Tag Archives: faith

My faith is eroding: One thing you can do right now.

Relevant Magazine

“I think I am losing my faith—and I don’t know what to do about it.” I wish people would say that more often; they mostly just feel it until the feeling pushes them over the edge. Blame it on Trump. Blame it on unreconciled relationships. Blame it on dumb churches and their leaders. Blame it on science. Blame it on yourself. The blaming does not really help the feelings. They still end up with an internal struggle that has big consequences whichever way it goes.

If you feel some of these things, you are not alone. All sorts of people, from every corner of the planet, from every strand of the Christian tradition, from every conceivable segment of society are feeling it with you. They are once-religious people who for any number of reasons now find the very ground of faith eroding beneath their feet. Some are panicking, many are reverting to the defense systems they relied on as a child and trying to find other things to hope in.

The terrors that taught us as children don’t really go away. So when we get pushed to the edge it is terrifying. It is one thing to question the institutional Church or to poke holes in the religious systems people have put in place or even to critique the Bible and how we interpret it. Those are all sustainable losses. We can endure such things and still hold on to some confidence that God is and that God is good. Even if on some days, those assertions are all that remain of our fragile faith narrative, they can be enough.

But what do you do, when with all the sleepless wrestling and the furrowed-browed prayers and the ceaseless questions and the best-intended efforts, even that fragile bit of faith seems out of reach? What happens when the very reality of God (or of a God who is good) seems too much to own? How do you keep going in the middle of a full-blown spiritual collapse?

Encouragement for the eroding

These mysteries of faith can’t be “solved” in a blog post. They can’t be “solved” as if they were a “problem” at all, can they? Most people of faith need to move beyond faith that solves problems into faith that is more about love – and we all know that love causes the delicious problems of being human as much as it solves them. So I have just a few beginning things to say which I hope will encourage people who are in the thick of some spiritual trauma. All the linked blog posts scattered around the page might help, too.

You may be at a point where your loss of faith feels unsolvable. At that point, living in faith often isn’t a matter of just being more determined or more “religious.” Jesus followers can become desperate while they are reading the Bible, when they are praying, after they are done volunteering and when they are trying to believe in the middle of a church meeting. They may be as devout and engaged as ever, only these pursuits no longer yield the clarity, confidence and comfort they once did.

I’ve met people who feel a barren, spiritual dryness. I often tell them that feeling is actually a sign of their faith, not merely their loss of it, since others, obviously, have already adapted to a barren spiritual landscape and feel it is normal. These dried-out people almost always feel burdened by a sense of failure – a secret feeling they dare not share or often dare not admit to themselves. They are grieving, feeling helpless about regaining what they’ve lost, and angry at themselves for not being faithful enough to conjure up belief that used to be easier. And they are often angry with God, too.

So what can you do right now?

If you’re in that place right now, I won’t pretend there’s any easy way out or a simple path back to faith. I can’t even promise that you’ll ever find your way back, at least not to what you used to call belief. It may be a very different experience for you in the future.

Sticking with prayer, Bible study or church attendance might provide anchors for your faith until the storm passes—but they might not. You might like to try psychotherapy to see if there is something in the way of your growth you don’t know about, or to provide some heavy-duty support while you are growing – maybe you aren’t up for that.

Maybe the process should be more about what’s right in front of you, for now — about what you can see and hear and touch and smell and taste. Maybe the best thing you can do right now is to experience all of the things that you can know, and simply receive them with gratitude: a delicious meal, the evening breeze, some music that moves you, the laughter of your best friend, the depth of a relationship, the smell of your baby’s head.

Maybe just accepting these great, pure, measurable gifts and presently cherishing them is all the faith you are able to have right now, and that will have to be OK. Maybe that’s as close to proving God’s goodness as you can get. To simply live and to find gratitude in the living is itself a spiritual pursuit; it is on the holiness spectrum. And as you do this, you may find that this contentment is a pathway back to the hope you’ve lost. It may clear the road to God that has been cluttered by sadness, disappointment, doubt, and your worn-out religion.

But maybe you shouldn’t worry about whether the gratitude gets you somewhere right now. We’re good at turning simple goodness into a means to an end – gratitude is not a result to achieve or another religious exercise to evaluate. Try receiving the goodness and pleasures of this day and allow them to speak to you and surprise you. People have often found the beginning of a new season of faith there.

As you are working at finding a new center, keep noting when you feel guilty. Guilt is good for turning us from bad behavior, but it needs to be checked when it makes us feel like a worthless person. Talk back to that voice in your head that tells you you’re terrible and don’t worry about what you think people are saying about you. You’re the one walking this road and you understand it in ways they never will. Maybe most of all, don’t worry about God. God is big enough to handle your doubts, fears and failures and knows exactly what you’re going through and why believing is such a struggle right now.

You may have indeed lost your faith or you may have just lost your way a bit. Either way, this might be a good time to breathe, to look around and to find joy in what is right beside you and all around you as your journey continues. If that is all the faith you can muster right now, let it be.

Suggested by John Pavlovitz

The still points: Finding home in the midst of change

Things change. The world is a transient experience. We are lonely for home – someplace we can feel anchored, someplace certain, someplace where our roots feel secure and stable.

While we are meditating on that, someone plows into our pizzeria or we just hear about ten such things from the 24-hour news alarm. While we are trying to secure our place in the world as the church, our constant failure and dislocated relationships scare us and discourage us until we worry that our fragile connections will deteriorate and we will be alone again.

How do we deal with this lonely, rootless experience we have as humans? The main thing is our lifelong movement toward the goal of oneness with God. That pursuit causes deeper integration, a new instinct for being rejuvenated in solitude, and the capacity to pray. But I think there is even more. There are attitude shifts and decisions we make that provide us with “still points” where we feel secure in a world that keeps shifting. We need to find the “clefts in the rock” where we feel covered.

still point

How can we find these points and overcome the nagging rootlessness that often makes us so lonely? Here are four suggestions.

The still point of faith

So if you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth, for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. – Colossians 3:1-3

When our faith is out of our minds and hearts and also into our bodies and habits, the symbols we use, the language we speak, and the time we share all provide thin places where we experience the security of the cleft, where we feel covered with God’s hand. They all lead to the great still point.

There is something beyond time and history, beyond what shifts in its impermanence. There is something that can’t be debunked by investigation or made obsolete by new discoveries. That something is a Someone. That Someone is known as we journey into the realm of faith, hope and selfless love. That journey in mind, heart and step will help dispel rootlessness if we persevere in it.  Our friends in recovery know this well, the first three steps of the twelve steps are all about facing rootlessness and coming home. #2 says: Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity. It takes working the steps to find the still point.

The still point of commitment

I was overjoyed when some of the friends arrived and testified to your faithfulness to the truth, namely how you walk in the truth. – 3 John 1:3

Much of our rootlessness can be overcome by committing ourselves to certain people, values, things, and projects and then refusing to be unfaithful to those commitments. We need to give up on “hang loose.” Otherwise our lives end up characterized by infidelity, broken promises, broken words, cheap commitments, and hastily withdrawn loyalties – and acute loneliness.

Permanence adds a missing ingredient to the words love, friendship, promise and loyalty. It brings the element of timelessness. Teilhard de Jardin, the philosopher-scientist-Jesuit, spent much of his life frustrated with his church family. He was occasionally encouraged by his friends to abandon them. However, he would always dismiss the temptation with the simple statement: “I can never leave because I have given my word.” His commitment gave him a still point.

The still point of history

But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, a wild olive shoot, were grafted in their place to share the rich root of the olive tree, do not boast over the branches. If you do boast, remember that it is not you that support the root, but the root that supports you. – Romans 11:17-18

I think it is great that we can swipe our cheeks and find out from what part of Africa our ancestors derived. The DNA science gives us a small sense of having roots. Maybe it is good that archaeologists become more clever every day and uncover the truth (or fiction) behind ancient texts. They help us feel like our faith has a secure foundation.

We all feel better when we stand within our tradition and know our history. The newest person who comes into our church or any church does better when they refuse to think their history with the group begins when they make their covenant. They are grafted into a long history and are supported by the roots. They are not losing themselves when they adopt certain traditions and add their energy and voice to steering the future. In a real sense they are transhistorical, alive in Christ wherever Jesus has been honored throughout history. That sense of history provides a still point.

The still point of community

So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God. – Ephesians 2:19-22

Finding home is more than finding a building, a city, or a country where we feel we belong. That’s just part of it. It is finding a heart or a community of hearts where we find enough safety and warmth to dare to be faithful and loving, to be true — like when Adam first saw Eve and said, “At last, bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh!” That wasn’t just sexual attraction, that was comfort to his heart. He found in Eve what the rest of creation did not have for him.

We go through life needing to find that home. Jesus demonstrated how we find it when he was sitting with his disciples one day and his family came to the house looking for him. No doubt Jesus loved his mother and his family, but he did not immediately get up and go to them. Instead he said” Who is my mother? Who are my brothers and sisters?” Pointing to those around him he said, “Here are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of God, that person is my brother and sister and mother.” He is not disrespecting his mother, he’s just teaching us that home is deeper than blood. Faith makes a family than transcends all the ancestries that divide us.

One of the great scandals of being a Jesus follower is contained in that moment. Jesus respects his origin as a man, but he is king of country that transcends and unites all other identities. Many people would fight even the hint that their personal identity does not make them who they are and should be defended at all costs. Yet Jesus persists in knitting together a new family sharing a renewed blood, heart to heart, bone of bone. In another incident a woman shouted out to Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” Jesus answered, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it!”  Yes I had a wonderful mother, but I am more than my biology.

Our community in Christ is bound together by something beyond blood, ethnicity and geography and will outlive them all. Our new home in faith is an answer to the loneliness, it is the great still point, the shelter from the storm, the cleft in the rock, that can root out our rootlessness.

Already today I have confronted my weakness, been in an argument, heard about a car disaster, read a distraught email, found myself confused by problems in various structures, lost something, and the Facebook news reported that Texas A&M had also scheduled a white supremacist rally for next month. It is 9:00 am! I am going to reread this post and see if I can’t find that still point I long to live in, sensing God’s sustaining glory in the cleft of the rock.

Is the movement finally starting? Keep praying and pushing.

When Donald Trump was elected, I hoped it was the final straw to break the power of delusion choking so many people here in the last days of the Empire. There is some evidence this week that my hope was not in vain. The Spirit of God is moving among us and in our region and people are waking up. Things are happening that remind me of the stories I have heard about Jesus appearing to Muslims in places where it is illegal to even entertain the thought of becoming a Christian. People who can’t trust and are afraid to think are meeting Jesus personally in ways that change them forever.

Movement: the Spirit poured out
Acts 2:17

The movement of the Spirit in our church never really ground to a halt, but it seemed to slow so much, we began to wonder if we were missing something or doing something wrong. Our “flywheel” was slowing down and we realized we had better get behind it and do some pushing so the engine of our mission would get back to speed. We have been doing that and things are changing.

But there is only so much pushing one can do. The movement of the Spirit in a group or society is a mystery that is more about prayer than technique. So I have been praying for us and praying for our region, country and the whole desperate world. And I am not alone. Many of us have been drawn to pray and we have even started groups to do it together.

Evidence keeps popping up that something is starting. I almost don’t want to talk about it, lest I be wrong. But it is hard not to appreciate the possibility.

Cell mates of all kinds

For instance, my pastor, Rachel, could not contain herself last week and had to share the good things happening  in our cells:

  • She visited our Spanish-speaking cell and sensed the presence of God so strongly it made her “choke back tears.” The members were opening up about their lives, sharing real struggles and then praying for each other and reading the Bible together. For some of them, it was all brand new.
  • At her own cell, her host “shared a growing sense that Someone is leading her into a future that she doesn’t know yet, and she is actually excited about that, because she’s discovering that God has better things in store for her than she had for herself. She’s being surprised by hope.”
  • Then on her walk home, she ran into three of Jimmy & Zoe’s cell mates who looked like something good had just happened to them. They had just prayed with two friends who asked to receive Christ right there in their meeting.

A deluded millennial

About the same time, I was looking around YouTube for this video when I ran into this one by Steve Bancarz. I understand about zero why anyone would listen to a YouTube personality or how they get a following. But here is this guy who apparently made a living selling “new age” philosophies through his website. Then he had this remarkable experience with Jesus, gave it all up, and started his new internet business: debunking his old one.

I almost never get through a fifteen minute video, but this one intrigued me. When it was done, I felt it might be a scam. But evangelical outlets like Christian Post and Charisma have been telling the story too. His experience is like ones reported by Muslims, in which Jesus came to him and convinced him to change. I think his fundamentalist connections are serving him well as he gets over his drug use. It should be interesting to see how he moves on. Is this how Jesus is going to penetrate the despairing, enslaved, avoidant and cynical millennials?

A burned out evangelical

Movement from outside and in
Ocean waves and brain waves

Finally, I have been reading an “earth” book I keep recommending to people who don’t have faith, or who are interested in the new atheist arguments: Finding God in the Waves. It is about a Christian who lost his faith but who also had a life changing experience with God at the beach one night. He became “Science Mike” on the podcast from the group known as the  Liturgists  who say, “We create art and experiences for the spiritually homeless and frustrated.” (I have not listened their podcast, I admit).  Gungor is also a “Liturgist;” you can click his name and get a ticket to hear him on August 1 at 1125 S. Broad.

In Finding God in the Waves, Mike describes how science convinced him faith is not only possible, but preferable. Here is a quote about what he found most convincing:

“Trying to describe God is a lot like trying to describe falling in love. And that’s a serious problem for people who doubt that God is real…The unbelieving brain has no God construct, no neurological model for processing spiritual ideas and experiences in a way that feels real. This is why Bible stories and arguments for God’s existence will always sound like nonsense to a skeptic. For the unbeliever, God is truly absent from his or her brain. …

[Unlike how Christians tend to view solutions to doubt] neurotheology treats doubt as a neurological condition and would instead encourage people to imagine any God they can accept, and then pray or meditate on that God, in order to reorient the person’s neurobiological image of God back toward the experiential parts of the brain.…This insight was the most significant turning point in my return to God. I now knew I had to stop trying to perfect my knowledge of God and instead shift toward activities that would help me cultivate a healthy neurological image of God – secure in the knowledge that this network would help me connect with God and live a peaceful, helpful life.” 

It all amazes me. The desperate immigrants and illegals, the millions who are deluded by spirituality without Jesus, the science-laden who think their disciplines exclude the possibility of God, all of them popped up in my own experience with a story about Jesus coming to them in a way they never expected. And now they are joined around our own table in an odd way, celebrating the life, death and resurrection of the Lord.

Pray and push. Move with the movement. I can tell you are doing it, so all I can say is that I am with you as you pray and push. I am with you as we celebrate how Jesus transforms people who never expected to meet Him.

Thank God my faith is not all in my head.

Last Sunday we welcomed Jesus to raise us up with him. It seemed like a lot of people at the meeting really meant it when we shouted “He is risen indeed!” But I suspect others weren’t into it, or just watched me shouting. Their “mind” had the upper hand. They did not engage their body at all. Maybe they didn’t even come to the meeting. Why bother? They keep their “religion” in a private space in their head. Whatever love might be in that head, in concept, is left unexpressed. In fact, some other love is probably the object of their de facto worship, although they might not notice.

Welcome morning

That’s OK. Today is another day. And this week, as well, is loaded with opportunities to live in the spirit of Anne Sexton’s poem:

Welcome Morning by Anne Sexton

There is joy
in all:
in the hair I brush each morning,
in the Cannon towel, newly washed,
that I rub my body with each morning,
in the chapel of eggs I cook
each morning,
in the outcry from the kettle
that heats my coffee
each morning,
in the spoon and the chair
that cry “hello there, Anne”
each morning,
in the godhead of the table
that I set my silver, plate, cup upon
each morning.

All this is God,
right here in my pea-green house
each morning
and I mean,
though often forget,
to give thanks,
to faint down by the kitchen table
in a prayer of rejoicing
as the holy birds at the kitchen window
peck into their marriage of seeds.

So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.

The Joy that isn’t shared, I’ve heard,
dies young.

Hello there

for some people, it is all mentalIt may embarrass some people to hear the poet say: “in the spoon and the chair that cry ‘hello there, Anne’ each morning.”  It is so something, so immediate, so heartfelt! So many of us have our faith stuck in a mental construct; we’re arguing about principles in our head and fearing we don’t have it all right yet so we better not commit. Our silverware is certainly not talking to us! Others of us are trapped in a “worldview” that is a bit more human, but is still a philosophical construct by which we compare and contrast who we are with others and from which we draw a politically sanctioned identity, so we think sorting that out is about all the meaning we get — and all we do is sort. We would certainly think twice before we announced to the public that we were overcome with joy this morning at breakfast! It just wouldn’t fit the self-concept.

Last week, during the holy week, the commemoration of Jesus’ last week, when history is offered a restart, we were invited to put our mental dialogue in its place and find joy in our own pea-green house, in our own bodies, walking alongside Jesus, who is God ennobling and redeeming our true selves as the author of creation and its restorer. Like him, for the joy set before us, we endure the cross.

Move with my loves

If you have a mental faith, Holy Week probably seemed like a lot of time spent on redundant material. If you are training your body to move with your loves, you may have awakened every day, like Anne Sexton, and said,

“So while I think of it,
let me paint a thank-you on my palm
for this God, this laughter of the morning,
lest it go unspoken.”

circle of hope, philly, philadelphia, south jersey, churches, love, hope, Jesus, Christian

On each day of the holy week we made a special, communal, concerted effort to “paint a thank-you on” our palms, and so get our bodies moving in the direction of our salvation. We moved through darkness into light, not just in our thoughts or beliefs, but in our hearts and time with those we love in the creation we feel. And so we trained our hearts for joy and opened our days to grace. We were saved, not in theory, but in fact.

There were words and thinking, of course, but, as I am prone to saying, “It does not really matter what happens, it matters that I did it.” What I do ends up being the liturgy of my loves. Thus Sexton’s poem is so profound because she realizes that even her breakfast is charged with God’s presence and should she fall on her knees by her table it would be an appropriate action that would unleash the joy stored up in the meal. How much more profound was the “breakfast” of Holy Week, as we knelt before our common table of grace and looked forward to the joy of Easter morning: these birds, these seeds, this realization that I am welcomed into eternal joy, and this “God, this laughter of the morning!”

God help us, we do not coerce anyone to do what we plan as Circle of Hope, so I am not trying to get you to come to meetings! We would not risk driving you into another bout with all the shoulds the mental overlords have caused you to resist as you rebel against their science and social construction. But, again this week, we are offering a lot of ways to express your loves with people who love you. We have a lot of ways to cooperate with the reorientation of our desire towards true joy. Just being with your cell or making it to the Sunday meeting might get the ball rolling or keep it rolling —  if you don’t just think about it, of course.

[The original post appeared at Circle of Hope.net]

Redux # 1 — David Bazan and the Dialogue about Lost Faith

My top ten series is complete! This is the #1 most-read post from before 2014 from last year. In 2013 I remembered David Bazan and his very public struggle with faith.

About the time Circle of Hope got going, a group named Pedro the Lion started becoming popular. It was the brainchild of David Bazan, the son of a Pentecostal worship leader who brought a down-to-earth Seattle vibe to his music and didn’t mind being a Christian who talked about issues of justice and issues of doubt.

Pedro+the+LionSince nothing ever disappears from the internet (even if we can’t remember that long ago!), we can still see what Bazan was saying about faith and art back in the early days of Pedro the Lion. He said that his faith naturally permeated his music because it is an extension of who he is. “Anyone with a strong, sincere belief in something shouldn’t treat it lightly. It seems I’m always being called upon to boil down my faith for interviews. Defining it should be done with great care.” [Want to see the whole interview?]

Becoming a Christian rocker who makes a living finding ways to make holy scripture fit alongside gnarly power chords was NOT what Bazan wanted to do. He thought that ”the basic act of being creative glorifies God.” Christian rock “turns the music and the message into crap. The message is degraded when it’s made into slogans and low-level propaganda. They’re attempting to reach a certain audience just like advertisers do — and that, ultimately, degrades the art.”

Continue reading Redux # 1 — David Bazan and the Dialogue about Lost Faith

Redux #6 — What if I don't feel God anymore?

At the beginning of the year I am reposting “top ten” entries. On Friday, I’m reminding people about some posts before 2014 that people have kept reading — there is a “top ten” of them! Here is #6

In September of 2012 I tried to encourage people to change when change was upon them, not hold on to their past and die off, spiritually.

The film, Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, is parable about gaining faith. It helps us answer a question people sometimes whisper, “What if I don’t feel God anymore?” What if I feel like I am losing faith or am destined for faith mediocrity? What if what excited me doesn’t move me anymore? What if I am trying to feel God and it is not working?

In the film, Ewan McGregor plays a surly bureaucrat from the fish and game department. He is unsatisfied with his life and his wife, emotionally cut off, and isolated from his colleagues at work. In a strange turn of events, his life is invaded by a charismatic, visionary sheikh and the sheikh’s sexy wealth-manager. Things begin to change. For one thing, Ewan’s love of salmon fishing ends up being a metaphor for his own transformation.

Continue reading Redux #6 — What if I don't feel God anymore?

Brigid Day — celebrating great women of faith

February 1 is always a great day to celebrate great women of faith. Thank God for Brigid and for you!

Here are some pieces from the past that celebrate Brigid of Ireland and women like her of today.

2009 — Today Is Saint Brigid’s Day

2014 — Nineteen Flame-tending Women to Start

2014 #7.5 — Prayer: Walk by faith, not by sight

At the beginning of the year I am reposting “top ten” posts. Here is #7.5 of the top ten most-read posts of 2014.

In April I tried to help people figure out contemplative prayer. It was proving to be a faith-saver for several people in dire circumstances. I wanted everyone to know about it.

“Walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). We often think of this as waiting for God to do something in the future that we would not normally expect — “I am moving ahead, hoping for the best. I am walking by faith, not by sight.” That is good.

SONY DSCBut when we practice the prayer of contemplation, “Walk by faith, not by sight” is something more immediate. It is about becoming aware of the unknown things God is doing in the present moment. It is not looking ahead but looking in.

Prayer amounts to faithing. Having faith as a verb not an idea, as an experience of relationship not just a thought about principles. Prayer is where we develop the sense of being guided by the Holy Spirit of God and learn to see and react with more than just our physical senses. God is with us, right now; prayer helps us be with God right now.

Continue reading 2014 #7.5 — Prayer: Walk by faith, not by sight

The mustard seed — faith you have, not faith you don’t

Mustard-Seeds-PlantsHere’s another Bible problem for you. What’s with faith-as-small-as-a-mustard-seed moving mountains?

We sing:

Si tuvieras fe como grano de mostaza
Eso lo dice el Senor
Tu le dirias a la montana
Muevete, muevete 
Esa montana se movera, se movera, se movera

Shouldn’t that little song come with a little warning label? Shouldn’t it say something like: “We don’t really think this is true!” Or “No mountains were injured in the performance of this song!”?

Why does Jesus say,

“I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20)

if He doesn’t really mean it?

Continue reading The mustard seed — faith you have, not faith you don’t

Prayer: walk by faith, not by sight.

“Walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7). We often think of this as waiting for God to do something in the future that we would not normally expect — “I am moving ahead, hoping for the best. I am walking by faith, not by sight.” That is good.

Faithing

SONY DSC

When we practice the prayer of contemplation, “Walk by faith, not by sight” is something more immediate. It is about becoming aware of the unknown things God is doing in the present moment. Prayer amounts to faithing, walking into what’s happening with faith as a sense guiding us,not just seeing and reacting with our physical senses. God is with us, right now; prayer helps us be with God right now.

When I say “contemplative prayer” you might think of mindfulness techniques that people are teaching to jr. highers to help them settle down. That’s a beginning, but that is not the prayer of contemplation. The prayer of contemplation includes the techniques for reducing anxiety, but it is more. Contemplative prayer, and any spiritual discipline, disposes us to allow something to take place. We are not doing something to get a result; we are not making something happen, necessarily. We are doing something to allow communion with God to be our condition.

It is like this: A gardener does not actually grow plants. She practices skills that facilitate growth that is beyond her control. Prayer is like that. A sailor does not produce the necessary wind to move the boat. He harnesses the gift of wind by exercising skills that can get him home. Prayer is like that.

Basic contemplative prayer

The basic skill of contemplative prayer that facilitates and harnesses is inner silence. There are two practices within this skill set that are very important: stillness and awareness. When we attempt to be silent, we need to consider how to face the inner noise with which we struggle. We do many noisy things when we pray, too; we are embodied spirits, after all. But at the center of us is the silent place where God is simply giving himself to us and we are communing spirit to Spirit. We long to carry this silence with us in the midst of the noisy world and be content that we are in Christ and Christ is in us. We want to be at home. One of the early teachers of the church said in this center we are constantly being called home, away from the noise that is around us to the joys that are silent. He said, “Why do we rush about looking for God who is here at home with us, if all we want is to be with him?”

Martin Laird, a teacher from Villanova who wrote a book called Into the Silent Lands, tells a story about a prisoner who was accustomed to cutting himself or burning himself so that his inner pain would be in a different place — on the outside of him. This suffering man came upon some people whose mission was to teach prisoners to pray and turn their prison cells into monastic cells. The prisoner learned from them and after several weeks of meditating twice a day he said, “I just want you to know that after only four weeks of meditating half an hour in the morning and night, the pain is not so bad, and for the first time in my life, I can see a tiny spark of something within myself I can like.” That is the home we are talking about.

rittenhouse square parkOur sense of separation from God is often a matter of our broken perception. We can’t feel God. We have an idea of what we should feel and we don’t feel that. Contemplative prayer is the place we let go our perceptions and become aware of God with us, as the scripture guides us:

  •  My soul, wait in silence for God only, for my hope is from Him (Psalm 62:5).
  • I am in my Father and you are in me and I in you (Jesus in John 14:20).
  • I have been crucified with Christ and yet I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me (Galatians 3:20).

From the perspective of the created order we are separate from God. But from the perspective of being aware, we see Christ when we look inside. When we pray, we are not merely becoming aware of our thoughts and feelings (although that is good!), we are learning to be aware of God and to be with God who is with us.

Retraining the heart

It is like this: A man was taking his dog to a field where the animal could run and he ran into another man walking four dogs. They got to the open field and let their dogs go so they could enjoy running around in a big free space. But one of the new friend’s dogs was off to the side running is relatively tight circles and did not join in with the other dogs. The man asked his new friend, “What’s with your dog?” He gave him an explanation. “Before I got this dog, he had spent years living in a cage. He was used to getting all his exercise, just as you see. He has the field, but he is trained for the cage.” I did not see this dog do this personally, so I can’t prove to you that dogs do this, but I do know myself and I have seen many of you who are reading this. We have the wide open field of grace and freedom to romp in but we run in the contours of our former cage. The prayer of contemplation is retraining our hearts to roam the wide open spaces of eternity freely.

  • My heart is like a bird that has escaped from the snare of the fowler (Psalm 123:7).

Our minds tend to run in the obsessive tight circles of our mental cage. We believe we are separate from God, and we were. So now we need to learn something else. I heard something shocking from a friend not long ago. When he was a child his father sang a little ditty that he thought was funny: “Charlie Wilkins is no good. Let’s chop him up like so much wood.” I know this little boy as an old man and you can still see that putrid song playing in his head. Just like that, we may believe we are condemned by God. So now we need to learn freedom. Prayer is the training ground.

When we think about things, we have a cage of thoughts that guide us. Contemplative prayer helps us go beyond them and enter into the silence where we don’t merely think about things, we commune with God. We concentrate attention in our heart to the place of knowing, the place of awareness that is not full of the cacophony of our mind and surroundings but is full of God. It seems like we are just sitting there doing nothing, when we pray and that is exactly right and exactly good. In that nothing of ourselves and our surroundings we enter the silent land of our true being with God.

Next time I will tell you more about how this is done. But, like I said, we don’t need to perfect techniques to pray as much as we need to access the skills that are built in to our beings by our loving Father. Be silent and turn your heart to God whether you think you know what you are doing or not. Take a step of walking by faith, not by sight. You’ll have a good time with God.

[Another version of this post]

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Exile or Pioneer — we don't really know what you are going to do with this blog post

I really have no idea what is going to happen — most of the time, I like it that way. I don’t really know if Circle of Hope can sustain itself, since it runs on conviction and covenant. I don’t know whether the stock market will dive and take us with it, whether aggrieved people will unite and upend the social order, whether my friends will move away, or whether my pipes will freeze in the endless winter. Most of the time, all that uncertainty seems like a good excuse to have faith. It is a great grace that living by faith is more fulfilling than knowing whether I should have bought salt before it was all sold out.

mr. batesBut people have a lot of guilt and anxiety about not knowing. They are ashamed they made what look like mistakes and they did not know what was going to happen before it happened. Mr. Bates may do something terrible because of his guilt and shame about not knowing what was happening to Mrs. Bates!

The other day I was at a baby shower and people were quite satisfied that they did not have to buy yellow baby clothes because they knew the baby’s gender already — I am sure science developed in utero photography to ease the anxiety about how to decorate the nursery!  Maybe you laugh, but people are still angry that the government did not predict and prevent 9/11!  Many people defend the government’s right to collect our phone records because they think every measure must be taken so “nothing like that ever happens to anyone ever again!” — we even see our personal experiences as contributions to anxiety relief, guilt reduction and the hope of controlling the future. Don’t we insist that the future must be “better” than the past? And aren’t we taught that good people band together to make sure it will be?

Continue reading Exile or Pioneer — we don't really know what you are going to do with this blog post

Have the Faith You Have, Not the Faith You Don’t

Mustard-Seeds-PlantsHere’s another Bible problem for you. What’s with faith-as-small-as-a-mustard-seed moving mountains?

We sing:

Si tuvieras fe como grano de mostaza
Eso lo dice el Senor
Tu le dirias a la montana
Muevete, muevete 
Esa montana se movera, se movera, se movera

Shouldn’t that little song come with a little warning label? Shouldn’t it say something like: “We don’t really think this is true!” Or “No mountains were injured in the performance of this song!”?

Why does Jesus say,

“I tell you the truth, if you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible for you” (Matt. 17:20)

if He doesn’t really mean it?

That’s a good question. It is an especially good question if you were taught all your life that the Bible was feeding you the kind of “truth” that the philosophy of our day considers Truth. I’m talking about some observable occurrence you can test and see repeated when you try it again — that kind of true. Apply that to the Bible and the “formula” Jesus posits says, “Faith moves mountains.” Then a logical conclusion follows: if your faith doesn’t result in miracle, either you don’t have enough faith or faith is not what it claims to be — if you have faith, you tell the mountain to move, and the mountain doesn’t move, then the Bible is not true. Sometimes that is called working with “literal” truth — if the words say it, that’s what it is, as if words just describe verifiable data, as if they just report scientific findings, as if we are talking about those kinds of words. Many Christians treat the Bible like it is a scientific text and call that conservative, when it is really the most worldly thing they could be doing.

I think Jesus speaks a deeper truth than the surface truth almost anyone can observe. He is revealing eternity to us. Do you really  think that the Lord was announcing his findings about the world’s smallest seed is, or that he was suggesting that mountains should be moved around? I don’t. But in a world full of “literal” truth, people get tripped up by anything immaterial to their materiality.

Matthew 17 is very confusing for literalists! I feel their pain. Just look at what happens there. First, Jesus is up on the Mount of Transfiguration revealing to his inner circle that there is just a thin veil between His Father’s dimension and our own — but that the dimensions are very different. Then he announces his impending resurrection. Then they come down the mountain and he completes an exorcism that his other disciples could not accomplish. And why can’t they do it? They don’t have enough faith. It is a wild chapter for people who can only know what they test in their personal labs.

Maybe we should live in Matthew 17 until we understand it and stop basing our ideas of faith on things we already understand. Maybe we should stay there until we can do what is described and stop basing our doubts on what we can’t yet do. Maybe we should stop being discouraged with Jesus because he can’t just leave faith as “being nice,” or as “applying moral principles” or as “acting out a stripped-down methodology that passes for being forgiven of our sins instead of having a life of active trust” (I digress…with hope in my heart).

Many people come away from what Jesus says about not having enough faith looking for a formula for getting enough faith. But I think the whole point of his statement is not about what we lack, it is about what we don’t lack. He is ultimately being very positive — realistic about us, but full of hope. Yes, Jesus is as frustrated as we are that we have less spiritual capability than we ought to. But even if we rely on Him just a little, his work of death and resurrection allows even the little faith we have to do things that were previously unimaginable. Have the faith you have, not the faith you don’t.

When I sing, “Muevete!” I am expressing my hope in Jesus, not taking on the ultimate challenge to prove Jesus worthy of worship by my miraculous excavating — as if, “If the mountain moves, then Jesus can be my Savior until we reach the next mountain!” everest tibetObviously, Jesus is not rearranging the planet for his convenience, either, so he must not mean for us to look for faith that is mustard-seed size somewhere in our inner being and prove his validity as a Savior and our value as followers by moving Mt. Everest to Beijing. Some people give up on the Bible because such things aren’t happening like they think the Bible literally says they should. They grumble, “The Book just plain contradicts itself!” But I wish they’d soak in it long enough to see what’s really happening.

When there is a surface meaning that isn’t working for us, we do need to argue it out until we can receive its deeper content. Ignoring or reducing things we can’t understand keeps us infantile. And being content to endlessly argue keeps us adolescent. But working with the risen Lord to experience something of what his inner circle did on the Mt. of Transfiguration is more adult. Rather than focusing on how mountains are not literally moved, or on “how much faith is enough to cast out a demon,” I think we should rejoice in what the-little-faith-we-have has done in us and through us that would have been unimaginable without it.

For instance,

  • that we should believe any parts of Matthew 17 as true must be an act of God-with-us
  • that we want to ponder and even argue about who Jesus is and what he did surely could only be the Spirit of God drawing us
  • that we know we are forgiven and destined for an eternity of connection with our Creator is a big change.
  • that we care whether we have enough faith to make a difference is a conviction only a Spirit-changed heart would have.
  • that people continue to be comforted, saved from self-destruction, and energized to foment justice and hope by their faith in Jesus is just what Jesus was predicting, wouldn’t you say?

Still not satisfied short of Everest taking a step towards China? I am not sure you are respecting the faith that causes your discontent, but who knows what that seed might cause next?

How NOT to outgrow your faith in your thirties

You’re not a twentysomething anymore. Now what? Are you outgrowing your faith like the fashions of your youth? It happens.

In their thirties, a lot of people consolidate a circle of friends that still feel right (and hope they don’t move away), get married, find a halfway decent job to which they commit for one reason or another, and save their money for fun. Jesus gets squeezed out of their limited time. He was one of their many twentysomething activities. But he never became the friend, the partner, the vocation, the fun.

If any of that is even halfway true of you or someone you care about, is there any hope for having faith when one grows up? I think so. Here are six ways to keep or restart your faith if you find it lacking in your adulthood.

1) Start over, even in the church you’ve got.

The other day a friend said she wanted to do something…finally. She was over the trauma of moving to town. She had the new job. She had found her favorite restaurants. She even had a boyfriend. Then she realized she had to get started! She now needed her life and she was sure that life had to do with Jesus.

If you are inspired like she is, it means changing; and change is hard. The need for change uncovers how lazy we all are — it is like the original sin. M. Scott Peck’s famous quote says that evil is laziness carried to its ultimate, extraordinary extreme.

Truly evil people … actively rather than passively avoid extending themselves.  They will take any action in their power to protect their own laziness, to preserve the integrity of their sick self. Rather than nurturing others, they will actually destroy others in this cause. If necessary, they will even kill to escape the pain of their own spiritual growth. As the integrity of their sick self is threatened by the spiritual health of those around them, they will seek by all manner of means to crush and demolish the spiritual health that may exist near them (The Road Less Travelled, 1978).

My friend has the insight to know she needs to start over and has the guts to do something. She is also kind of scared not to! You don’t have to move to a new state, new church or new friendship circle to start over. You have to not be lazy.

thirties2) Learn to pray. Now is the time for contemplative prayer.

Many twentysomethings love the church because their friends do. Any number of people in Circle of Hope like to be a part of our community even though they don’t like the founder of it: Jesus! But they get to a point where the relationships change, there is conflict, or people just grow up. Then they need a relationship with God, not just nice people. It is time to learn to pray. We need to learn a method for connecting with our natural aptitude for “the inner life, that simplicity of our childhood once our adult minds have become overly complex and busy.”

That’s what Cynthia Bourgeault says in Centering Prayer and Inner Awakening (2004). Some people have never read her book or any book about spiritual disciplines. They have never personally learned to pray and rely on others to do it for them. They come to a church meeting and let a leader make them pray. That’s not adult enough.

3) Get a spiritual direction

Repent. Turn a new, Jesus-following direction – not like you used to think about spirituality, but in ways your heart and mind tell you to move now. Think and feel about how you think and feel spiritually. Enough said, for now.

4) Get some spiritual directors.

Adult faith is not singular. Maybe in your twenties you needed to assert your own identity. Adulthood requires community and help. Therapy might be a good place to start. Retreat centers often have someone who wishes someone would come by so they could listen to them and help them listen to God. Our Pastors, Cell Leader Coordinators, and Cell Leaders can listen or help you find someone who can. Your cell or another group you form will help. Having a good friend in Christ will help, too, but we cannot always rely on people who are attached to us to be detached enough to see and tell the truth we need. Your spouse can be helpful, but not enough. Make a life-giving connection somewhere.

5) Get some buy in.

Like I said, adult faith requires community. The biggest reason people back-burner their faith, and often lose it altogether, is because they have to fight for it — and they are sleeping with the person with whom they are fighting!  Any number of spouses have decided Jesus is the lover with whom they are in competition and they say, “Jesus or me!”

So have an honest talk about your desire to be a Christian with your intimates and get their support. Even if they are unbelievers, they probably love you enough to help you. If your faith is secret or private, it will probably end up strangled.

6) Serve. Give. Commit.

The thirties are sort of a proving ground. It is time for integrity. Do you count? Does what you say matter? Do you know for what God has laid hold of you?

Time is short. The assignment of transformation takes a long time. We need to do something. (If you are a twentysomething reading this, it is not too early. If you are past forty, it is not too late). Plus, our resources are limited. We need to make the most of them. When we are up against sickness, addiction, relationship problems, or failure, it is hard to have faith. And who is not up against one or more of those things on a given day? We need to make the most of our time and limited resources to live in a way that matters.

The easiest way to look at doing this is to “give what you are given.” Sometimes we want to wait until we have what we should have or we are who we should be before we give. That’s a long wait. Serve where you are stationed. Waiting for the ideal situation or job could be a long wait. Make indefinite commitments now. No one knows what tomorrow will bring. Engage your heart in the present, not in the idealized future.

The thirties are often a very difficult era. But they don’t need to be a time to endure with gritted teeth. For the Jesus-follower, they are often the beginning of their richest era of spiritual development. But you’ll have to grow into it, not just outgrow your previous faith.

 

Alternative views…

David Bazan and the Dialogue about Lost Faith

About the time Circle of Hope got going, a group named Pedro the Lion started becoming popular. It was the brainchild of David Bazan, the son of a Pentecostal worship leader who brought a down-to-earth Seattle vibe to his music and didn’t mind being a Christian who talked about issues of justice and issues of doubt.

Pedro+the+LionSince nothing ever disappears from the internet (even if we can’t remember that long ago!), we can still see what Bazan was saying about faith and art back in the early days of Pedro the Lion. He said that his faith naturally permeated his music because it is an extension of who he is. “Anyone with a strong, sincere belief in something shouldn’t treat it lightly. It seems I’m always being called upon to boil down my faith for interviews. Defining it should be done with great care.” [Want to see the whole interview?]

Becoming a Christian rocker who makes a living finding ways to make holy scripture fit alongside gnarly power chords was NOT what Bazan wanted to do. He thought that ”the basic act of being creative glorifies God.” Christian rock “turns the music and the message into crap. The message is degraded when it’s made into slogans and low-level propaganda. They’re attempting to reach a certain audience just like advertisers do — and that, ultimately, degrades the art.”

A more pure model, he said, would be to try to express yourself artistically, as honestly and sincerely as possible. But  “It would be naïve to think you could steer clear of the forces of money and acceptance. To ignore it is to let it rule you. You can only control it if you openly address it.”

He was a sincere, intense twentysomething. He was leading the way into a faith that was not just a slogan or a straitjacket. Now he is leading people into his own agnosticism. Pedro the Lion broke up mainly because of Bazan’s drinking and inconsistency, it seems. But now he has  righted the ship and is writing and performing provocative songs in his own name.

david bazanBazan earned religion and philosophy credits from a Christian college and that pursuit started his journey into analyzing everything he could get his mind around. Curse Your Branches chronicled his struggle with faith, and the resulting spiral that came with uprooting his foundation. He did not claim a sudden disbelief, but he did not let any metaphysical question avoid his analysis, either. As more people heard his musical autobiography, he found out just how many others were asking the same questions he was asking.

A newer album, Strange Negotiations, shows that the religious roots are still visibly dissolving. He  addresses his current reality with brutal honesty. He has abandoned his faithful stability. But, reportedly, his wife, parents, and some of his friends still pray for him. One of the songs on the album, “Virginia,” reflects his shaky roots [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMzqRHFjcbo]. He muses about a friend who died very young:

We were worried about your personal salvation.
Was it heaven or hell that you saw when your eyes closed?
You smiled at us floating high above the question
Like you knew something we didn’t know.

He says Negotiations  is about the “frustration that comes from realizing the refusal to participate in the mass delusion while not dismissing the deluded is the only way forward… I think people are starting to take more seriously the discrepancies in their faith. I think we’ll all be better off for that.” [Want to read the whole interview?]

I find Bazan’s journey fascinating because I have travelled it with his peers since they first loved Pedro the Lion. Now they are part of the dialogue about the loss they feel about their dissolving faith. They care about their Evangelical or Catholic relatives and friends, but they can’t stand going into the church and experiencing the cognitive dissonance. They slowly take on the new religions of the day, based on Eastern thought or generated by one of the many denominations of psychotherapy. They graze for the solidity of organic food and experiment with the relevance of occupying something. Mostly they wonder about themselves and express their wondering.

It is challenging to be tagged as part of the old church they have left behind. I can safely say that I never adopted the Christianity Bazan rejected, so I think I can relate to his conviction. But I can also say that I met Jesus, whose smile I experience as much more than the smirk of a lost friend.

Other relevant posts:

What if I Don’t Feel God Anymore? Sep 2012
The Tantric Propaganda in Green Lantern and Elsewhere Sep 2011
Good Questions About Jesus Jul 2010

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Salmon Fishing in the Yemen Saves the Weekend

Sometimes, being squished on a United Airlines plane — heading for a conference that promises to be discouraging, in a land broiling under a smoggy sun — can be inspirational! Take heart!

Suddenly, the screens tilted down and Ewan McGregor appeared. I quickly rummaged around and found the headphones because it was Salmon Fishing in the Yemen. I did not go to the Ritz to see this movie because I thought it had to be silly, even if Ewan was in it. Now I will need to buy a disc to add to my collection, right alongside Brother Sun,  Sister Moon.

I did not realize it was all about faith sneaking up on the over-bureaucratized. I did not know it was full of little epiphanies converting fear-ridden people. I did not know it was about a couple coming together over mutual faith in something that is a miracle rather than just a sensation. What a pleasure!

Even though I could barely see the piddly screen and could not see any subtitles. I got the picture. And I got the inspiration. A rich Arab tries to do something wonderful with his money. European bean-counters and petty office workers are lifted to something organic and eternal. Cultures learn about each other in a real-world scenario; bad things happen and they decide that faith is more important than  giving in to fear and hatred

I paid to see Seeking a Friend for the End of the World. (Well I guess I paid an airline ticket for Salmon Fishing….too). But I was not as well served. That one just retreaded the idea that love saves you, which looked even more unsatisfying when everyone blew up. Salmon Fishing had the same vile people doing the same vile things and the same lovers trying to make sense of it all, but they find something beyond their embrace to embrace and it makes all the difference. They did not exactly find Jesus, but Ewan starts praying — and that gives me hope.

I know I did not give you enough plot to convince you that this is not a silly movie. But take my word for it. Put it in the queue.  It actually unleashed a couple of hours of inspiration in me on an airplane serenaded by a grumpy baby! That’s something. It keeps coming to mind while I am in the Yemen of my conference wondering if salmon will ever run again. That’s really something!