Investing Spiritual Freedom


peaceful_place_wallpaper_4f3f3Here’s another bit of wisdom from one of my favorite Anglican spiritual directors from the last century:

“It is the soul, the centre of our being, of which the will is the authentic voice, which chooses to sin. For this reason the real measure of every sin is the amount of choice which produced it, and this will include not only the choice at the moment of that sin but also the many choices which have led up to that final choice and prepared the way for it.” (Ward, Reginald Somerset. A Guide for Spiritual Directors. London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd, 1957, p. 13.)

How we use that little power of our will says a lot about us. We often have far less will power than we think, but much more will freedom than we realize. It is the little “yeses” and “noes” that enable us to abide in the kingdom of Jesus and strengthen our willingness or to hide and abide in our own willfulness. Our own kingdom is not a place of abundance, but a place of scarcity, self-protection and self-promotion. There is no good and holy overflow when I abide in my own vision, my own wisdom, my own plan, or my own way.

This counsel from Ward also leads me to see the great value of living awake and attentive to the thoughts, especially the automatic and semi-conscious ones, that I have at any moment. Recent reading in brain theory as it relates to addiction has reaffirmed the value of simply noticing my thoughts from just a little bit of distance. Instead of assuming that I am my thoughts, I learn that I am a person who has thoughts, and that these thoughts come from a number of sources. Some may be gifts of a loving Father or echoes of my truest self. Some may be traps of an enemy and whispers of my lesser self. When I am not awake to my thoughts, but instead letting them pull me about without discernment, I find myself surprised to be in places I wouldn’t consciously wish to be.

Reflection:

  • What little choices are you making that are either growing your freedom of soul or diminishing it?
  • How do you want to offer your “willing” up to the good, beautiful and true will of God?

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At Rest in the Presence


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A beautiful bloom from my writing retreat in Jarabocoa, Dominican Republic.

The other morning, as I was beginning my day in some silent prayer, I had a strong thought come to me, a reminder by the Spirit, I think, that the remedy to my anxiety, fear, self-doubt and insecurity is to be present in the moment, abiding vitally in the presence of Father, Son and Spirit. When I allow my thoughts to stray to anxious concerns about the future or empty regrets about the past, I am lost. There is no life for me worrying about the future because I am not in the future. I am only actually here now. It’s a pretty simple insight that I too often forget.

There are many moments, of course, when I may strategize or plan for the future—for myself, my family, my vocational roles—but I cannot and do not live in the future. This present moment is the only moment I actually have to live and to lead. When I forget this, my soul becomes uprooted and vitality begins to fade. I become like the cut flower that, while still beautiful and apparently alive, is already beginning to die.

Lord, enable me to be present with you here and now. Grant me rootedness in your reality. May I find myself at rest and at home in your presence. Thank you. Amen.

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The Evidence of Witness


IMG_2893Acts 15:8-11 NIV, “God, who knows the heart, showed that he accepted [Gentiles] by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as he did to us. He did not discriminate between us and them, for he purified their hearts by faith. Now then, why do you try to test God by putting on the necks of Gentiles a yoke that neither we nor our ancestors have been able to bear? No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ that we are saved, just as they are.”

So Jewish believers gathered at this Jerusalem council expected Gentiles to come to Jesus in the same way they had come—through historic Jewish faith and practice. All Jewish men, for example, had been circumcised on the eighth day of their lives. This was a scriptural practice that they felt was required of anyone who would come to God through the Messiah Jesus.

It strikes me that the evidence Peter offers to the Jewish elders and apostles in Jerusalem was the evidence of experience and witness. He does not here quote the scriptures (though he would do that often). He points out that the very same evidences of God’s Spirit being present in fullness came to the Gentiles as it had come to the Jews. But it came without the outward sign of circumcision. (Circumcision was not a common practice among Gentiles in that day).

Instead of being purified through a physical symbol like circumcision, Peter points out that they were purified by faith (9) and through the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ (11). Faith in grace is my trust and God’s generosity. This was and is the basis for our deliverance and entry into the kingdom of God. Beautiful.

There are certain Evangelical “circumcisions” that we want everyone to take on if they are going to be “real” followers of Jesus. They have to look a certain way, believe certain things about end times, or the scriptures, or such. For the most part, they probably shouldn’t drink any alcohol. They should go to church, pay their tithe, get involved in doing ministry tasks, study the Bible, etc. These are seen, at least at a practical level, as entry requirements. We claim that one comes to Jesus through faith by grace. While we seem clear on this as the first step of the journey, it is really anyone’s guess as to what place my faith in God’s grace plays in the practicalities of living and practicing this “following Jesus” way.

Peter reminds them that we must never put on another a burdensome yoke that we ourselves have failed to bear. Conservative Evangelicals do this all the time. We demand certain outward appearances as it relates to morality and such. But appearances are often a cover for an inward mess. Our focus on the outward betrays a failure to give much meaningful attention to the inward.

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Psalm 25: A Leader Lifts Up His Soul


IMG_2879Often in morning prayer, I will reflect prayerfully on one of the lectionary readings. Here are some thoughts from a morning last year when Psalm 25 came up as one of the readings

“To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul (1).”

Reading this line with my church background, I tend to assume that I “lift up my soul” through prayer or perhaps corporate worship. In corporate worship, I would probably assume that I had lifted up my soul if I felt devotional feelings or some sense of God’s presence with me. But what is my soul and how might I lift it up?

One commenter suggests that the metaphor behind “lift up” is that of water lifting up a floating object (like the flood that caused the ark to be lifted up). So the imagery is that of buoyancy, of floating, of being carried without one’s direct power to lift oneself up. I allow my soul to be lifted up by a power that I can only cooperate with and cannot control.

“O my God, in you I trust;
do not let me be put to shame;
do not let my enemies exult over me. 
Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame;
 let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous (2-3).”

Being “put to shame” sounds like the opposite of “lifting up my soul.” Shame feels like being weighed down, put down, even buried. Enemies exulting over me sounds the same. And, again, there is David acknowledging that he doesn’t have so much power over what his enemies do as God does. David trusts in God to not allow his enemies to have their way, to let those who entrust themselves to God’s care, protection and oversight never be shamed.

I do not want to be put to shame, to be devalued and diminished in the eyes of those who hate me or oppose me. Instead of shame, I am given the gift of glory and honor in the One Who alone is worthy of glory and honor. I have these in God.

“Lead me in your truth, and teach me,
for you are the God of my salvation;
for you I wait all day long (5).”

“for you I wait all day long.” There is a patience and persistence in David’s attentiveness to God throughout the day. This sounds much like the idea of practicing God’s presence. Here is a king over a nation who lives his life and practices his own leadership role with a deep-rooted attentiveness to God. Someone with profound and wide-ranging responsibilities for countless people sees a long season of waiting on God as good and necessary.

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Unprofessional Christian Leaders


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An evening fire in Jarabocoa, Dominican Republic

A while back, I was reading one of Elton Trueblood’s books, Signs of Hope. (I’ve read just about everything he wrote. I think of him as a sort of Dallas Willard of the last century. He was a philosopher and wrote deeply on living the Christian life). Listen to what he has to say about the nature of the first Christians and their leaders:

“We must never allow ourselves to forget that the Christian religion itself likewise began as a lay movement. Among the twelve whom Christ chose to receive his most intimate teaching and to carry on his message, not one was a priest, bishop or rabbi. Not one was professionally religious in any sense. Some were fishermen and one, at least, was a publican. We might go farther and say truly that the early Christian movement was essentially anticlerical. Those whom Christ denounced most fiercely were not publicans or harlots, but scribes and pharisees. In fact, he was very tender with the unrespectable sinners, but he was fiercely denunciatory of the conventional upholders of pious respectability.” (Trueblood, Elton. Signs of Hope. New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1950, p. 85.)

Of course Jesus welcomed those official religious leaders who came to him (like Nicodemus, Joseph of Arimathea or, eventually, Saul of Tarsus), but he didn’t welcome them on the basis of their human position of religious authority. Like everyone else, they had to come to him for his reasons and not for theirs.

Some have said that if a true revival were to break out in our day, it would almost certainly come from within the business sector and not from within the official church gathered. I have a feeling that’s right, and I say that as one who has been in vocational (i.e. paid) ministry all my adult life.

I think there is an irony that it takes the “unprofessional” Christian to see things that the “professional” Christian has come to overlook. The businessperson does not have as vested an interest in the continuation of a Christian structure like a church, mission or ministry as it has functioned (often poorly) in the past.

We need godly men and women who lead out in kingdom service without being paid for their work. We need their strengths, gifts, experience and resources. We do not mainly need to give these men and women “church jobs” like usher, parking lot attendant and such. They are worth more than this to us.

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No Fun With Legalists


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Jarabacoa Sunset

I have had a run-in here or there with so-called discernment ministries who accused me (or The Leadership Institute) of some form of unbiblical, unorthodox or non-Christian practices. I remember something Solomon says in the Proverbs:

Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
or you yourself will be just like him.
Answer a fool according to his folly,
or he will be wise in his own eyes.
(Proverbs 26:3-4)

Solomon tells me not to answer a fool in his folly, but then, in the next verse, to answer a fool in his folly. I read this as a creative way to say, “There is no winning an argument with a fool. If you try answering a fool in his folly, you end up a fool yourself. And if you do not answer a fool in his folly, the fool continues to see himself as the wise one in the conversation. This is exactly my experience with these so-called “discernment ministries” out there. They are fools in the sense of being self-appointed, self-referencing, and self-authorizing without meaningful reference to anything or anyone outside themselves. They will not listen to anyone with a different opinion with any spirit to learn. They cannot be corrected. Their preconception is that they are right, their opponents are wrong, and all that is left is to continue collecting a quantity of self-satisfying evidence that supports their prejudice. It’s a waste of life and time.

I was mentioning to a friend recently that it has been my experience that these legalistic, Pharisee-like “experts” have invariably ended up being like the Pharisees in another way: they portray themselves as virtuous and righteous, but they have hidden within themselves some form of death and decay. One cannot live such a graceless life towards others without being just as graceless within. And such a heart is exactly the place where all sort of nasty things grow. It is in such hiding places that dark things flourish. Always. There is no fun to be had with legalists.

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More Fun With Legalists


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Jarabacoa Sunset

In my morning scripture readings a while back, I came across Acts 11. The substance of it is Peter’s defense before his Jewish Christian brothers of his having entered the home of the uncircumcised and even…wait for it…eaten with them (cue omninous organ music). I cannot help but think about fundamentalist reactions I’ve experienced to what they would call “unbiblical practices” like lectio divina or contemplative prayer. They would call them unbiblical because they are not explicitly mentioned by name or word-for-word.

In Acts 11, the “circumcised believers” (vs 2) were bothered and concerned that Peter had shared the gospel with the uncircumcised and even eaten with them in violation of their understanding of God’s law. They could make what they felt was a strong biblical case against what Peter had done. And what justification does Peter give for his actions? Does he appeal first to scriptures? I’m amazed that he mentions a vision he received while he was in a trance (vs. 5) of unclean animals lowered on a sheet that the Lord commands him to kill and eat. To the circumcised, Jewish believers, this was clearly an unbiblical vision because he was being commanded to do something they understood to be against the clear teaching of their scriptures.

Peter also mentions receiving a communication directly from God’s Spirit (vs. 12) that he was to go with the uncircumcised who wanted to take him to visit with Cornelius in his home (again in apparent violation of Jewish tradition rooted in their understanding of scripture).

Peter speaks of Cornelius’s experience of an angelic visit (vs. 13) in which he was told to send for someone named Peter who would give him a message by which he and his household would be saved. And Peter seems to give credence to this angelic visit.

Finally, he testifies to the evidence of the Holy Spirit falling upon them in the very same way the Spirit had fallen on the Jewish believers before, and with all of the same sorts of signs. Peter reasons that if the Spirit fell on the uncircumcised in the very same way as on the circumcised, who was he to make a distinction between them as it related to following Jesus and being included among his people? This subjective evidence carried a great deal of weight with Peter. Specifically, he says, “If then God gave them the same gift that he gave us when we believed in the Lord Jesus Christ, who was I that I could hinder God (vs. 17)?” Fortunately, the Jews concur and find Peter’s testimony to be quite compelling. They concluded that God had indeed given to the Gentiles the repentance that leads to life (vs. 18).

For many fundamentalist Protestants, arguments of this sort would have carried no weight at all. They would not see credibility in any sort of subjective experiences like visions, dreams, angelic visits, or interior messages from the Spirit (all of which Peter experienced). In fact, the general response is to attribute anything of this nature to the work of an enemy. They attribute any subjective signs that don’t quickly and easily fit in with their preconceived view of scripture to error or even heresy. From a certain perspective, this ends up sounding an awful lot like Jesus’ description of the unforgivable sin of attributing to the evil one what is actually the work of God’s Spirit (Mk 3:29). When someone attributes a work of God’s Spirit to the evil one, they put themselves in a place where they cannot possibly receive, because of their preconceived, prejudiced perspective, this good work. And the fruit of their lives, over time, give evidence to this fact.

Some of these biased believers would hold to a theological tradition that has decided that anything of a subjective nature like visions, dreams, miracles and such are from a bygone age and are no longer necessary. It’s a way of saying, “Yes, the Bible records such experiences, but God no longer does in our day what he did for century after century throughout the record of the scriptures.” There is a fear that subjective experiences will lead people astray. Of course this can happen. But how in the world can we ignore that our own intellects and reason can also lead us astray. The Pharisees were both incredibly intelligent and incredibly misguided.

It is my belief that a chapter like Acts 13 provides a present-day guide for discerning subjective spiritual experiences that followers of Jesus might have. There are self-appointed discernment “experts” who would argue the exact opposite. They would claim that there was some sort of apostolic privilege that no longer exists today. But why wouldn’t this chapter still be of practical value to us in real-time discernment rather than only having a sort of historical value that doesn’t apply very practically today? Such a resistant perspective seems just the opposite of the sort of biblical focus these “experts” claim to be defending.

One of Peter’s basic arguments in this story is a form of “you can know what is from God by the fruit it produces.” Fundamentalist judges of anything spiritual never seem to look at the fruit. They usually point to the wackiest (and most obscure) examples of misguided people who also practice some form of the same subjective spiritual discipline. It’s cheap and lazy. Such fundamentalists would be quite offended if they got lumped in with the lovely folks at Westboro Baptist who protest funerals and proclaim that God Hates Gays. This is the very thing they do, without a twinge of conscience, with those they have never met, never personally spoken with or met or listened to in person. Theirs is a “guilt by free association” approach to “discernment.” I find it disturbing and woeful.

In twenty-five years of witnessing what happens when men and women spend time alone and quiet seeking God with a listening heart and mind (and which one might call Christian contemplative prayer), it is impossible for me to agree with the ignorant opinion that such subjective experiences are exactly like new age or Eastern versions of similar practices. I see the good fruit of profound peace, deep joy, a growing sense of the real love of God that is borne in people through such practices. On the other hand, the spirit I witness in the writings of so-called discernment ministries is angry, hostile, ridiculing, harsh, fearful, accusing and self-important. And they claim that they are doing God’s work in such a spirit?

Over the last twenty years, we have trained hundreds of well-trained, biblically rooted pastors and Christian leaders through the Journey. In dozens of retreats, I cannot remember having been accused by one of these participants of promoting something unbiblical. These “discerners” are going to say that these well-trained, godly pastors have failed to discern unbiblical practices through weeks-worth of personal witness that these so-called and self-appointed experts have somehow discerned as error with absolutely no personal exposure encounter or conversation at all?.

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