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    Entries in Spiritual Disciplines (19)

    Wednesday
    May312017

    Book Review: Tish Harrison Warren's Liturgy of the Ordinary

    All too often I hear stories from Christians who experience life apart from the mystery and delight that flows from trusting in the promises of God’s ongoing, everyday presence and companionship. Daylight breaks and routines unfold until the moment the sun hides again beyond the horizon. Another day is put in the books. The calendar turns, and the years pass. After a while, life comes to be described as “just one damned thing after another.”

    Sadly, I have shared these assumptions about life, and God’s workings and ways within it, failing to perceive the unending possibilities immediately before me for love, grace, and the overwhelming tide of the holy.

    That is why it is so refreshing when I encounter a book like Tish Harrison Warren’s Liturgy of the Ordinary: Sacred Practices in Everyday Life. Warren, a priest in the Anglican Church in North America, has allowed the practice of Christian worship to reshape her imagination and adjust her eyesight, renewing her vision in the everyday. Through engaging storytelling, clear prose, and acute theological reflection, she invites us to see our days not as mundane and meaningless, but as the arena of the eternal and the sacred. We join God upon his playground, as well as in his workshop, and we are his friends and co-laborers. Our play and our work is not profane, but is the very place where our redemption is actualized.

    The structure of her book is very simple. Warren walks us through a single day, from waking until sleeping. She writes, “How I spend an ordinary day in Christ is how I will spend my Christian life.” She considers her everyday chores and routines, things like making the bed and brushing her teeth, and how these actions remind us of how our lives are shaped, and how we are mortal, embodied creatures. She considers our need for confession, faces the reality of friction in our closest relationships, and contemplates the gift that is a good meal. She takes up the bane that email can be, and often is, and reframes it as but one aspect of vocational holiness. She reflects on time, community, pleasure, and sabbath and explores their meaning for us as human beings. There are no empty calories in this book. Every sentence is a hearty morsel, amounting to a wholesome meal.

    The book also includes a bonus: questions for discussion to accompany each chapter, as well as suggested practices to help the reader become more aware of God’s presence.

    I rarely dish out such high praise, even for books that I like. But I found this book so surprisingly fresh, and so creative, that I cannot help but gush. Consider your days, and, like Warren, allow the practice of worship to reshape how it is that you see. Discover that God’s holiness is abundant and present in every task that we undertake as his servants and friends. God does not remake us into the image of his Son apart from the kitchen, the cubicle, or the park. He meets us where we are. He works in our midst. He speaks in a thousand tongues, and with no sound at all.

    Attune your senses, and open your heart. God is present and active, unfolding his mystery in this moment, and the next. Warren can help us pay heed to the Spirit, to respond to the holy, and to walk with the Son. Take up and read. This is a great book.

    Thursday
    Feb232017

    Picking Henbit

    It is late February in Central Texas and spring has arrived. A mild winter and warmer weather have sped along new growth, not only of green grass and budding bushes, but of weeds. Yard work begins.

    Over the past few weeks I have peered out my back window and observed my yard being overtaken by clover, chickweed, and henbit. I ignored these weeds as long as I could. These invasive weeds lack strong roots, but tend to emerge and overtake the St. Augustine grass I would like to see flourish. The weeds spread their leaves over the top of the lawn, blocking the sunlight my grass needs to thrive. Without an intervention the underlying grasses will wither and die.

    During the past two days I have been at work, pulling up the weeds. Cultivating a garden and tending the soul are close cousins. As I have yanked, gathered, and disposed of these unwelcome invaders, I have reflected upon the spiritual life.

    As in the emergence of an invasive weed, it is often true that we do not always cultivate those things that crowd out the good growth we desire in our own lives. They just take root and begin to grow. We passively let them emerge and unfold. We pause, reflect, and observe the beginnings of something that we know is a problem and could later become an epidemic, yet we delay action. We wait. Or we become consumed by our commitments and the cares of life, even while knowing that the best time to yank a weed is before it goes to seed. 

    Good growth takes tending. It takes attention. And it requires routine. In the spiritual life, we gather with the saints. We cultivate friendships that offer wisdom, accountability, encouragement, and challenge. We spend time reading the Bible, and we abide by the law of love in our quest to be found faithful to the Word. We pray, daily, and listen to the Lord. We worship God. These habits draw our attention to the voice of the God who speaks, who draws our attention to that clover over yonder, or that henbit right there, which, left alone and untended, may eventually occlude the Light that is Christ. 

    Tend your yard, yes, and may it flourish. Better yet, tend your life.

    Saturday
    Nov082014

    Book Review: Nathan Foster's The Making of an Ordinary Saint

    When I was a child and our family went on a trip, my siblings and I played I-Spy, conducted scavenger hunts, or enjoyed the License Plate Game or Hey Cow. We read books or told stories. We asked our parents questions along the way concerning what we saw, when we would arrive, and what we could expect.

    Traveling with God is similar in that there are stories to be told, activities to be engaged, and guides to help us along the way. For Nathan Foster and his journey with God, his activities have been the disciplines, his stories have been a mix of biblical narrative and unfolding personal experience, and his closest guide has been his father, Richard Foster, best known for his book Celebration of Discipline, a contemporary classic of Christian spirituality first published in 1978.

    Celebration has sold millions of copies, and first impacted my life a little over a decade ago.

    Now, Nathan Foster is leaving his own legacy of wisdom and Christian witness. The Making of an Ordinary Saint: My Journey from Frustration to Joy with the Spiritual Disciplines (BakerBooks, 2014) is an immersion in the disciplines, a revisiting of the teachings offered in Richard’s Celebration, and an honest recounting of Nathan’s personal experience seeking growth in the way of Jesus.

    Nathan explores twelve disciplines: submission, fasting, study, solitude, meditation, confession, simplicity, service, prayer, guidance, worship, and celebration. For each discipline, he quotes his father. Then, he tells his story.

    Nathan is forthright about his frustrations, however grand, and his progress, however slight. For those that assume the disciplines might be easier for some rather than others, they will discover this is not the case. They are a challenge for us all, regardless of autobiography. But they nevertheless have their reward, and are possible for us thanks to the grace given us in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ. This is what makes Nathan’s story enjoyable: we walk alongside him as he struggles, experience his disappointments, and celebrate his gains.

    Among the stories Nathan tells, I particularly enjoyed the lessons he learned while on his bike, his discoveries while memorizing the Bible, his willingness to submit to his children, and his disorientation when suspending his use of technology. I also enjoyed his brief historical sketches of Christian saints (Laubach, Woolman, Buechner), a subtle form of contrast and encouragement. Nathan seemed to be suggesting that we all have a long way to go, but through persistence and trust in God’s grace, we can all advance in holiness.

    If you enjoy memoir and have followed the spiritual formation movement, this book will be of interest to you. Nathan Foster is a good storyteller, and his struggle with the disciplines is reflective of what many experience today.

    I found his story to be encouraging and insightful, hopeful and invitational.

    For all seeking to grow as disciples of Jesus, the road will be marked with suffering but also with deep joy. Nathan Foster is walking that road, and calling us to join him along the way and discover the grace God has for us. May God honor his witness.

    Note: I received this work in exchange for a review.

    Friday
    Jun202014

    Why is Prayer a Struggle?

    Here are some excellent thoughts from Ronald Rolheiser:

    We are not, by choice or ideology, a culture set against solitude, interiority, and prayer. Nor are we, in my opinion, more malicious, more pagan, or afraid of interiority than past ages. Where we differ from the past is not so much in badness as in busyness. Most days, we don't pray simply because we don't get around to it.

    Perhaps the best metaphor to describe our hurried and distracted lives is that of a car wash. When you pull up to a car wash, you are instructed to leave your motor running, to take your hands off the steering wheel, and to keep your foot off the brake. The idea is that the machine itself will suck you through.

    For most of us, that's just what our typical day does to us--it sucks us through. We have smartphones and radios that stimulate us before we are fully awake. Many of us are texting friends, checking Facebook and e-mails, watching the news, or listening to music or talk radio before we even shower or eat breakfast. The drive to work follows the same pattern: stimulated and preoccupied, we listen to the radio, talk on our cell phones, and plan the day's agenda. We return home to television, conversation, activities, and preoccupations of all kinds. Eventually we go to bed, where perhaps we read or watch a bit more TV. Finally, we fall asleep. When, in all of this, did we take time to think, to pray, to wonder, to be restful, to be grateful for life, for love, for health, for God? The day just sucked us through.

    Moreover, prayer is not easy because we are greedy for experience. The spiritual writer Henri Nouwen put this well: "I want to pray," he once said, "but I also don't want to miss out on anything--television, movies, socializing with friends, drinking in the world." Because we don't want to miss out on any experience, prayer is truly a discipline. When we sit or kneel in prayer, our natural craving for experience feels starved and begins to protest.

    Ironically, most of us crave solitude. As our lives grow more pressured, as we grow more tired, and as we begin to talk more about burnout, we fantasize about solitude. We imagine it as a peaceful, quiet place, where we are walking by a lake, watching a sunset, or smoking a pipe by the fireplace. But even here, many times we make solitude yet another activity, something we do.

    Solitude, however, is a form of awareness. It's a way of being present and perceptive within all of life. It's having a dimension of reflectiveness in our daily lives that brings with it a sense of gratitude, appreciation, peacefulness, enjoyment, and prayer. It's the sense, within ordinary life, that life is precious, sacred, and enough.

    How do we foster solitude? How do we get a handle on life so it doesn't just suck us through? How do we begin to lay a foundation for prayer in our lives?

    The first step is to "put out into the deep" by remaining quietly in God's presence in solitude, in silence, in prayer. If this is your first time doing this, set aside fifteen minutes for prayer. In time, you might be able to manage thirty minutes.

    Remember: Your heart is made to rest in God.

    If fifteen minutes sounds like a big step, start with one minute. Then stretch it to two. Then three. Then five.

    Create space for solitude. Slow down. Pray. Rest in God.

    To learn more, pick up Rolheiser's book, Prayer: Our Deepest Longing.

    Wednesday
    May212014

    Prayer is Primal Speech

    Growing up as part of congregation, I grew up around people saying prayers. It was strange speech. In Sunday School and worship, before meals and at family gatherings, a respected elder would call upon everyone to pray. Someone would lead us in a petition for help, blessing, or thanksgiving. We would pray for neighbors, friends, family, community, church, or nation. Prayer was modeled before it was ever taught.

    Only in retrospect can I look back and call such speech strange. But the day eventually came when I was not expected to listen and attune my heart and mind to our collective petition, but to give voice and speak to God on behalf of the community. To my recollection, the earliest opportunities came as part of a Sunday School. I do not remember if I was an eager volunteer as a young boy. But I do remember that I was one of the few willing to give it a try during the middle and high school years. When a teacher asks for a volunteer and no one speaks up, someone has to step up and do everyone a favor, for we all know that until someone prays, we won’t be dismissed. And after you pray once, your peer group begins to look to you for leadership, since you’ve braved the voyage of prayer before and achieved safe passage.

    My first forays into prayer were not undertaken with a sure knowledge or unshakeable confidence. I simply spoke from my heart and relied upon the patterns of speech that I had received. Every prayer I recall being offered in the Baptist congregation of my youth was of the spontaneous sort. Scripture may have been quoted, but formality was not present or expected. Simple speech. I was trained to pray with simple speech.

    But as the years passed I realized I had much to learn. Prayer in public was one thing. Prayer alone, in the hidden place was quite another. What was I to say? When I gave voice to the cry of a community, I could articulate hopes and desires, or fall back on the reliable petitions of the people of God in all times and places. But when I was alone, I was not sure where to begin, or what to say in a world filled with trouble, speaking to a God who surely had other, more important matters to attend to than the trivial concerns of little old me. 

    Things changed when I offered a simple prayer, asking God to teach me to pray. That was my beginning. When I was alone before God I turned my being toward the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and began with that bit of simple speech, “Teach me to pray.”

    On some days, that was all that could be said. At other times, my private prayers, either written or spoken, stretched a little further. It was like I had discovered a muscle I had never really flexed, so the least bit of activity was a challenge. But I persisted in the knowledge that the strengthening of this muscle was vital for the well-being of the entire body, my entire self. No transplants were available. I was going to have to practice, to exercise, and build endurance.

    Eugene Peterson* was one of my guides along the way. He says it well:

    [W]hen we engage in the act of prayer itself, there is no preparing, no getting the right words, no posture to take, no mood to assume. We simply do it. Prayer is primal speech. We do not first learn how to do it, and then proceed to do it; we do it, in the doing we find out what we are doing, and then deepen and mature in it.

    That’s where we begin. We “simply do it.”

    Along the way I’ve figured a few things out. I have learned that God’s greatness is found in his lowliness. God can give ear to the concerns of “little old me,” because God is “great old God.” I’ve learned that my small, trivial concerns are not unworthy of a true friend, and I’ve become aware that it is self-centeredness and attempts at self-preservation that have kept me from crying out for help. I think I can handle my problems. I think I am the center of my own universe.

    Through prayer, God teaches us that this is not true. Through prayer, we suspect we will discover the One who rightfully belongs at the center of our lives, and of course, this displaces us. We think we belong at the center. Therefore we resist. Eugene Peterson states:

    In prayer we intend to leave the world of anxieties and enter a world of wonder. We decide to leave an ego-centered world and enter a God-centered world. We will leave a world of problems and enter a world of mystery. But it is not easy. We are used to anxieties, egos, and problems; we are not used to wonder, God, and mystery.

    I have also learned to rely on the Psalms. The psalmists have become my certified personal medical and training staff. Why?  Many of the Psalms are laments, and our world is filled with trouble. Each cry of despair only confirms that those who have been faithful through the centuries have been acquainted with grief, just like their Lord. But there are also psalms of petitions and celebration and remembrance. The Psalms teach us to pray, and to do so within the community of the prayerful. In joining my voice to theirs, God helps me discover my own deep need for salvation, redemption, healing, and restoration. I discover who God has made me to be, and who God is calling me to become. In prayer, my life is aligned with God’s life. My deepest desires are uncovered, revealed, and fulfilled.

    Peterson again:

    The Psalms train us to pray with others who have prayed, and are praying: put our knees on the level with other bent knees; lift our hands in concert with other lifted hands; join our voices in lament and praise with other voices who weep and laugh. The primary use of prayer is not for expressing ourselves, but in becoming ourselves, and we cannot do that alone.

    Peterson insightfully adds that “We must pray who we actually are, not who we think we should be,” and that “The regular place of prayer is the ordinary life.” The Psalms reinforce this discovery, and as we learn their rhythms and patterns, and adapt them to our own realities, they train us to rely on God in the same fashion as those saints of old.

    There are still lessons to learn. My training is not complete. But if prayer is something you are seeking to learn, begin, even if your first efforts appear to you as weak. The Word precedes your words. It is God who calls us to pray. When you cannot pray for yourself, rely on others to give voice to your cry, either in the Psalms, or in the congregation.

    “The Spirit searches all things,” Paul writes, “even the deep things of God.” (1 Cor. 2:10b) The Spirit searches our hearts, and reveals to us the unfathomable nature of God’s love. Prayer is our response. Let us learn from the One who will teach us.

    *All quotations are taken from Eugene Peterson’s Answering God: The Psalms as Tools for Prayer.