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.”

           

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.

           

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.

           

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.

           

Manna

It may be impossible to think of manna without thinking of the story in Exodus of God providing daily provision to the Israelites in the wilderness. Manna was that strange substance that fed them and all they had to do was pick it up off the ground. But each person had a daily portion, to be gathered on the day of its use. The only day of the week they could gather a double portion without the oversupply “going bad” was in preparation for the Sabbath.

I have come to think of “everyday spirituality” as a kind of manna. It seems to be part of our human nature that life works best for us when we renew our spiritual provisions every day. We are best served, best fed, by pursuing on an everyday basis the spiritual practices that keep us in touch with the Divine. Skipping days works only to our own detriment. The gathering is easy because we are offered a wide range of spiritual practices, and the blessings that come as a result are renewed for us every day. And unlike the Israelites, we are free to gather as much as we want. There are no limits to this daily provision.

           

Power of Meditation

Part of my everyday spirituality is a daily reading from Sarah Young’s Jesus Calling. I’ve been around the calendar with it a couple of times now. Recently I was looking through some of her comments about meditation and came across this one:

When you sit quietly with Me, I shine the Light of My Presence directly into your heart.

This is one of the better descriptions of the power of meditation I have seen because it makes a useful attempt to describe what actually happens in meditation. The line resonates especially well with me because it is so close to what my first spiritual director explained to me many years ago. I had told her about my meditation practice and some of the changes that had come about in my life apparently as a result of it. She nodded and said, “By sitting in silence, you opened a door for God to speak directly to your heart.”

The practice of meditation, and this explanation of its impact, have been profoundly important in my life.

           

How to Welcome Change

I guess it wouldn’t be Life if we did not always see change. In fact, change is so unavoidable that it makes me wonder why we always dread change. It makes more sense to dread the opposite of change, which is surely death. From that perspective, perhaps we should spread our arms and welcome all the change we can find.

Several changes stand before me, on the verge of unfolding. These range from the totally mundane to the exceptional. On the mundane side, I find I will have to do the research this year to find a new health care plan because providers I use will be dropped from my coverage in 2016. Aaaargh! No one consulted me about this change. In that way, it is typical of most change that comes my way.

On the exceptional side, I am in a weekly walk with a favorite gentleman who appears to be nearing the end of his life. He has reached the stage when he experiences spikes of good days and drops to bad days, but succeeding spikes don’t ascend as high, and the descents to bad days reach greater and greater depth. What’s painful is that everyone involved, most assuredly the gentleman himself, must learn how to do this as we go.

Nathaniel Branden wrote: “The first step toward change is awareness. The second step is acceptance.” I am fully located on the second step with my mundane issue, but somewhere in the middle of the staircase with the serious change, which will bring impact to many people, not just me, in many ways.

My greatest gratitude is that I don’t face any changes, not even the small ones and certainly not the large ones, alone. God has promised to walk with us, never to leave us, and His strength and guidance are available to us at every step, as close to us as our very breath.

           

Peace Defined

I never particularly thought I needed a definition of peace. The word has always seemed to signify a self-explanatory end point—a goal to which much of my life has been aimed.

So I was surprised a few days ago to find in Jeremiah, in the Amplified Bible, a verse (33:6) in which there appears to be a definition of peace.

In this verse, Jeremiah is prophesying the future in a restored Jerusalem: “I will lay upon it health and healing, and I will cure them and will reveal to them the abundance of peace (prosperity, security, stability) and truth.”

Since I came across this verse, this definition has been running around the back of my mind. I have been trying it on for size. Had you asked me last week what my definition for peace is, I’m sure I would have come up with something other than “prosperity, security, stability.” Yet, if I have all of those elements squared away, how could I not be in peace?

Once again, the Amplified has shown the way!