I had another apostle Paul moment when I was on my retreat this weekend. I was reading over some journal entries and noted that over and over again I wrote things like, “I turned to something other than you. I should have prayed, instead I did this. I woke up anxious, but I wish I had sat down with you instead of doing something else.”
I wish all my apostle Paul moments were like Jesus meeting him on the Damascus Road or like the time he was shipwrecked on Malta and bitten by a viper yet unharmed. (Don’t know that one?)
Instead, I’ve got the Apostle Paul moment from Romans 7 on my mind. He says, “I have discovered this principle of life—that when I want to do what is right, I inevitably do what is wrong. I love God’s law with all my heart. But there is another power within me that is at war with my mind. This power makes me a slave to the sin that is still within me” (Romans 7:21-23).
When I know turning to God in prayer will be a source of healing and comfort, or at least will fend off responses that will hurt me or someone else, why don’t I do that? Many times I do do it. But why would I ever not?
I’ve got ruts
I was given a good answer while I was finishing a book I started some weeks ago, Finding God in the Waves. It helped me remember my ruts. I have some mind/heart/soul ruts that make some of my reactions pretty-much automatic, so automatic they just feel like “me.” These ingrained patterns are psychological and spiritual, sin-ridden. The society keeps saying everyone should just get used to what they are as if they chose it. But that is deeply unsatisfying, and Paul doesn’t think it is realistic. Anyone who really thinks their choice is the center of life is probably on the edge of despair or madness. I choose what I don’t want all the time.
The other day the Leadership Team Core was wondering why there is an increase in teen suicide – part of the reason could be that teens are left alone with their choices. I understand the pull to avoid and numb and detach from the demands to choose who I am. It is hard to endure. My prayer ruts are pretty deep, but I still have the vestiges of what sin did to me. My automatic avoidance mechanisms can keep me from choosing what I want. Get me anxious, afraid, despairing, or something and those old, automatic attempts at self-preservation tend to kick in, if I am not looking. I can sink pretty far before Jesus pulls me out.
I get pushed into ruts
It is not just the sin at work in me, however, it is also the sin at work on me that gets me into a rut. We have some reaction ruts in our brains and habits, but we can get forced into ruts by systemic issues, too. A list of influences came to mind as I was thought of myself and others with whom I had spoken. These things could also kick off our automatic reactions: Lies from the President. The titans of industry who caused the last recession (from which many have not recovered) flexing their muscles. Machines and the machines’ secretaries that never quite work right (Google Drive Crashed last Thursday and almost upended the Hub). Then Harvey bangs up against Texas and causes a ripple of fear and despair throughout the country. Then here comes Irma.
When I wished my sister in Oregon a happy birthday, she told me she was watching smoke from her window from wildfires caused by lightning strikes. Come to find out, the West is on fire, check out the map. Most of the country is breathing smoke. Montana is a disaster. One fire near my sister started July 11, has consumed 177,693.00 acres and is only 5.00% contained! Sometimes we wonder why people don’t say hi to us on the sidewalk — I think a lot of them are trying to endure what is beating down on them!
Romans 7 leads to Romans 8
The good part about having a Romans 7 moment with Paul is that it leads to a Romans 8 moment.
Who will free me from this life that is dominated by sin and death? Thank God! The answer is in Jesus Christ our Lord. So you see how it is: In my mind I really want to obey God’s law, but because of my sinful nature I am a slave to sin. So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death (Romans 7:24-8:2).
When we fall into our ruts or are pushed into them by outside forces, we need help! It would be nice if I accessed all the power I have in the Spirit. But I have been known to detour. For instance, on the way to my retreat, I decided I wanted Wawa. I consciously told myself, “Wawa is a waste of time and calories,” but I pictured the bag and bottle I liked and turned off the road in Plymouth Meeting. Sure enough, I got lost, like I always do, in Plymouth Meeting. My phone was turned to “no tolls” (I discovered later) so I couldn’t even find my way back to the turnpike. I eventually ran by a Wawa and got my false comfort, but what I mostly got was a lesson in what runs me around. What do you turn to when you are having a feeling (or are just angry or anxious and don’t know what you feel yet)? Other detours I heard about last week include: screens, drugs, porn, making something too-perfect (like dinner), exercise, manicuring my playlist, games, decorating the house. Most of these things are OK in moderation. They are just things we tend to turn to when we don’t turn to God. They are destinations at the end of a rut, our ineffectual means to halt intolerable feelings.
You can decide how Romans 7 works in you. You probably know the tried and true ways to Romans 8 like I do. The spiritual disciplines make a difference. Back to my most recent favorite book. Mike McHargue, the Evangelical turned atheist who is now back at faith, says that the good news about prayer is that those predisposed to spiritual experiences and those who are not can both benefit from all forms of prayer. Prayer is the place to get some new ruts.
Both kinds of people will get stronger with exercise, [It’s] possible for anyone to increase her or his propensity toward spiritual experiences. Through consistent meditative practice, each of us has the potential to make our brain more spiritual—even to the point of increasing the probability that we will experience something truly mystical….The practice is what matters. Plenty of skeptics meditate for the mental and physical health benefits, and if feeling closer to God or confronting doubt is important to you, prayer is going to be more effective than just about anything else you can do. Prayer might not help you solve the mystery of God rationally, but it may help you encounter God.
My retreat helped. Today, I am more aware of the Spirit, less consumed by my challenges and my failure to meet them, more available to my creativity, and more empowered to be creative after Irma is finished with us. I hope these few moments with my blog contributed to development of new ruts in you, too. Why not spend a couple of minutes praying right now? Seriously, why not?