Practicing the Presence of God


Two of our DR Journey leaders at the last retreat.

Two of our DR Journey leaders at the last retreat.

A while back, Richard Peace shared some from the book he had just finished—Noticing God (InterVarsity Press 2012). He said that, really, all spiritual disciplines are, in essence, noticing God. We do not have to get God to listen. He is always listening, always present. The problem is we don’t always notice God. I especially appreciated his listing of other ways of talking about this discipline of “noticing God”:

  • “pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
  •  “the habitual presence of God” (Diogenes Allen)
  • “the practice of the presence of God” (Brother Lawrence)
  • “recollected prayer” (Carmelites)
  • “the practice of inward orientation–of inward worship & listening” (Thomas Kelly)
  • “a continuous conversation with God” (Laubach)
  • “a conversational relationship with God” (Willard)
  • “a dialogue with God” (Mark Virkler)
  • “listening to the God who speaks” (Klaus Bockmuehl)
  • “a deep sense of the immediacy of the Spirit.” (Richard Foster)
  • “the manifest presence of God” (A. W. Tozer)

Why all these descriptions? Because our various Christians traditions all have some way to describe this orientation to a simple awareness of and communion with God.

Would you reflect and share your comments?

What is helping you most these day be more aware of the good reality of God’s presence always with you?

Playing Games With God


AJF_SJF_Mission10

Worn bricks on a doorstep at the San Juan Capistrano mission.

“For those of us on an intentional spiritual journey, our awareness of the deadly and debilitating nature of the religious false self is essential. Rigorous religious practices, devoted discipleship, sacrificial service, deeper devotional activities may do nothing more than turn a nominally religious false self into a fanatically religious false self.” (Mulholland, M. Robert. The Deeper Journey. Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2006, p. 48.)

There is such a world of difference between a fanatically religious false self and a true self energized and compelled by a deep experience of the faithful love of Jesus. The spiritual fruit is so different. One tends toward pride, the other humility. One towards harshness, the other towards patience and gentleness. When I put on a fake face when I go to a church gathering, that is an expression of this religious false self. When I pretend that I’m further along in my journey than I really am, that is too. Jesus is inviting me to walk in the light, in the truth, and in love—the real me coming face-to-face with the Real.

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God’s Presence and Our Sense of Identity


And God said, ‘I will be with you. And this will be the sign to you that it is I who have sent you: When you have brought the people out of Egypt, you will worship God on this mountain.’” Exodus 3:12 NIV

In the midst of the burning bush encounter, God’s answer to Moses’ words of self-doubt and low confidence was not an affirmation, but a reminder of the Divine presence. The Lord does not let Moses keep the focus on himself, but draws his attention back to God. This is critical, subtle and necessary. We so easily expect God to enhance our self-referenced sense of identity, whether it’s positive or negative. God gives Moses an answer to the question he isn’t asking, but desperately needs to hear.

Father, thank You for this word that touches me where I am needy. I can feel the need for Your Spirit drawing my attention away from my own sense of worthiness or unworthiness (the latter being the more common feeling these days). You want me to see Yourself, because You are life. You are creative. You are good. You are wise. I am only these things in relationship with You. Apart from You I can do nothing.

As I engage the work You are giving me, Father, You will be with me and I will worship You. Your presence with me will be significant because You really are the holy God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Who it is with me makes all the difference. Remembering Who You are is what matters.

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A Surprising Path to Freedom


I don’t think many of us would see an immediate connection between freedom and obedience. Obedience sounds like a constricting, limiting word. It isn’t really. Yesterday, I was walking along some train tracks. What if a train came along and said, “I find these tracks limiting. I prefer to make my own way.” Would this expression of freedom be a fruitful one? This attempt at freedom would be a disaster. The train is free to travel long distances only if it stays on the tracks. There it can travel fast and far. It will go nowhere good by jumping the tracks. It’s real choice is between the freedom of obedience and the disaster of disobedience. There might be a moment of false freedom as the train flew through the air for the first time. That moment would be followed by the painful, even deadly crash we all know would come next.

What are the tracks on which the Lord is inviting us to travel? What apparent limitations to my freedom are actually His way of increasing my true freedom? God’s ways are life-giving ways. I can travel far in them. I won’t go far if I leave them, at least not in the way of life. Father, give me eyes to see Your narrow way as the richest, best way for me. Protect me from my instinct to seek freedom where I would only find ruin.

(Edited journal excerpt from May 1991)

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Henri Nouwen on Spiritual Leadership


IMG_2745In The Wounded Healer, Nouwen talks about the shortcomings of some of us whose vocation is Christian leadership. All I can say is “Ouch!” I’m grateful for many Christian leaders I know who have already taken his counsel to heart and are growing in spiritual leadership. Listen to his words in the context of his deep love for pastors and other Christian leaders.

“It is a painful fact indeed to realize how poorly prepared most Christians leaders prove to be when they are invited to be spiritual leaders in true sense. Most of them are used to thinking in terms of large-scale organization, getting people together in churches, schools and hospitals, and running the show as a circus director. They have become unfamiliar with, and sometimes even somewhat afraid of, the deep and significant movements of the spirit.” (Nouwen, Henri J. M. The Wounded Healer. New York: Image Books, 1972, p. 37-38.)

We often think of leadership in outward terms only. We think about leading services, or gatherings, or board meetings. We see the real need of leading vision and mission for a particular community of people. Of course these are important, but Nouwen recommends that there is just as much (if not more) need for inward leadership.

Spiritual leadership has first to do with choices I make and rhythms I practice. It also has to do with how I tantalize others to join me in such a way of life. I want to keep growing in my recognition of the movements of God in my life and in the lives of others.

“…the Christian leader must be in the future what [they have] always had to be in the past: a [person] of prayer, a [person] who has to pray, and who has to pray always.” (Nouwen, p. 47.)

A man or woman who truly prays discovers that they are leaders. Prayer and leadership are not either/or categories, but both/and. Organizational expertise is not enough to lead in God’s kingdom. I spoke to a capable church planter the other day. He has been training others to do what he has done. He shared that he’s begun to realize that he could probably train an atheist to be a successful church planter. If leadership is merely a matter of techiques and strategies that are barely baptized versions of best business practices, where is the room for the surprises of God, for the power of God that can only be perfected in human weakness?

I long to be the kind of leader others will look to for spiritual guidance. I want my life to be so well-guided by God that I am able to guide others by experience.

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Morning Prayer: The Holy Spirit and Fire


Passage: Luke 3:15-22

First reading

John answered them all, “I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them. (Luke 3:16-18 NIV)

John exhorted the people and proclaimed to them good news. Exhortation is good news in that it is possible to change. I can be refined into the image of “the one more powerful” than me. There is freedom and life here.

Second reading

His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.” (Luke 3:17 NIV)

Wheat and waste. I feel a deep hunger to be wheat that is gathered up into the barn of Jesus. I want the chaff of my life to be burned with His holy fire. I feel grateful places of His refining work in my life, in our marriage, in my ministry. It is hard, painful and humbling. It is also leads to goodness, joy and being lifted into the Presence. I feel gratitude for these difficult gifts. I see new places of felt peace, joy and spiritual energy that are the fruit of this moment of our journey.

Third reading

And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them… And a voice came from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:18, 22 NIV)

I feel invited to pay attention for words of exhortation or good news today. Perhaps one of them will be the Father’s expression of love and pleasure.

Father, I welcome Your Spirit to open the ears and eyes of my heart to hear and see what You are giving to me. Thank You for Your great faithfulness.

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A Cure for Common Depression


“It is probable that the commonest of human ills is depression, and almost invariably depression has its roots in a field of vision entirely circumscribed by self. There is no cure that is better or quicker than the application of humour, which reduces what is seen to its right proportions, and extends the vision to a wider and more wholesome view.” (Morgan, Edmund R. Reginald Somerset Ward: His Life and Letters. London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., Ltd, 1963, p. 105.)

I don’t think Ward is talking about what we would see as chemical causes of depression. He speaks of the variety that is the fruit of a certain way of thinking or perspective. I have suffered often from such depression. In this place, Ward’s counsel proves helpful to me.

I become depressed when my field of vision is limited to my own thoughts, feelings, or experiences. In that small, self-conscious space, my thoughts often become more negative and dark. Humor has often been a way of opening up my perspective a bit to realize that my negative thoughts are not, in fact, the universe. They are simply thoughts. (I have not reached Bernard of Clairvaux’s fourth level of love in which we love ourselves for God’s sake. I long to think in such a way so as to see and value myself through the loving eyes of Jesus).

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Taking Every Thought Captive


What do I do with anxious, lustful or other unwelcome thoughts that surface when I’m praying, or worshipin

In chapter 4 of my book, An Unhurried Life, I talk about the practice of paying attention to our thoughts. Below is an early draft of a couple of paragraphs from that chapter:

There is a kind of practical “talking to myself” in learning to notice my thoughts. This practice has deep roots in the tradition of the desert fathers with their focus on seven (or eight) deadly thoughts. Their focus was more on the thoughts that lead us to sin rather than so much on the sins themselves.

Scripture invites me to “take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ” (2 Co 10:5), but that’s hard to do if I’m not even noticing my thoughts. When my thoughts are on auto-pilot rather than manual control, I find myself in places I really didn’t want to revisit. Some of my thoughts are my own. Some may be given me by the Spirit. Some may come from my enemy. When I notice my thoughts, paying attention to what I’m actually thinking, I can discern the likely source of these thoughts and decide whether I choose to act on them or resist them.

I may feel anxious, but I don’t have to become anxious that I’m anxious, piling worry about my worry onto my worry. (It’s a little silly when you see it like that). I don’t have to become angry that I’m angry, or fearful that I’m fearful. I can simply bring that thought into the loving, peaceful, patient presence of Jesus and realize that He is far more real than any one of my thoughts.

What negative thoughts have been pestering you like a toddler lately? How might you bring those childish thoughts into the presence of a loving Father?

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More Fruits of Solitude (Pt 2)


I’ve mentioned in this blog that I lead quite a few days of solitude and silence for Christian leaders every month. It is my most favorite and fruitful ministry. Sometimes these days are for an unrelated group who gather for a single day together. Sometimes it’s a leadership team from a particular Christian ministry. I’ve often said that one of the greatest “fringe benefits” of my ministry is that I have days like these regularly because my work is to provide them for others. When I lead these days, I often write in my journal during the time alone and quiet before God. Below are a few scattered notes from such a day a while back.

On distraction. I’ve discovered I haven’t much power over whether or not I will be distracted in these days alone with God. Noises or interruptions will come from outside of me. Thoughts or feelings will arise from within me. I don’t know how to stop this. What I do have some control over is how I respond or react to these involuntary distractions. I can choose to get wrapped up in solving, wrestling with or otherwise engaging them, or I can decide not to bite the bait and simply let them pass. It’s not as easy as it sounds, but it’s good work when I do it.

On the creative benefits of solitude with God. What have been some of the practical fruits of this regular practice of time alone and quiet before God? What good things have come for me or for others in them?

  • Creativity – drawings, poems, prose, songs.
  • Wisdom, insight and perspective.
  • Peace and rest.
  • A greater and simpler awareness of God with me.
  • A sense of fresh encounter with God
  • A sense of being loved and favored by God.
  • A heart at restful attention with God.
  • When shared with others, a deeper sense of community and unity, even with others who are very different from me.

On the Benedictine vow of stability. This vow is simply a way of saying that there is usually great virtue in staying put, rather than moving on. Do we need to hear this in our dramatically mobile culture? How many marriages have been abandoned that could instead now be much more fruitful through perseverance and willing work? How many have stepped away from one church fellowship just when conflict or challenge could have resulted in new places of rootedness in and reliance on Jesus?

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More Fruits of Solitude


Bethlehem, Church of the NativityOne of my favorite ministry opportunities is providing what a mentor, Wayne Anderson, called “EPC”s (Extended Personal Communion with God). I wrote about this in chapter 10 of An Unhurried Life. Recently, I led a day like this with a group of leaders. After a few hours alone and quiet with God, we came back together to debrief our experiences.

As I was listening to the creative and unique ways that God had been present to each one, I realized that what I enjoy far more than being a speaker or presenter is being a facilitator of vital encounters with Jesus. This skill is not so much about putting words together in a way that is entertaining, interesting or captivating. (I won’t discount that God often gives me a one-liner that seems to help others, but I enjoy those more when they come in an interactive moment rather than in a one-way lecture).

I really feel I’m at my best in those interactive moments like a debrief. Someone shares a story of their encounter with God, and a thought comes that seems to help put that encounter into some context, or helps others identify with and enter into it. It is these encounters and this interaction that seems to be a catalyst for people actually practicing the presence of Jesus rather than talking about his practice.

I like having unhurried time and space like a retreat where people open more to God, then I can come along and help them more deeply understand and appreciate those encounters.

Here’s a practical insight that came during this particular debrief. One of the participants shared that they felt drawn to begin fasting. I shared that when we practice disciplines of “not doing” something, like solitude (no company), silence (no conversation), fasting (no eating), secrecy (no seeking recognition for our good ) or simplicity (no unnecessary spending), it causes our desires to become focused. When the desire for conversation inevitably surfaces in the midst of silence, I can say, “I do want conversation, but I want Jesus more.” Or in solitude, I can say, “I do want company, but I want Jesus more.”

In fasting, this is where I learn deeply that we do not live only by the bread we eat, but by everything God communicates to us. “I do want food, but I want Jesus more.” Disciplines of abstinence bring focus to our desires. When I find my desires scattered here and there, it may be good to ask which disciplines of disengagement is Jesus inviting me to practice to bring focus to my desires.

 

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