spirits instead of our bodies (for food, shelter, etc.).  If anything, it was not the work week that justified the Sabbath, but the Sabbath that justified and gave meaning to the work week.  I was raised on the “Protestant Work Ethic,” but what I really need is a strong dose of the “Protestant Rest Ethic.”  The first has often pulled me from faith in God to dependence on myself, but the second forces me back to faith… and though it is shaky and insecure, it is a faith I am committed to.weak faith

Posted October 27, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal

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The Spiritual Discipline of Idleness   2 comments

This is the unpublished conclusion to my post “The Spiritual Exercise of Shirking Duty”

I think God is telling me, “You’re going to keep spinning your wheels until you let off the gas.  You’re here to learn the art of idling.”

Idleness as a spiritual goal?  That sounds very wrong-headed.  I spent most of my life trying to maximize every minute, sleeping as little as possible so as to make the biggest spiritual profit for God.  Every activity, even entertainment, was scored on how useful it was.  If I read books, it must be for my growth.  If I took a vacation, it was at a monastery.  Every meal with friends was to “sharpen iron with iron.”  Pleasures without eternal benefits were wasteful and wrong, and slowly every simple joy was twisted into a duty.  I was driven by the fear that God valued me for what I did for him, and it was never enough.

atelaphobia

My beliefs have changed, but the shadow remains over those natural delights that would ordinarily bring me pleasure.  When I try to simply enjoy reading, writing, music, hiking, gardening, wood-working, and the like, this imperious gravity pulls me to turn each one into something productive, cutting off its wings and tethering it with a burden of obligation.  Since last winter my only sure escape has been solitaire, not because it is especially fun, but because it is especially profitless, and so I can’t use it for brownie points with God.  While shuffling cards, I’m doing nothing good for the world; I’m just killing time.  And as I’ve learned to trust God’s grace there in the middle of that uselessness, I have discovered pure grace, not “grace” in exchange for my good efforts.

DUTY: LOOKS GOOD, BUT TIES ME IN KNOTS

How can I rebuild my life around the joy of being who God created me to be instead of the slave-driven motive of duty? As long as I keep believing that God loves me more when I do more for him, and less when I do less,  I can never find rest in his grace.  To truly discover the riches of God’s full acceptance apart from my profitability, I may need to become more useless still in order to set my faith free from its false grounding in my own goodness.  “The foolishness of God is wiser than men.”

GOING OUT ON A LIMB OF FAITH

GOING OUT ON A LIMB OF FAITH

Posted June 15, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal

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Giving Up Clarity for Lent   6 comments

I grew up the son of a preacher.  We went to Sunday school, Sunday morning service, Sunday evening service, and Wednesday prayer meeting.  We had daily family devotions with Bibles and hymn books, and all six kids, without exception,  prayed out loud.  But we looked on liturgy with suspicion.  A real relationship with God was spontaneous, not circumscribed by rituals like all those unsaved Roman Catholics.  I never even heard of Lent until I was an adult, but we lived Lent all year long–self-examination, repentance, discipline, sacrifice.  The problem is that we never got out of Lent.

boy in pew

By the time I discovered grace, I had enough Lent practice behind me to cover several lives over.  Last year was my first participation in Lent, and I approached it with the eyes of grace–to bless my soul by releasing it from some burden that weighed it down, to sacrifice a problem not a pleasure.  I decided to sacrifice busyness and embrace rest.  It was so good for my heart, that after 40 days I made it my spiritual emphasis for the year.  I have planned another year-long Lenten emphasis for 2013–sacrificing my need to figure things out (and so a reliance on my acuity), in other words, I am embracing ignorance.

confusion sign

I did not come to this point willingly.  I begged and pleaded for insight, thought myself into and out of a thousand speculations, tried to pry the lid off that sealed box of truth, and finally gave up.  Learning to trust God with a confused mind is a bit crazy and doesn’t feel very safe.  I was just now reminded that learning to trust God last year was pretty tough too–expecting more from doing less?  That doesn’t make a heck of a lot of sense either.  I don’t know if my brain needs a break, but I’m pretty sure my reliance on it is false security.  I have enough faith to take this path, I need more faith if I am to find peace along this way instead of turmoil and fear.

Posted February 12, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal

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Spiritual Virtigo   14 comments

confusion boxMy mother in her quirky way used to make us Christmas gifts of various kinds.  This  Christmas I noticed my dad is still using a bathrobe she made for him 30 years ago.  She must have made it out of upholstery material, because it is soft and warm on the outside and stiff and scratchy on the skin-side.  My older brother David once unwrapped a gift from her and responded graciously, “I love it!  What is it?”  Indecipherable love.  God’s been putting together a special gift for me this year as a resource for my spiritual growth, and it looks like a box full of confusion, without an instruction manual.   God, you know I’m already depressed, right?  What the heck do I do with this?

Hundreds of years ago St. John of the Cross descended into “the dark night of the soul” and left a consoling account for those who followed.  The Christian psychiatrist Gerald May describes his own experience of it:

[This spirit of virtigo] seems specifically designed for people like me, people who refuse to relinquish the idea that if only I could understand things, I could make them right.  Having lost the old willpower and its satisfactions, we desperately try to figure out where we have gone astray.  “What’s happening here?  Where have I gone wrong?  Maybe my problem is this… No, maybe it’s that… Perhaps I should try this… Or that….”

Every effort at soul-diagnosis and cure fails.  We are left in the dark.  And that is for our salvation, May says: “Sooner or later, there is nothing left to do but give up.  And that is precisely the point, the purpose of the ‘dizzy spirit.’  In each relinquishment… reliance upon God is deepened.”   I’ve been mapquesting God for directions to my soul’s healing and taking every turn He signaled.  Apparently I’m in the Slough of Despond not from getting confused and careening off the road, but from following His bullet points.  He drove me straight into the bog.

swamp

MARSH RD, DESERT RD, DITCH RD, Hmmm

There are some advantages of sinking into the quagmire.  No worries about getting lost if you’re already there.  No wrong turns to make if you can’t move.  No real expectations to fail if there are no goals.  If it’s God’s move; all I can do is wait… and trust.  That’s always the tough part, especially for us hard-working, self-reliant types.  “Be still and know that I am God” is a much deeper concept than I realized–not simply self control in quieting myself, but learning to patiently accept God’s time-outs for my soul, letting something work which I cannot see or measure and over which I have no control.  Who knew being out of control was a sign of spiritual progress?

boy and teddy

Posted February 1, 2013 by janathangrace in Personal

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Hard Living   6 comments

stormAs I said in my last post, I am stuck with God.  When Jesus got weird on his disciples (John 6), many of them left.  He asked his twelve, “Will you leave too?”  and Peter answered, “Where else can we go?”  Yes.  Exactly.  We’re in the middle of the ocean, freezing cold, living on bread, squatting on steel decks and the captain of the boat says, “Feel free to leave.”  And where would that be?  Trust me, we are not staying because we like it here.  St. Teresa of Avila once complained to God, “If this is the way you treat your friends, it’s no wonder you have so few!”

As I ended my last post, this story in John came to mind, and I felt bad for not having Peter’s good attitude.  He answered Jesus, “Lord, to whom shall we go, you have the words of eternal life.”  I heard Peter saying, “You’ve got it all–peace, joy, fulfillment.  Why would we leave?  We like it here.”  I was confusing ‘eternal life’ with ‘the good life’… spiritually speaking, of course–the delights of fellowship with God.  What was I thinking?  You want encouragement of the Biblical kind?  Acts 14 tells us that the apostle Paul was “strengthening the souls of the disciples, encouraging them to continue in the faith,”  –what was his supportive message?–  “and saying, ‘Through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.’”  What ever happened to “If you’re happy and you know it clap your hands”?

happy baby

Jesus’ message was loony: “Unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life.”  These are the “words of eternal life” to Peter?  Everyone was stumped, and many left Jesus over this cannibal homily–“If we understand what he is saying, it’s a problem… and if we don’t understand what he is saying, it’s a problem.”  Simon Peter, for all his flowery speech, was just as baffled.  Had he known Jesus spoke of his own sacrificial death, Peter would have corrected the Son of God himself.  For Peter, this was the one thing the “words of eternal life” could not possibly mean–the cross.

I think in all his fog, Impetuous Pete spoke the truth after all.  There is nowhere else to go because these are the words of eternal life, even if it leads through more pain and perplexity than other roads.  Those who stayed with Jesus after this sermon did so in confusion, not clarity, but they found him worth trusting right through the dark.  Even Peter finally followed him to his own crucifixion.  That is the one serious problem with resurrection–you have to die to get there.

cross

Posted January 28, 2013 by janathangrace in thoughts

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