September 13—five days from now—marks the 12th anniversary of this blog’s launch.
Twelve years seems like a good amount of time to be doing anything!
So, I’m in an anniversary week, and anniversaries remind us to pause long enough to remember the reasons we’re doing something, whether it’s being in a relationship, working at a company, continuing in a group, or maintaining a blog.
The foundational intention for the blog was to be about two things: becoming aware of our spirituality every day of our lives … and how to experience this extraordinary gift on such a regular basis that it actually becomes our ordinary, “everyday” life.
Those are still the foundational intention.
But that very first entry in 2011 acknowledged that daily life inserts itself constantly and demands our attention, with the result that we might go all day without realizing the peace and serenity that are available to us if we can only stop long enough to let them surface.
When those times happen to me – and sometimes they feel relentless! – the best thing I can do is sit in silence and let myself sink back into the awareness of the Spirit that is still there waiting. The connection to the all-encompassing Spirit never goes away, never abandons us. We have to keep in mind that if we’re feeling the absence of God …
… it isn’t God that moved.
“I am the Lord, and I do not change.” —Malachi 3:6
A spiritual practice that has stood the test of many centuries — some say it goes back as far as the second century AD — is lectio divina, which means “divine reading” or “holy reading,” and which is intentional in inviting God to speak to us. The intentionality comes in how we approach the scripture or whatever text we are using for the purpose. Most think of using the Bible, but some use poetry or passages from the sacred writings of other religions.
Rather than a once-through reading, followed by closing the book and going about our business, lectio divina is a prescribed approach that asks us to first settle in and pray for understanding and insight into the text and what it might hold for us. Then we read the text (lectio) a few times, both silently and aloud, with special attention to any words or phrases that stand out to us. After this, we reflect on the text (meditatio) and how it applies to our lives. Oratio, the third step, involves consciously opening our hearts to God and contemplatio is resting in God and listening in stillness. The four-part practice is transformational in deepening our spiritual lives.
A friend of mine once worked her way through the Gospel of Mark, taking a few verses at a time, for an ongoing lectio divina practice. My tendency has been to take a single short verse, such as “Be still, and know that I am God” (a portion of Psalm 46:10) and “live” with it for a few days, returning to the awareness of it many times a day, until it begins to return to me when most needed as an offering of divine rest.
For an especially effective presentation and discussion of lectio divina including numerous suggestions of passages for the practice, I recommend the book Lectio Divina — The Sacred Art: Transforming Words and Images into Heart-Centered Prayer by Christine Valters Paintner, published in 2011 by Skylight Paths Publishing.
Various places in the Bible make it clear that God wants to be in relationship with us. It isn’t only we who reach for God and try to come closer to God. In fact, the common thinking is that we would not have the idea in the first place of getting close to God if God had not first reached out to us.
A short passage that has a lot to say about our relationship with God is Jeremiah 29:11-13. Most people are familiar with verse 29:11, which reads (NIV): “For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” But if you carry on to the following verses, you find that God has more to say: “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.” The context is God speaking to the people who were in exile in Babylon and reaffirming the promise to take them back home. Because elsewhere in the text the Bible claims that God is not a “respecter of persons,” the promises to one group are understood to be available to all.
Promises inherent in a relationship with God, according to this passage, include: 1) assurance that there is a Divine plan for your life and God isn’t forgetting about it, 2) the plan includes a way for you to succeed and be strong and healthy, 3) not only is there a future ahead of you, but it is a positive one in which you can feel hope, 4) your side of the relationship includes calling upon God and praying; God’s side includes listening to you, and 5) your side of the relationship includes seeking God with all your heart; God’s side includes being available for you to find Him.
The promise of relationship continues from there into verse 14: “I will be found by you,” declares the Lord, “and will bring you back from captivity.”
You may not be in Babylon, but you might, even so, be in one form of captivity or another. These promises are for you.
We know the four kinds of prayer: we can praise God, we can make petitions to ask God for what we feel we need, we can pray in thanksgiving to express our gratitude for what God has done in our lives, and we can pray in intercession to lift up others to God’s care.
But there’s a fifth kind of prayer that may be the most important of all: the prayer of “being with.”
This is a simple kind of prayer. It asks only that you be present and open to God. Matthew 6:8 tells us that God already knows what we need before we even ask. So, it’s not all that necessary to tell Him again. It’s really not as though He needs to be reminded.
What may be vastly more meaningful is to sit with God, with our hands empty and our hearts open, and say, “God, I’d just like to be with You for a little while. I have nothing to ask of You except that I hope I will feel Your presence. In any case, I am going to sit here with my heart open to You. If You have something to say to me, that’s all the better. But if not, maybe we could just be with each other for little while.”
Over time, you may find the “being with” prayer your most blessed kind of communing with God, and it may become your favorite time of each day.
The sun is out shining brightly; flowering cherry trees are in bloom; buds are already abundant with new life. This time of self-isolation, instituted in an effort to slow or stop the spread of the coronavirus, is also a time of stopping to notice what is around us.
A spiritual director friend of mine said: “It feels like an extended retreat.”
Along with doing what we can to safely help others, maybe the best use of this time is to pull ourselves back by the spiritual tether that links us to God, so we come back under His wing. A good verse to think about is Hebrews 13:5 from the Amplified Bible:
“For God Himself has said, I will not in any way fail you nor give you up nor leave you without support. I will not. I will not. I will not in any degree leave you helpless nor forsake nor let you down. Assuredly not!”
May God keep you safely in His care.
This morning I read a reflection by Henri J.M. Nouwen, the widely read priest and author noted for his work with the poor and disabled. Entitled The Spiritual Work of Gratitude, the reflection ended with this prayer: Lord, cultivate within me a spirit of gratitude for all you’ve given and all you’ve taken away. Blessed be your name, Lord. Amen.
Now, it’s easy to generate gratitude for blessings given, for people and events and things in our lives that we see as positives, but the second part about having a spirit of gratitude for all God has taken away from us – that’s asking for something else entirely. That’s probably why the prayer is for the cultivation of that spirit, because it doesn’t grow within us naturally. Nor is it necessarily natural to consider that important parts of our lives that have slipped away from us might have been “taken away.”
What would it mean to live in gratitude for all that has been taken away from us?
We can be grateful that what was so precious to us was, at least for some period of time, ours. We can be grateful for what we learned from the experience of having that promise/person/position/thing that we loved, and put our focus there rather than on the pain of the loss. We can be grateful for the implied possibility, that if we had it once, we can surely have it again. But beyond that, what would it mean to be grateful for what has been taken away?
If our perception is that the loss was the work of the Lord, the choice of the Lord, and if we at the same time believe that the Lord is good, then we become candidates for grace. Because then we will be living in faith. And faith is always cause for, always leads to, gratitude.
My niece recently posted on Facebook something called “The Other Serenity Prayer.” Most of us know by heart the standard Serenity Prayer, which goes: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
Anyone who was active in the various support groups that came alive in the 1970s and ’80s knew that standard prayer well, because it was how we ended every “codependency” support meeting in those days.
The Other Serenity Prayer goes like this: “God, grant me the serenity to stop beating myself up for not doing things perfectly, the courage to forgive myself because I’m working on doing better, and the wisdom to know that you already love me just the way I am.” This version of the prayer is attributed to Unknown.
The Bible gives ample support for the idea that God loves us as we are, because of His plans for our lives. Here are just a few of the hundreds of verses that follow this theme. “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” [2 Corinthians 5:17] “For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” [Ephesians 2:10] “But to all who did receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave the right to become children of God.” [John 1:12] “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.” [2 Timothy 1:7]
Whoever you are, wherever you are on your life journey, faith can make you whole.
Part of the joy of re-reading a book you loved in the past is getting to notice elements of writing craft that you cannot see the first time through.
For example, in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow, there is early-on (Chapter 6) a very short scene in which the main character is being badgered by a reporter. His friend and protector “went through the door low and fast. The momentum of his drive slammed the intruder into a wall…” We as readers are told that this incident is “literally nightmarish” for our lead, but we have no idea why, nor do we know we’ve just had a bit of foreshadowing. That gift awaits us only if we revisit those early pages after reading the whole book.
In our age, many of us find it hard enough to finish a good book the first time through, let alone to tackle a second reading. But the second reading is where we find meanings impossible to see without the repeated exposure.
The same is true of Bible study. So much is there, waiting for us to find it, but we are best served by repeated readings. Our patient study and revisiting of Scripture grant us insights and blessings we rarely are able to see the first time through.
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.
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.