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Spiritual practices that helps us journey

Friday November 20 2015

Spiritual practices that helps us journey

The first time I walked a labyrinth, there were about six other people walking it at the same time. I found myself bemused by the parallels between my walk in the labyrinth and my journey of faith. At some moments walking the labyrinth, a person would be beside me, walking on his or her own path right beside mine. Then our paths would diverge. I was reminded of close friends from certain points in my life, friends who shaped me and cared for me, but who have moved away and who I seldom see. Yes, we got to walk together for a while, but our journeys diverged.

That first labyrinth I walked was modeled after the labyrinth at Chartres, France. The path winds all over the place, and it feels like there’s no progress toward the center. In fact, there’s a section of the path furthest from the center. You walk on that outer rim, then take one turn, and boom, you’ve gotten to the center. This seemed so much like my life. Often I feel far from God, but my life takes a turn and suddenly God is present and real.

The time at the center of a labyrinth is quite special. You’ve walked a winding path to get there, and now you can stop for a minute to think and pray. Sometimes some other people are in the center with you. Maybe you don’t know them, but they know God too, so they are sisters and brothers. You are resting together in God’s presence, knowing you have to rejoin the path pretty soon and keep walking. That time at the center is like Sunday worship or other communal experiences of worship and prayer, a pause in the week to regroup with others before going back onto the journey. I may not know everyone who’s in church with me on Sunday, but together we are enjoying God’s presence in that pause from daily life.

A labyrinth is only one spiritual practice that evokes the notion of life as a journey. What are some of the other spiritual practices that help us experience the journey-like aspect of life with God?

1. The Stations of the Cross. In the medieval period, very few people could travel to Jerusalem to walk the Via Dolorsa with Jesus. Walking and praying the Stations of the Cross helps everyday Christians to walk with Jesus to the cross.

2. Praying while walking. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been preoccupied, upset or angry about something. I set out on a walk, pondering and praying as I go, and when I get home, my perspective has completely changed. That one brief hour seems to expand to represent a long faith journey.

3. A thankfulness list or journal or prayers of gratitude. Writing down, naming or praying things we’re thankful for has at least two benefits. It helps us in the moment as we write, but it also helps later on when we refer back to the list. We can see the pattern of the way God has led us and blessed us on our journey.

4. A prayer request list or journal. In the same was as described in #3, referring back to prayer requests, and checking them off when they’re answered, is a great way to see the pattern in our journey of faith.

5. Pilgrimage. Whenever we take a physical journey for a spiritual purpose, that trip becomes a pilgrimage. We might visit a childhood home or school, a retreat center where God met us in a special way, or the setting of a significant life event. A pilgrimage is a physical journey that helps us see the journey God is leading us on in life.

6.Examen. In this ancient prayer form, we are invited to look back over a period of time, perhaps one day, and look for God’s presence and also for the moments when we resisted God’s presence. Doing examen with some regularity enables us to see patterns in the places and times where we meet God and the places and times we resist God.

I wrote last week about the ways that the journey metaphor works so well to help us see moments and purpose in the life of faith. Many spiritual practices help us experience life as a journey.

(Illustration: The path under spring flowers by Dave Baab. If you'd like to receive an email alert when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Why “journey” works so well as a metaphor for faith

Thursday November 12 2015

Why “journey” works so well as a metaphor for faith

The Bible is full of journeys – Abraham, the Exodus, the Exile and the return to Jerusalem, Paul’s missionary journeys – but you’ll seldom if ever hear the Bible referring to the life of faith as a journey. We, however, use that metaphor all the time. We say things like, “In my faith journey, God has used so many circumstances to teach me about trust.” We talk about God “walking with us” in hard times. We might say something like, “I’ve come a long way in my faith since my father died.” All of these statements evoke faith as a journey.

“Journey” is such a helpful metaphor, and I want to point out a few reasons why.

1. “Journey” focuses on the process of getting there, not the arrival. Christians are being transformed into Christ’s image “from one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). This is a process that continues throughout our earthly life. On earth, we never arrive but we continually grow closer to who we were created to be. When we talk about faith as a journey, we are emphasizing progress, not perfection.

2. A journey implies changes, transitions, challenges and adventures. I’m sure my desire for comfort, stability and outward peace isn’t unique to me. When I think of my life in Christ as a journey, I am more open to meeting God in the unexpected. I am less likely to resist change and challenge.

3. Many human journeys involve travel companions. Sometimes our travel companions accompany us on the entire trip, and other times we meet up with a short-term travel companion. In many instances, travel is quite difficult on our own and significantly easier with a companion, someone to open doors when we’re juggling baggage, someone who knows the language to translate a menu in a foreign country or someone to chat with about the scenery. When I think about my life of faith as a journey, I pay attention to the travel companions God has given me.

4. When we travel, we often need to lighten our load. Simplicity is a very helpful practice when travelling, and simplicity is also a very helpful practice when walking with Jesus through life. Maybe I need to jettison my attachment to some of my possessions. Maybe I need to let go of anger and bitterness about someone or something. As I look back over many years of walking with Jesus, I can see how many attitudes and presuppositions God has helped me relinquish.

5. When we travel, we get to experience the wonder of the guest-host shift. When we receive the hospitality of others, we are the guest. But sometimes the guest makes a contribution to the host, shifting the role. Jesus was a master of this. On the first Easter, in Emmaus, Jesus is invited into a home. At the table he breaks the bread and is revealed to be the Host (Luke 24:13-35). In many small ways, guest and host shift back and forth in many settings, and this is one of the gifts of the journey. We all give, and we all receive.

The biggest and most significant journey story in the Bible is Jesus leaving heaven and coming to earth for our sake, to live and die and be raised again so that we can live in him. Jesus asks us to journey with him into family relationships, friendships, work, neighborhoods, and the broken world. Jesus asks us to trust him as he gives us companions and calls us to lighten our loads. The Holy Spirit works in us so we can grow into Jesus’ image on the journey and so can reach journey’s end.

(Watercolor by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email update when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Godspace blog.)

Do not ride in the car with Lynne . . .

Saturday November 7 2015

Do not ride in the car with Lynne . . .

unless you want to get the occasional lecture . . .

or maybe it was a sermon.

Here’s what happened this past Sunday on the way to church. My husband, Dave, has been studying Jeremiah. Soon after we headed out, he said, “Jeremiah talks so much about idolatry. The Seahawks are playing this afternoon, and so many people will be glued to their big TV screens. I find myself wondering if there isn’t a lot of idolatry going on today, just like in Jeremiah’s time.”

“Wondering?” I burst out. “You find yourself wondering? I don’t wonder about that at all. I know for sure there is a lot of idolatry going on. The challenge is how do we recognize it, receive forgiveness from God for it, and then combat it as much as possible in our daily lives. All of these depend on spiritual practices.”

Then I kept talking. I had three main points, which I’ll outline here. (See, it was like a sermon!)

1. Many spiritual practices help us recognize our own idolatries. I wrote last week about letting fear, ego and ambition drive the bus, and I wrote about practices that can help us figure out who is driving our bus and how to switch drivers. I recommended what I call “the basics of the Christian life”: weekly communal worship, fellowship, Bible reading, prayer. I also recommended journaling, prayer partners, spiritual direction and silence. In the car on Sunday, I gave Dave a brief synopsis of my post last week.

2. Then I talked about forgiveness. Often the hardest person to forgive is ourselves. We so often have compassion on others, but not on ourselves. God’s tender, forgiving love for us is so great that the psalmist can write:

For as the heavens are high above the earth,
so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him;
as far as the east is from the west,
so far he removes our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:11-12).

If God’s love for us is as big as the skies, then shouldn’t we be able to accept that love, coupled with forgiveness?

I like the language of “do” for my besetting sins. “I’ve been doing overeating lately.” Not, “I’m an overeater” or “I struggle with overeating.” I’m not defined by my sins. Yes, I do counterproductive and stupid and even evil things sometimes, but God forgives me, and I start afresh. “Do” language helps me see myself as someone who screws up from time to time and as someone who receives forgiveness from God and then tries to live a holy and obedient life with joy. I am not a compulsive overeater; I just do it sometimes.

My typical idolatry is not the big screen TV with the Seahawks game on it. Mine relates to food and the self-loathing that I sometimes do after I overeat. But even self-loathing, something I do from time to time, does not define me. It’s just a slip into idolatry that God can forgive, and that I can learn to forgive as well.

3. If idolatry is rampant, then shouldn’t we be paying a lot of attention to other people’s idolatry? Should we be thinking and talking about where we see other people failing?

Jesus is pretty clear that our primary business is facing into our own sin:

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For with the judgement you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbour’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:1-3).

So that was my lecture/sermon in the car on Sunday morning. Idolatry is rampant but forgivable through God’s love and Jesus’ grace and the Holy Spirit’s power. Our spiritual practices shape us so we can more easily see our habitual forms of sin and receive forgiveness. Our language – “doing” sin rather than being irredeemably sinful – helps us live as God’s new and beloved creatures. And our primary job is to focus on our own sin, receive forgiveness and live a new life in Christ, rather than criticizing others for spending too much time in front of a big screen TV.

(If you’d like to receive an email update when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Photo credit: an article in the Daily Telegraph about a police officer who got in trouble for tweeting this photo. For those of you who know Dave, he’s NOT bald! And he doesn’t look as old as the man in the cartoon! But after we got to church, I found myself wishing that something or someone had covered my mouth.)

When fear, ego and ambition drive the bus

Friday October 30 2015

When fear, ego and ambition drive the bus

Way back when the world was young, I thought the actor Don Johnson was cute. So when I saw an interview with him in Parade Magazine last month, I read it. He talked about his latest film project and his daughter for most of the interview, but at the end the interviewer asked if there is anything in his earlier life he would like to change. Here’s his answer:

I wish I had become a little more aware of how full of fear, ego and ambition I was, and how I let a lot of that drive the bus.

I won’t detail all the ways that fear, ego and ambition can harm us when they drive the bus. I’m going to assume that you, like me, are trying to grow in letting other characteristics drive the bus. Those other, more healthy, bus drivers might include compassion for others and for ourselves, humility and peace. Perhaps the most significant bus driver should be God’s love.

How do we change bus drivers? I’d like to make a few suggestions for practices that encourage that change.

1. The basics of the Christian life: weekly communal worship, fellowship, Bible reading, prayer. The weekly discipline of attending church should remind us we are not God and Someone Else is. This is a key starting point that helps us change bus drivers. Fellowship with other Christians, studying the Bible alone and with others, and praying in many forms are essential ground-level habits that over time change our perspective and the foundation of our lives.

2. Journaling. So many people have told me that they are most honest with themselves when they journal. They say that journaling helps them face up to those moments when fear, ego and ambition are playing too big a role in motivations and behaviors. Many people have told me they like to write their prayers in their journal. Writing out prayers slows them down, they say, enough to pray longer and more deeply. And as I said in #1, prayer is essential in changing the perspective and foundation of our heart in part because it focuses on attention on God, rather than on the things that drive us.

3. Prayer partners in pairs or groups. I’ve been in women’s prayer groups for 25 years. My first women’s prayer group is still going (with some changes in members), and when I’m in Seattle I attend as faithfully as I can because the level of honesty and support there is remarkable. Honesty coupled with support is powerful in helping us change the orientation of our heart.

4. Spiritual direction. Here I’m referring to the formal relationship with a spiritual director, with whom you meet regularly, usually once a month. A spiritual director is tasked with helping us see God’s hand and God’s presence in our lives. In other words, he or she helps us pay attention. And where we direct our attention plays a big role in who drives our bus.

5. Silence. In The Cultivated Life, Susan Phillips writes about a man who told her that showering turns his heart toward God. When he showers, he can’t work and he can’t be interrupted, so he prays. Many people engage in a structured spiritual practice involving silence, such as contemplative prayer, centering prayer or mindfulness meditation. Others find moments when they can’t work and can’t be interrupted, perhaps in the car, while walking, before sleeping at night or first thing in the morning. Or showering! Silence, with no work and no interruptions, can make space for us to pray honestly about the inner and outer forces in our lives.

What or who drives your bus? What helps you move away from letting fear, ego and ambition drive the bus? What do you wish could be your bus driver? God’s love? Something else? What helps you change drivers? 

(If you'd like to receive an email alert when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column.)

Drawing near to God by noticing patterns

Friday October 23 2015

Drawing near to God by noticing patterns

The human brain loves to find patterns even when none exist. This explains the popularity of conspiracy theories, some of which must be false. (Only some of them? See, I can’t say, “all of which are false”! I love patterns and categories as much as the next person!)

We can use the human love of patterns to nurture our prayer life and to help us observe the pattern of our spiritual growth. Here are three ideas:

1. “Word for the year.” Some people advocate picking a word in January that you want to have as the theme for your year. My experience is that words pick me, not the other way around. In 2012 and 2013, the word I kept coming back to was “receptivity.” It was so helpful in understanding that God was calling me to pay attention to where the Holy Spirit was guiding me and to where God was already working in my life, rather than always trying to direct things myself or to see what’s missing in my life. I wrote sections in two of my books, Joy Together and The Power of Listening, about receptivity.

In 2014, the word “joy” was forced on me by the Caring Bridge posts of a wonderful (and joyous) man, Steve Hayner. His posts while he was dealing with terminal cancer were the single biggest source of spiritual growth for me in 2014. Those posts have been turned into a book, Joy in the Journey, which I highly recommend.

Suggestion: Look back at last year, or an earlier year, and ponder whether there’s a word that captures what God was doing in your life. Take that word and pray about it, sing about it, journal about it, draw it and talk about it with friends.

2. Daily, weekly, monthly or yearly highlights. What was the best thing that happened yesterday? Last week? Last month? Last year? “Every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights” (James 1:17). We miss so much because we don’t take the time to look and remember. My favorite Jewish Sabbath prayer goes like this: “Days pass, years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.”

Suggestion: Use the human propensity to find patterns to help you see the pattern of God’s blessing in your life. Then turn those highlights into prayers of thanks.

3. Theme for the decade. I can see very clearly the major life lesson God was teaching me in my 50s: you cannot change another person. You can speak your own truth, you can say how another person’s behavior affects you, and you can encourage others to change. But you cannot change them. I can’t believe I was in my 50s before I learned this. I would have been a much better mother if I had learned it earlier. This big life lesson has helped me pray and speak differently in so many relationships, and I am a happier (more joyous!) person because of it.

Because I can see so clearly my biggest life lesson from my 50s, I’ve been thinking perhaps I can identify a major life lesson from each decade of life.

Suggestion: look at your life in decades or in five-year blocks and see if you can identify a major life lesson in some of them. Take that life lesson and pray about it, sing about it, journal about it, draw it and talk about it with friends.

The human propensity to see patterns can help us see the patterns of gifts and growth in our lives, which can help us pray and act in new ways. Let your brain’s love of patterns serve your growth in faith. “For you, Lord, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy” (Psalm 92:4).

(Photo credit: John Mawurndjul, “Mardayin Ceremony 2000,” Gallery New South Wales. I love Australian Aboriginal art, and I’m sure it’s because I love the patterns. If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column.)

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