Have You Thought About Your Death Lately?

DEATHAn effective way to become open to the ways of God is to reflect on our own mortality. At my age I do it increasingly! But at whatever age we are, young or old, we miss a lot if we refuse to practice ‘death-awareness.’ We cannot do this by viewing death with objective detachment. Rather, we need to accept the inevitability and unpredictability of our own death as subjective truth. Our secular culture would have us deny anticipation of death, with the consequence that this repression leaves us with a shallow view of our own self-hood. But if we can live with a constant awareness of death, we will treasure all the more deeply that our identity is committed eternally into the hands of God for safe-keeping. How richly secure we become with this assurance as the apostle shared with Timothy, his son in the faith (2 Tim. 1:12).

James M. Houston, Joyful Exiles, 57.

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Are we no more to you than a wispy dream, no more than a blade of grass that springs up gloriously with the rising sun and is cut down without a second thought? Your anger is far and away too much for us; we’re at the end of our rope. You keep track of all our sins; every misdeed since we were children is entered in your books. All we can remember is that frown on your face. Is that all we’re ever going to get? We live for seventy years or so (with luck we might make it to eighty), And what do we have to show for it? Trouble. Toil and trouble and a marker in the graveyard. Who can make sense of such rage, such anger against the very ones who fear you? Oh! teach us to live well! Teach us to live wisely and well (Ps. 90:5-12) (The Message).

Illustration/Art Courtesy of Getty Images

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Are You Able to “Be Still”?

One of the reasons most of us are limited in our ability to be present to others and ourselves is that we possess so little inner stillness. We are too full to be truly still–full of distractions, preoccupations, plans, worries, regrets, things that need to be rehearsed, and things that need to be reviewed. Our inner world is a churning cauldron–endless motion and endless noise. Birds in cities often respond to the incessant urban noise by imitating the sounds of the city, not simply singing their songs of nature. Like birds, we also adapt to our environments. We allow the external noise to mask our inner noise.

Sometimes we say that we long for silence and wish we could be still. We may go to a retreat center or some other place where we can be alone, but when we do we quickly discover that the inner noise and lack of stillness has followed us. Our busyness–which we often blame for our lack of inner stillness–is not the cause of the problem but a way of avoiding it. While we may be attracted to solitude and silence, we also fear them because with each comes an inevitable confrontation with everything that we are trying to avoid. External silence confronts us with the realities of our inner world.

Blaise Pascal, a French mathematician and Christian mystic, said that all human evil comes from people’s inability to sit still in a room. Peace with myself in stillness is the precondition of being able to be genuinely present to and live peaceably with others. It is me that I want to run from when I am unable to remain at peace in the stillness, silence, and solitude of that room that Pascal is watching. The inner demons that surface when I am still, alone, and quiet must ultimately be confronted if I am to be able to be present to myself and others.

Solitude, silence, and stillness each have an inner and an outer dimension. The outer expression of solitude is aloneness. Some times of being alone are essential if we are to cultivate inner solitude, but they are not sufficient. It is inner solitude that is essential–not simply a place where we are alone but a place where we can be present to our self. Inner solitude is a state of peaceful being with myself.

Silence also has an outer and inner expression. One can be externally silent by not talking. While all of us could probably benefit from more of this external silence (those of us who live by our words probably more so than most!), being mute does not translate into inner silence. In fact, we quickly become aware of the difference between inner and outer silence after a day or so of a silent retreat when we may be vocally quiet while the noise from our inner world is deafening. Inner silence is not just refraining from speech. It is being attentive. With inner silence I move from talking to listening. Most essentially, it is a posture of being open and alert.

Inner stillness is the most difficult of the three, and it is the most important if we are to learn to be fully present in the moment to our self and others. Outer stillness is simply not moving. It is being able to sit in a chair in a room–at least for a while–without getting up and walking around. While this is almost impossible for some, inner stillness–just like inner silence and inner solitude–is challenging for everyone. Inner stillness is letting go. Rather than trying to drive away the distractions, the posture of inner stillness is simply to release them. Being still is, therefore, being free from the distraction of my attachments. It is a state of detachment from all that moves me off center and out of alignment.

We cannot truly become still at our center until we deal with that which pulls us off center. By far the most significant contributors to this decentering are our inordinate attachments and disordered desires . . . . Desiring anything or anyone more than God robs us our stillness and makes us present only to our cravings and the illusions they spin . . . . Psalm 46, thought to be possibly written by the prophet Isaiah, presents the following invitation from the mouth of Yahweh: “Be still, and know that I am God” (Ps. 46:10 ASV). The one whose name is “I Am” and whose existence makes possible our own invites us to a knowing that can be found only in stillness. This stillness is letting go of striving. It is being present to our selves and to God. It is a state of being , not simply an achievement of doing or not-doing.

David G. Benner, Soulful Spirituality, 146-149.

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How to Become a Better Listener

holy_listening_1503_webpgListening that evokes spiritually free speech in the other

  • does not interrupt but rather creates lots of space for the person to discover and express what they need to say
  • refrains from using evaluative phrases such as “Oh, that’s good” or “How terrible!”–responses that merely communicate how we feel about what they are sharing, rather than giving them the opportunity to describe in depth how they are responding
  • waits on what the Spirit desires to reveal rather than rushing in with one’s own thoughts and interpretations
  • asks questions that continually seek to unlock the deeper reality of the other person’s experience, gently offering them permission to explore, own, and integrate their experiences into their spiritual experience–questions like “What was that like for you?” “How did you experience God (or not) in the midst of that experience?” “What happens when you pray about that?” “What questions does that raise for you?”
  • encourages the person toward mature faith–in other words, to discover God’s presence and trust God’s purposes in all aspects of life (and they themselves have to discover it; we cannot force this kind of insight upon them)
  • invites the other into creative participation in God’s redemptive purposes in the world: a greater connectedness with what God is doing in the world, a clearer sense of one’s place in it, and a generous response to God’s calling according to the gifts one has been given

Ruth Haley Barton, “Emmaus among Us: Listening to God on Behalf of Others,” Conversations 13:1, 36.

artwork Courtesy of anselmianum.com

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Distinguishing Features of Christian Cynicism

Many Christians stand at the edge of cynicism, struggling with a defeated weariness. Their spirits have begun to deaden, but unlike the cynic, they’ve not lost hope. My friend Bryan summarized it this way: “I think we have built up a scar tissue from our frustrations, and we don’t want to expose ourselves anymore. Fear constrains us.”

Cynicism and defeated weariness have this in common: They both question the active goodness of God on our behalf. . . .   If Satan can’t stop you from praying , then he will try to rob the fruit of praying by dulling your soul. . . .  Because cynicism sees what is “really going on,” it feels real, authentic. That gives cynicism as elite status since authenticity is one of the last remaining public virtues in our culture….Cynicism begins with the wry assurance that everyone has an angle. Behind every silver lining is a cloud. The cynic is always observing, critiquing, but never engaged, loving, and hoping. . . .

To be cynical is to be distant. While offering a false intimacy of being “in the know,” cynicism actually destroys intimacy. It leads to a creeping bitterness that can deaden and even destroy the spirit.

Cynics imagine that they are disinterested observers on a quest for authenticity. They assume that they are humble because they offer nothing. In fact, they feel deeply superior because they think that they see through everything.

C.S. Lewis pointed out that if you see through everything, you eventually see nothing.

. . . you cannot go on “explaining away” for ever: you will find that you have explained explanation itself away. You cannot go on “seeing through” things for ever. The whole point of seeing through something is to see something through it. It is good that the window should be transparent, because the street or garden beyond it is opaque. How if you saw through the garden too? . . . If you see through everything, then everything is transparent. But a wholly transparent world is an invisible world. To “see through” all things is the same as not to see.

Lewis said that what was required was a restoration of the innocent eye, an eye that can see with wonder. That is the eye of a child.

While purporting to “see through” others facades, cynics lack purity of heart. A significant source of cynicism is the fracture between my heart and my behavior. It goes something like this: My heart gets out of tune with God, but life goes on. So I continue to perform and say Christian things, but they are just words. I talk about Jesus without the presence of Jesus. There is a disconnect between what I present and who I am. My words sound phony, so other’s words sound phony too. In short, my empty religious performance leads me to think that everyone is phony. The very thing I am doing, I accuse others of doing. Adding judgment to hypocrisy breeds cynicism.

Paul E. Miller, A Praying Life: Connecting with God in a Distracting World, (IVP 2009) 77-92.

Photo Courtesy of www.gracesmith.co.uk

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A Snapshot of Pastoral Fakery

nate-larkin-videoOnly God can create a real person–a complete person, body, soul, and spirit–but God has given each of us the ability to create personalities. Sometimes a child who has been subjected to severe emotional or sexual abuse will use this God-given ability to create multiple personalities, independent personas that hide from each other. Most of us merely use this power to develop a sort of interior theatrical troupe, whose members take turns at center stage.

One day during my mid-twenties, I was fiddling with the radio in my car when I bumped into a motivational speaker addressing a large crowd. He was telling his audience how to get a better job. “You need to go into that interview with confidence,” he declared with great confidence. His voice dropped to a whisper, “Are you afraid to go in there and compete for the job? Well, I have a solution for you.” He paused for a moment and then shouted, “Don’t go! Send somebody else! Figure out what kind of person they want to hire, then create that person and send him to the interview!” The room erupted with applause.

I followed his advice and found that it works. I am capable of creating a convincing alter ego, a persona, and that false self can get a job quite easily. It’s just hard for a persona to keep a job. Sooner or later, people catch on.

I’ve actually gone to church on mornings when the sanctuary was full and none of the members were there. Everyone had sent somebody else. Heck, I’ve usually sent somebody else to do the preaching.

I was an adolescent when I first realized I am not always the same person, that there are several versions of me who appear and disappear in response to my surroundings. In those early days, the cast included Church Nate and School Nate, Home Nate and All Alone Nate, and they were definitely different people.

The first time I laid eyes on Allie, we were in church. I was home from college. She was a brand-new believer, radiant with the beauty of newfound faith. I promptly introduced her to Church Nate, and she fell in love with the guy. Church Nate can be quite charming and he showed a chaste concern for this new sister in Christ. Before long she found herself imagining a lifetime with him, serving the Lord together and talking everyday about God.

A year later I introduced her to Date Nate. That encounter did not go nearly as well. Allie thought Date Nate was a jerk. Personally, I liked the guy, but I reluctantly sent him into exile  and brought in Mate Nate instead.

After we were married, and School Nate and Church Nate went off to seminary, Mate Nate more or less disappeared. Allie couldn’t figure out what had happened to him. She still misses him sometimes. 

Later when I left the pastoral ministry and went into business, I developed a new persona: Mag Nate. His job was to develop business for the engineering company, and he sold himself beautifully. It was exhausting work, though, and despite his success, Mag Nate was burnt out in just a few years.

That’s the biggest problem with personas. A false self can never rest. It looks like a real person, but a persona is actually just a hologram, a projected image, and it requires constant energy to keep that image up. A persona is afraid to go to sleep, because to sleep is to die.

Also, because it has no inner reality, a persona must always be focused outward. It must always be scanning the audience, responding to the whims of the watchers, adapting to their shifting moods. 

A person is hollow, and is therefore plagued by a constant empty feeling. It may try to fill that inner void with any number of things–applause, excitement, food, sex, romance, knowledge, money, just to name a few–but the emptiness never goes away. 

The religious persona is probably the most tragic figure of all, because it recognizes spiritual realities that it can only pretend to experience. A persona can perform, but it cannot love. It can know excitement, but can never experience joy. It can feel numbness, but it can never know peace. A persona can be persistent but not patient, subtle but not gentle, sweet but not good. It can feel fervor, but it can never know faith. It can be modest but not humble. It may starve itself by sheer force of will, but a persona can never achieve self-control because it has no continuing self. The biblical word for persona is flesh. And the Bible makes it plain that no matter how spiritual or religious it appears, flesh is always hostile to God. It may mimic righteousness. It may feign repentance. But flesh cannot see God, cannot know God, and cannot love God. And it cannot worship God, because God is Spirit, and those who worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth.

Nate Larkin, Samson and the Pirate Monks: Calling Men to Authentic Brotherhood, 89-91.

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Honest Doubt

Doubt has been my off-again, on-again companion for most of my life, from mid-teen years till now. As I grow older, a quieter, deeper kind of doubt seems more on-again. I wonder: what am I firmly persuaded is true, especially in my worst moments, moments of fear, of disappointment, of terrifying uncertainty, and of paralyzing doubt?

I find comfort in John Owen’s words written by the great Puritan pastor and theologians several centuries ago. As Christians grow older, Owen said, their fire often flickers, their confidence often fades, their hope often dims. But fear not, Owen counseled. God’s deepening work continues. Do I believe that? I am not always sure.

I want to walk through the doorway of doubt to discover that living truth. To deny doubt will deny me that opportunity.

Just recently, I felt nudged through that door when I saw something in a familiar passage I hadn’t noticed before. When Jesus feed the five thousand, he distributed the multiplying bread and fish to his disciples, who ate the food for themselves first, then served others. Looking back on forty-plus years of counseling, writing, and teaching. I am now seeing that I’ve spent a lot time in the kitchen preparing meals of truth, then only nibbling on bits of food before I carry full plates to others.

No wonder I doubt whether God’s provisions are proper nourishing my soul. They aren’t, because I’ve not taken the time to eat them, to digest them, and to relax in God’s presence with gratitude for what he has given me to enjoy. Perhaps my ongoing doubts, coupled with worsening fatigue, need claiming as God’s nudging me to do what I’ve done so little over my years of active ministry, to come to his table and respond to his invitation to delight myself “in rich food” (Isa. 55:2).

Larry Crabb, “Growing Older: Struggling with Doubt, Alive in Community, Moving toward Wisdom,” Conversations 12:1, Spring/Summer 2014, 41-42.

Artwork: “John the Baptist in Prison,” Juan Fernández de Navarrete (1526-1579)

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Addiction is Religious to the Core

seek_therapy_for_sex_and_internet_porn_addictionThe reason surrender forms such an important part of 12-step spiritualities such as Alcoholics Anonymous is that control is a foundational dynamic of addictions. Our real addiction is not to things like alcohol, drugs, or pornography but to control. We desperately try to control our feelings, our impulses, our selves. We use substances and ritualized behaviors as ways of distracting ourselves from what we seek to avoid–our failure, shame, and brokenness. The things to which we seem to be addicted are the masks behind which we hide our real addiction. What we are most deeply addicted to is the illusion of control. We are all addicts. We are all addicted to playing god. This is the religious core of addiction–any addiction.

Being human involves enormous vulnerability and risk. Often, therefore, we choose the bondage of addiction over the anxiety and freedom that comes with living fully alive, fully awake, and fully aware. The primary function of any addiction is to numb and desensitize. Task number one is to keep us asleep and unaware. Regardless of whether our addictive behaviors revolve around food, excessive work or exercise, or sex, the goal is to anesthetize us to the terrors of real living in the face of the unavoidable mystery of being human. It is this terro that we most want to control and from which we most want to escape. The demon in the dark of our inner basement is nothing more or less than our fear of being fully alive.

This fear makes it hard for us to accept our finitude. The illusion of control and the possibility of managing life as opposed to living it keeps us forever trying to get it right or, if we cannot do this, at least to fix things that go wrong. It keeps us saying, “I can,” when the truth would be to acknowledge “I can’t.” It keeps us pretending that we are god rather than putting our trust in something or someone greater than our ego-self.

Addictions have one more important function. Not only do they distract us from such things as the existential terror of living and our agenda of control, but they also mask a most surprising longing–a longing to surrender. This deep desire is, of course, opposed by an often equally strong wish to avoid surrender. But deep within us we are aware that the ego is a usurper. Somehow we know that we are neither the center of the universe nor should ego be the center of our being. At some deep level of spirit we know that we are meant to live in alignment with forces transcendent to our self. We long to be able to face the uncertainty and uncontrollability of life with confidence and with a sense of safety that can never be delivered by the inflated ego pretending to be god. We long to be able to put our trust in someone or something greater than us.

The truth is that we must all surrender to something or someone. To refuse to find our place in relation to that which transcends the ego is to surrender to addiction and to the illusion of being in control. If we do not become free in relation to the something or someone larger than our self, we become unfree in relation to tyrannizing powers  within our self that we have inflated to godlike proportions.

David G. Benner, Soulful Spirituality, 159-160.

Photo Courtesy of expertbeacon.com


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Spiritual Formation: How Is Your Church Doing?

EP-708139781.jpg&updated=201208141041&MaxW=800&maxH=800&updated=201208141041&noborderThere is as wide a difference in how local churches are doing at facilitating spiritual formation as there is in how individual families are doing at raising healthy children. Some are doing better than others; all have their particular strengths and weaknesses. That said, I do think churches in general are struggling for clarity about what spiritual transformation is and how it happens in the life of person. There is still a bias toward assuming that if one is attending church services regularly, participating in a small group, serving with one’s gifts, and tithing faithfully they are transforming. This is decidedly not the case.

Many churches are also struggling to know what it means to “bring” spiritual formation to the corporate (community) setting and have given little thought as to how to resource all stages of the faith journey. Some are very good at evangelizing and resourcing those who are in the seeking phase of their faith journey while others are very good at resources and discipling young Christians who are new to the faith. Some tend to be oriented towards
providing solid teaching and other resources for those who are farther along on the on the journey; most do not know what to do with people who are experiencing the dark night of the soul and, in fact, it is at this stage of the spiritual journey that many faithful church-goers drop out.

In addition, some churches minister more effectively to one generation or another, freely acknowledging that this is their calling and passion. Others just keep doing what they have always done without giving any attention at all to generational differences and how those differences might affect the ways in which they encourage and foster spiritual formation in that generation. Obviously, for a church to effectively facilitate spiritual formation, it needs to be a place where all God’s children—no matter what stage they are in—can find nurture and sustenance.

A recent Barna survey found that a majority of self-identified Christians today (52 percent) believe there is much more to the Christian life than what they have experienced, and 46 percent say their life has not changed at all as a result of going to church. There is no doubt that people in our culture today are spiritually savvy and have many other options besides the church for meeting their need and desire for spiritual transformation. These statistics and my own experiences of working closely with many Christians relative to their spiritual life suggests that the church has real work to do in learning how to facilitate spiritual formation effectively at all stages of faith.

Ruth Haley Barton, “Spiritual Formation in the Church,” Journal of Spiritual Formation & Soul Care, 7:2 (2014), 300-301.

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Shall We Fake It Til We Make It?

If moral development does progress in stages . . . , how can moral educators properly integrate shame and honor, and approval and disapproval from others, into the process of moral habituation without letting hypocrisy or fakery creep in and . . . corrupt the learner’s efforts? Is hypocrisy a necessary stage in progress toward virtue? Or can we distinguish cases of sheer fakery in virtue from cases in which we act virtuously, aspiring to be the good persons we are not yet but wish to become? . . . when behavior becomes habitual, we easily “live into” our disguises and personas, good or bad. If we project an image of ourselves long enough, our personas begin to feel like the real deal. Far enough into such a life, it might be difficult for the actor herself to tell what is true, because the lines between the self she consistently displays and her inner self have become blurred. Has she become the self outwardly shown, or is she so deceived or confused about her own motives that she can no longer distinguish the two? What begins as a deception of others becomes self-deception. Our vainglory not only blocks others’ knowledge of us; it also obscures our self-knowledge–knowledge required for self-examination and confession, practices essential to spiritual formation.

N.T. Wright addresses . . . hypocrisy . . . in his book After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters. He is . . . speaking to Christians who criticize the formality and fakery involved in following God’s rules for Christ-like living when you don’t feel like it. These Christian critics [prefer] that we just confess how messed up our motives are and ask for forgiveness and quit the whole program of hypocritical pretense to holiness. Wright acknowledges the worry: “We often use the phrase ‘putting on,’ of course, in terms of people pretending to be something they are not. The phrase ‘putting it on’ is a bit of a sneer. ‘You’re just putting it on,’ we say to someone apparently feigning deep emotion; ‘you don’t really feel like that.’ Our culture, soaked in romanticism and existentialism, is quick to spot and laugh at hypocrisy.” But Wright continues by pointing out that it’s a mistake to condemn every form of “putting on” as hypocrisy. How else can we understand the Apostle Paul when he commands the church to “put on the new self” and to “clothe yourself with Christlikeness,” a likeness he sums up in a daunting list of virtues–compassion, kindness, faithfulness, patience, gentleness, and love (e.g., in Colossians 3)? “Acting as if” cannot simply be conflated with hypocrisy; rather, . . . it is a process of moral formation in which we deliberately practice actions that we endorse, hoping that they will eventually feel natural and gradually become a part of our character. This is a natural and familiar part of the learning process, not something morally alarming. The end of the process is a moral character that feels like “second nature.”

Gregg Ten Elshof makes a similar point . . .

When I imitate something or someone, I adopt patterns of being that are external to me, foreign and unnatural . . . . Over time, that which was at first artificial, foreign, and unnatural takes root, and I am transformed . . . . This isn’t hypocrisy; we don’t act contrary to our impulses in an attempt to fake anyone out. We act contrary to our impulses because we wish to be retrained. We wish to be something other than we we are today.

Notably, he argues, this form of training–“transformation through imitation”–is “unavailable to the hyper-authentic,” for you can never act out of step with your current feelings, you will never be able to discipline the immature desires that are now a part of your character. Complete consistency of character, which allows only actions perfectly in step with one’s current dispositions and feelings, thoughts and imagination, leaves no room for development and growth.

But here’s an additional worry: If teachers, mentors, and pastors offer encouragement for behavior that’s imitative and not yet genuine, are they thereby rewarding a lack of virtue . . . ? Again, that seems too strong. Encouragement helps the process of imitation and habituation to be successful; sometimes it is even necessary to keep us practicing. The encouragement doesn’t have to be untruthful; what’s important is that it be offered in such a way that the learner believes she can make further progress. In fact, the existentialist philosopher Soren Kierkegaard (1813-1855) claims that this kind of encouragement is an essential feature of love; it builds others up precisely by imagining better character in them than they presently have, and “loves them up” into that image. The encourager imitates God, who loves us while we were yet sinners, and yet calls us to holiness.

Rebecca Konyndyk Deyoung, Vainglory: The Forgotten Vice, 66-67.


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Who’s That in the Mirror?

All of us! Nothing between us and God, our faces shining with the brightness of his face. And so we are transfigured much like the Messiah, our lives gradually becoming brighter and more beautiful as God enters our lives and we become like him (2 Cor. 3:18) (MSG)

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Look daily into Christ’s face and the reflection you receive back will be an unblemished image of yourself.

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Place your mind in the mirror of eternity;
Place your soul in the splendor of glory;
Place your heart in the figure of the divine substance;
And, through contemplation, transform your entire being into the image of the Divine One himself.
– Clare of Assisi to Agnes of Prague (1253)

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But we all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit
(2 Cor. 3:18) (NAS)

Photo Courtesy of devotionsfordisciples.com

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