An Answer to Spiritual Darkness

Several months ago, a friend and I read and discussed Jacqueline Winspear’s Pardonable Lies, third in the Maisie Dobbs novel series. Maisie is a survivor of World War I in which she served as a nurse providing aid and relief to the most seriously wounded soldiers in France. Ten years later, she makes her living as a psychologist and investigator. But she is not without her own psychological challenges and areas of spiritual darkness.

When those challenges become disruptive, Maisie is wise enough to take those matters to her spiritual guide, a man named Dr. Basil Khan, who had taught her early-on that “seeing was not necessarily something we did with the eyes; there was a depth of vision to be gained from stillness.”

That practice of stillness gets Maisie through most of what comes to her in her daily life, but there are still times of serious challenge. Khan’s counsel to Maisie is: “. . . when a mountain appears on the journey, we try to go to the left, then to the right; we try to find the easy way to navigate our way back to the easier path. But the mountain is there to be crossed. It is on that pilgrimage, as we climb higher, that we are forced to shed the layers upon layers we have carried for so long. Then we find that our load is lighter and we have come to know something of ourselves in the perilous climb.”

           

Choose Joy

We’ve heard them preached on … some of us have even memorized the whole list of them … but often some confusion lingers about the “fruit of the Spirit” written about in the fifth chapter of Galatians. The first eight in the list are accepted readily: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness. We all see the value and blessing of these. But then there is that ninth one—that’s the one that gives us trouble: self-control.

We get uncomfortable when we think self-control is required of us, because we worry that maybe we don’t practice as much self-control as we should. Leaping to our minds are occasions from our history when self-control wasn’t uppermost in our minds.

But this line of thinking leads us completely off track. The whole point is that these are fruit of the Spirit; these are the result of the Spirit’s residence in our lives. The Amplified Bible defines the fruit of the Spirit as “the work which His presence within accomplishes.” Rather than convicting us for something we lack, the list is our assurance that we have full right and access to all of these.

When I find myself coming up short—perhaps in patience, perhaps in peace—I can remind myself that the patience and the peace are already there within me where the Spirit resides; I simply have to choose to live in it.

Last week the shortage seemed to be joy, so I made a sign for the corner of my bathroom mirror. It says “Choose Joy.” Every time I see it, I am reminded that the joy is already within me, accomplished by the presence of the Spirit.

           

Two More Extraordinary Promises

I heard recently that there are 7,000 promises in the Bible, and admit that I have no idea how that number was determined. Maybe it’s just a nice, round number with a 7 in it. But whether they total 7,000 or not, there are too-many-to-count extraordinary promises in the Bible. Every few weeks, this blog looks at some of them.

Today I want to point out Psalm 32:8 and Psalm 34:7–10. If you were trapped in a wilderness and had no other promises but these two, I think you could live happily.

Psalm 32:8 (NIV) reads: “I will instruct you and teach you in the way you should go; I will counsel you with my loving eye on you.” In less than two dozen words, we are given the promise that we don’t have to sort out our way all by ourselves, but divine help—from one who loves us—is available to us.

Psalm 34:7–10 (NIV) expounds on a theme: “The angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and he delivers them. Taste and see that the Lord is good; blessed is the one who takes refuge in him. Fear the Lord, you his holy people, for those who fear him lack nothing. The lions may grow weak and hungry, but those who seek the Lord lack no good thing.” This is covenant language: you agree to do this, and I agree to do that. Your part is to fear [regard with reverence and awe] the Lord, to experience the Lord directly, to seek the Lord. In return, the Lord ensures that (1) His angels will settle in around you to protect you, and (2) you will lack nothing good that you need.

Words to live by.

           

How Is Lent Going for You?

We’re now a couple of weeks into Lent, which started with Ash Wednesday, February 14. Did you “give something up”? If you made that commitment, how is it going for you? Maybe you are fasting from a particular food or a certain behavior. Maybe you are keeping a commitment to focus on your spirituality every day. Or maybe you’re beginning to think of other ways you might honor this season.

If you still have a longing to participate in the religious tradition of fasting during this 40-day period before Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter, you might consider the following suggestions from Pope Francis:

  • Fast from hurting words and say kind words.
  • Fast from sadness and be filled with gratitude.
  • Fast from anger and be filled with patience.
  • Fast from pessimism and be filled with hope.
  • Fast from worries and trust in God.
  • Fast from complaints and contemplate simplicity.
  • Fast from pressures and be prayerful.
  • Fast from bitterness and fill your heart with joy.
  • Fast from selfishness and be compassionate to others.
  • Fast from grudges and be reconciled.
  • Fast from words and be silent so you can listen.

(source: http://kingscourtparish.ie/2017/02/a-thought-from-pope-francis-for-lent/)

My favorite thing to give up for Lent is resentment. It really does make a difference. God be with you.

           

The Reverend Billy Graham, 1918–2018

Today the world lost a spiritual giant whose ministry was shared around the world in some 90 countries, and here in the United States with huge crowds of people and with every US President from Harry Truman to George W. Bush.

He still has wisdom to teach us.

Years ago when Billy Graham was perhaps in his 80s, he was asked by Trinity Broadcasting Network founder Paul Crouch, “If you had your life to live all over again, would you do anything different?”

Billy Graham replied, “Yes, I would study more, read the Bible more, and pray more. I’ve let other things interfere with that too much.” If such a man as he could make such a statement, how much could every one of the rest of us learn from it.

In sermons, he also stated that the whole Bible could be summed up in one verse: John 3:16.—  For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.

 

           

Keep Your Church Alive

A friend recently lent me a fascinating and reader-friendly book entitled Autopsy of a Deceased Church: 12 Ways to Keep Yours Alive by Thom S. Rainer. Without her recommendation, I would never have picked up this book because the title clearly emphasizes churches that die out. She advised focusing on the subtitle, which, of course, is the opposite emphasis—how to prevent the dieout.

This 2014 book, by the president and CEO of LifeWay Christian Resources, grew out of a desire to understand why so many churches that were once vibrant congregations have in recent years seriously declined and ultimately closed their doors and sold off their properties.

Whether your church is seeing a decline in its numbers of worshippers as the Sundays go by, or is still in the upswing of its church life cycle, this is a book that offers valuable insight into what keeps a church alive. Even though the choir and music ministers are still working hard and serving up beautiful music, even though the pastor still works hard on his/her sermon each week, there may be shifts occurring that don’t bode well for the future.

Rainer writes: “The decline is in the vibrant ministries that once existed. The decline is in the prayer lives of the members who remain. The decline is in the outward focus of the church. The decline is in the connection with the community. The decline is in the hopes and dreams of those who remain.”

That’s a lot of decline, but the problem is that each shift may be subtle and quite easy to overlook, even when it’s building on previous overlooked changes.

“More than any one item,” writes Rainer, “these dying churches focused on their own needs instead of others. They looked inwardly instead of outwardly. Their highest priorities were the way they’ve always done it, and that which made them the most comfortable.”

Two fundamentals of critical importance are meaningful prayer (both individual and corporate), and actively caring for the surrounding community. No matter whether the church is on the upswing or the downswing, these two fundamentals make all the difference in whether the church is Christ-centered, likely to remain strong, and able to continue long-term to provide a healthy place of worship.

           

Confidently Receiving from God

The Bible offers a lot of promises, but there may be none more extraordinary than the one in I John 5:14-15:

“And this is the confidence (the assurance, the privilege of boldness) which we have in Him: [we are sure] that if we ask anything (make any request) according to His will (in agreement with His own plan), He listens to and hears us. And if (since) we [positively] know that He listens to us in whatever we ask, we also know [with settled and absolute knowledge] that we have [granted us as our present possessions] the requests made of Him.”

That is from the Amplified Bible, which throws in lots of clarifications to make sure we really get the point. Here it is from the NIV, the stripped-down version:

“This is the confidence we have in approaching God: that if we ask anything according to his will, he hears us. And if we know that he hears us—whatever we ask—we know that we have what we asked of him.”

The Message gives us the same point but with updated language: “And how bold and free we then become in his presence, freely asking according to his will, sure that he’s listening. And if we’re confident that he’s listening, we know that what we’ve asked for is as good as ours.”

There is one inviolate phrase that all three versions leave intact: “according to His will.” Whatever we ask according to His will, we can be sure that He hears us and will grant us that request. How do we know what His will is? There are two ways. One is to make a concerted effort of Bible study until the assurance grows within you that you understand God’s will for you. The other is to put these verses into practice: Ask God in regular prayer what His will is for you, and when you feel the assurance that He has heard you, and has responded to you, then adjust your life accordingly.

           

Community

I think I’ve discussed community before on this blog, sometime in its six or seven years of existence. There have been times, I’d have to admit, when I was a little hazy myself on the importance of community, especially in relation to the issue of spirituality. It’s a temptation for an introvert to focus her spirituality into avenues that are not dependent on the presence or participation of other people.

So, I was intrigued by how much my attention was drawn to, and has returned to, a paragraph in Wendell Berry’s novel Hannah Coulter.

The paragraph is presented as the public comment of a character named Burley Coulter (one of my favorite characters in the story), who is known for referring to residents of the village of Port William, Kentucky, as all being part of a membership. The paragraph reads as follows:

“Oh, yes, brothers and sisters, we are members one of another. The difference, beloved, ain’t in who is and who’s not, but in who knows it and who don’t. Oh, my friends, there ain’t no nonmembers, living nor dead nor yet to come. Do you know it? Or do you don’t? A man is a member of a woman and a worm. A woman is a member of a man and a mole. Oh, beloved, it’s all one piece of work.”

We’ve all heard expressions of similar concepts: “We are all one.” “We’re all in this together.” “No man is an island.”  But somehow Burley’s statement about membership strikes a chord that the others don’t quite manage. The difference, for me, is between anonymity and known identity. Burley’s statement eliminates anonymity in favor of a sense of belonging. And with belonging goes a natural, mutual responsibility for the others in the membership. Even an introvert likes to know where she belongs.

So, what does that have to do with “everyday spirituality”? What comes immediately to mind is the passage in Isaiah 54, recorded in The Message this way: “Clear lots of ground for your tents! Make your tents large. Spread out! Think big! Use plenty of rope, drive the tent pegs deep. You’re going to need lots of elbow room for your growing family….” [This passage of Scripture also figured in the September 22, 2016, post.]

“Your growing family” is another phrase for your membership. The more deeply you go into your spiritual self, the more your spiritual world can expand the coverage of its tent to recognize others as part of your membership.

As Burley would say: Do you recognize your membership or do you don’t?

           

Spiritual Direction

Today is my spiritual direction session — a once-monthly meeting with my spiritual director. It is an opportunity to take an hour to reflect purposefully, with the aid of another, on my ongoing relationship with the Divine. We might talk about where I have seen God’s touch in my life or where there appears to be (or needs to be) guidance concerning an issue now or going forward. My spiritual director has known me for many years, so she is able to draw connections with past conversations and past events in my life. Because she is also a widow, she has valuable insights into the feelings and movements of the grief process.

Spiritual direction can occur between two people of the same faith, or two people of differing faith traditions. The sessions offer a grounding with the Sacred through the listening presence and companionship of another person, one who has committed to set aside her/his own personal issues for the duration of the session in order to focus on those of the directee. In an ideal session, the director serves prayerfully as a conduit for the Holy Spirit.

Spiritual directors are available virtually all over the world. Where in-person, face-to-face sessions are not convenient, telephone or Skype sessions might be arranged. If you have an interest in learning more, or in contacting a spiritual director, visit the website www.sdiworld.org. The menu under “Find a Spiritual Director” offers as its first item the “Seek and Find Guide,” with instructions for using the Guide as well as listings for thousands of directors.

Spiritual direction is a valuable practice in everyday spirituality.

           

Giving Thanks In All Things

You’ve surely heard the Biblical instruction “give thanks in all circumstances for this is the will of God for you.” It is Verse 18 of I Thessalonians 5. You certainly heard it if you were in a Christian church on Thanksgiving Sunday. Most people who point to this verse emphasize that we are instructed to give thanks IN all things, not FOR all things, indicating a prevailing attitude of trust and gratitude that we should maintain no matter what is going on in our lives.

But I would like to point out something else that I don’t usually hear mentioned. This verse is one of three exhortations in one sentence. They are verses 16, 17, and 18 from I Thessalonians 5, and together they form a single sentence. It reads: “(16) Rejoice always, (17) pray constantly, (18) give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” That’s how the NIV puts it. The International Standard Version reads, “(16) Always be joyful, (17) continually be prayerful, (18) in everything be thankful, because this is God’s will in Christ Jesus for you.”

If all you read was the International Standard Version, you might think that only the third part, giving thanks in all things, is God’s will for you, but if you see the NIV, you can’t miss that semicolon—which brings both of the earlier two parts under the same umbrella. All three are God’s will for you.

The Message makes that last point especially clear. Set off in a paragraph by themselves are verses 16–18: “Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live.”

Happy Thanksgiving, joyfully, prayerfully.