Monthly Archives: June 2014
In my last post, I wrote a bit about my own longing to feed my soul on Christ, and how contemplative practices have helped. That’s what this blog series is about: Christians sharing ways they’ve connected deeply with God. What I am inviting you to do with these upcoming blog posts is to try them during the week, and see if they resonate with the desires of your heart. It may surprise you what you find when you become intentional and available to God.
A good place for us to start is with contemplative prayer.
Ruth Haley Barton once described contemplative prayer as “primarily beyond words,” moving from communication to communion with God (Sacred Rhythms, 64-65). Unfortunately, it reminds some Christians of Eastern meditation. This has left a bad taste in their mouths before ever getting a chance to dine. I was once suspicious of such practices, and I understand the initial hesitation for someone with little knowledge of either Eastern meditation or contemplative prayer. But the differences between the two are monumental. Spiritual formation director, Adele Calhoun, points out that while Eastern mediation involves an “attempt to clear the mind of all thoughts,” the distinctively Christian practice of contemplative prayer “allows for the recognition of thoughts and gently releases them into the hands of God” (Spiritual Disciplines, 208). So, far from denying our thoughts, passions, and innermost desires, we are to “rest in God, depending on him to initiate communion” (212).
Some will cite Jesus’ model prayer in Matthew 6:9-13 in their rejection of contemplative prayer, as though Jesus prohibited His followers from praying in any way except by reciting those five verses verbatim! (If we took this literally, we would all learn Aramaic). Yet the same Bible that Jesus affirms provides us a rich banquet of spiritual expression. The Bible says that Mary “treasured” what God spoke to her, “pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19); it tells us to meditate on Scripture day and night (Josh 1:8), and the Psalmist commands his own soul to “wait in silence” for God (Ps 62:5). There is no bifurcation in the Bible between prayer and contemplation. Is it possible to pray the Lord’s Prayer in a posture of silent meditation? I think so. Unlike the lower life expectancy of trendy self-help books available today, many Christian spiritual disciplines trace their roots through centuries of the storied history of the Church. I think they warrant our attention!
If you are struggling with the right words to say to God, yet need the peaceful power of his presence, maybe contemplative prayer is for you.
Though many agree that contemplative prayer is sometimes hard to explain perfectly–it lacks the formulaic nature that our Western mindset appreciates–there are certain steps you can take to posture yourself to receive from God. And I wanted someone who the practice has deeply affected to share it with you. Her name is Brittany Volpei.
I knew Brittany back when I started attending Reality, when, during the gatherings, she would go to the side where no one could see her, with her journal out, and her heart receptive to God.
Brittany has battled a pain disorder for the last 13 years. While the circumstances have been difficult, she is thankful for the opportunity to testify to God’s faithfulness. Below is her personal experience with the ancient art of contemplative prayer, how it’s connected her with God, and a few ways we all can take part in it. The rest of this post is in Brittany’s own words.
I learned the discipline of contemplative prayer in counseling.
For three years I struggled painfully with anger toward God. I felt abandoned, unloved, and confused. I was battling a disabling pain disorder and had dethroned God in my heart, replacing Him with healing. Because pain has been such a huge part of my life, I have done long seasons of counseling to learn how to cope. One counselor suggested I yell at God, another wanted me to journal about my feelings, but none of it worked. These failed tools left me suffocating under the weight of the heavy emotions. Then I met Karen.
I was a little skeptical of contemplative prayer because I was never taught that God is eager to answer very specific questions. Read the rest of this entry
It’s probably strange to hear the phrase, style of praying. I never would have identified one of my spiritual practices as a style. In my earlier years, I would have defended everything I did as the “right” way to do things. Now I’m learning that we all have styles in our spirituality. No single church or Christian encapsulates all that is Christ (that’s a good thing!). Praying is no different. Ah, that I could pray perfectly as Jesus did (John 17, anyone??) But I don’t–I pray like Chris Lazo. And my style of praying is partially influenced by my personality, friends, and church culture. I represent one strand of the universal Church. And as a representative strand–a fledgling one at that–I have a style to my prayer life. For example, I love boldly claiming the answer to prayers that I am confident are God’s will! I get a buzz from listening to authoritative prayers that are saturated with Scripture. I like intense words like travail. And unction. I have a habit of praying to persuade. And often, these prayers take their greatest shape when they have a goal in mind, e.g., tearing down walls, storming hell’s gates, etc. My church is heavily influenced by this type of praying. We often just call it intercession. And I love it. It has changed my small view of God into something I can sink my teeth into. It has shown me the encouraging power of a prayer answered. The friends who taught me how to pray this way opened me up to a world of praying that has left me with happy jitters. But it isn’t the only style of praying out there.
I had to remove myself from what was comfortable for me at the time to see the wealth of beautiful Christian expressions in the church today. It’s often when I observe the way God meets with other people that I learn the most about how to meet with God. Spirituality is so easy to exploit when everyone else behaves just like you. This has its strengths and weaknesses. First, it can surround you with people of like mind, vision, and tenacity. But other times, unfortunately, by remaining in a cultural bubble, your experience of God can become very myopic if you let it. In the same way, if we make prayer only about our particular style–whatever that may be–we might miss out on the panorama of communion with God. I’m learning this the hard way. I’ve grown in a particular strand of prayer that has intercession as its root, and I have so thoroughly benefitted from this. I will never stop participating in those fiery prayers of unction. But I also need to be refilled.
I guess you could say that I am restless.
I’m not always bold in prayer. I frequently struggle with doubts. Some of those doubts are so menial, it’s embarrassing how easily they tear me apart emotionally. Even in my loud, corporate prayers, I’ve felt the sting of spiritual dryness. I suppose much of this new soul-searching has been due to a very fiery season in life, replete with things I don’t feel capable of bearing. And it’s difficult to toss up words in those seasons where I am emotionally and spiritually spent. Sometimes I just need to change things up. Now, I don’t want to change for the sake of change, but for the sake of shaking up a rigid spiritual equilibrium. Sometimes all it takes is a slight diversion from old routines. Instead of always being heard, I need to listen. Instead of shouting, I need to whisper. Instead of having an agenda in prayer, I sometimes need to be ok with not having any other goal than just to be with Christ. Instead of bringing words, I bring silence. There come certain times in my life when I need to put away my loud “amens,” along with the calling down of fire, and trade it for a more contemplative approach. Of course, both of them are valuable! But recently, my soul has really needed the balm of the latter. I wonder if yours does too.
This is a blog series about contemplative spirituality.
The path of the mystics. These phrases used to trigger some ugly connotations for me in the past, when I was warned about those “Easterners” and their “Zen Meditation.” While there IS a dangerous side that exists (aren’t they everywhere?), traditional contemplatives trace their roots through a long strand of Christian history. And I don’t mean 1950’s Christian history. I mean ancient practices that have stood the test of time. The ancients were people just like us, in difficult situations like us, and often far worse. They clung to Christ just as we do. But they did it through tried spiritual disciplines like contemplative prayer, solitude, meditation, lectio divina, and many others.
The richness and breadth of some of these centuries-old church practices have been water to my soul.
There are probably a number of reasons why. Here’s one: It’s easy for me to pray in a corporate setting, when I feel the affirmation of others who are praying with me. I’m not saying that we do this, but it certainly is available to fall into if we want it to stimulate our self-esteem. The “mm-hmms,” the “amens,” and the “groans,” that accompany a Spirit-led prayer can easily tantalize me with using prayer to induce a response in my endless search for affirmation. Again, those corporate responses in prayer are good things! I love it when a group of people can pray in unison, and the “amens” often help cultivate that unity and create a wonderful momentum of vision and agreement when the church is knocking on the door of heaven. It is also very encouraging to experience. I’m also not saying that we should stop praying corporately, and only pray privately. Those are apples and oranges. Private prayer is different from corporate prayer, and we need both of them, not one to the exclusion of the other. So I’m not saying we do away with the “amens,” the corporate groans, or the loud prayers. I suppose I just want to identify, confess, and confront the wicked tendencies of my own heart in prayer. In that it is possible for me to pray for the wrong reasons, and I probably do this more than I imagine. Certainly, it is easier to do than I thought. There is an uncomfortable measure of productivity present in my normal routine of prayer. But that’s where these other spiritual disciplines come in.
The “quiet” prayers of the contemplatives are so haunting to me. There is no one to listen to me except God alone.
In fact, some ancient spiritual prayer disciplines involve no speaking whatsoever! This sometimes feels very counter-productive to me! Adele Calhoun empathizes with this on the practice of Centering Prayer, in her book, Spiritual Disciplines (which I can’t recommend more highly).
This prayer may seem mysterious to some because it depends so little on words. We do not give God information about all our needs, projects, ideas, programs, plans and agendas. We don’t suggest things we would like him to do. We sit in the presence of God and give them our undivided love and attention… Because centering prayer is a way of being with Jesus that doesn’t cover prayer concerns, some people wonder if it counts as real prayer. Furthermore, if it doesn’t make you feel or experience something particular, what does it do? It is never possible to judge the value of any prayer based on feeling or experience alone. Experiences are not the point.
I have often felt this way–like nothing was getting done unless I was saying something worthwhile (worthwhile could mean loud, wordy, catchy as far as my subjective feelings go). A lack of words left me feeling unproductive. Yet whenever I forced myself to sit in solitude, I ended up wrestling with myself. As it turns out, that was the obstacle getting in the way of my communion with God: myself. My self’s preoccupation with productivity, busyness, and “getting things done.” Calhoun confirms my conflict and the freedom that results from wrestling,
In centering prayer the goal is to so dwell in Christ that the fruit of this dwelling begins to show up in your life. Centering praying may “do” nothing at the moment. You sense no rapture, no mystical bliss. But later, as you move out to the busyness of life, you begin to notice that something has shifted. Your quiet center in Christ holds.
This is the trench that I continue to plow, without letting go of corporate prayer, or the unction-closet. I warn you, it has sometimes left me tattered, helpless, and hungry. But in my hunger, I’ve needed to step out of my normal routine, and receive again from others in our long history of shared faith. Out of this I’ve discovered a beautiful God in the wealth of His joy and beauty. A God who bids the sinner to come close in Christ. I would love to share in this with you as others have graciously shared with me. Not because I have all the answers to spirituality, prayer, or the dry seasons. But because I’m guessing that all of us hit those dry spots sooner or later. I’m also not the one giving anything. This series will be driven largely by other people. People who are also driven into the quiet places. Here’s how the series will look.
For the next six weeks, I’ve invited others to share specific ways that they connect with God in private, contemplative communion.
Many of these will be authentic disciplines that have been in use by Christians over many centuries. Others are more personal, and even quirky. But they all have something in common: the person practicing them has connected with God through that practice in a meaningful way. So here’s what I want us to do (myself included). I want all who are willing, to read from the experiences of these men and women, let them confront our own static routines, and learn a new spiritual discipline. Then…let’s DO them for that week. For example, if someone shares about solitude, learn from them, then practice solitude in a desire to connect with God. Same with reading the Word. And meditation. And listening.
My hope is that we will discover new plateaus to connect with God. In so doing, may our souls be ministered to by the fountain of God in Christ.
One last thing. It may not surprise you that spirituality is communal in nature, even when some of it remains private. So I welcome you to share your experiences during this series. Please comment on the posts, and interact with each author that participates. It will only be a blessing to us all. Until then, – Chris Lazo
I know of a Christian who struggles in social settings.
This seems counterintuitive. Evangelism is a basic tenet of his faith, and he feels exhausted just thinking about it! Maybe it’s because the word evangelism draws up for him caricatures of open-air street preaching. Or maybe because he would rather get to know and enjoy his neighbors before trying to proselytize them from a distance, as it often feels like. Whatever it is, that particular trigger of emotional exhaustion doesn’t travel alone. It is sometimes coupled with shame. Shame of not being naturally adept at something so essential to Christianity. And it certainly is essential…Jesus told His followers to speak about Him. And what Christian wouldn’t want to speak about Jesus? But it’s the speaking part that’s troubling!
It’s difficult for him to talk to strangers in a superficial environment, without a particular gift for social interaction.
Now, evangelism is one of the most thrilling, life-giving experiences a Christian can have. But evangelism, as the church has come to know it, feels much like peddling products door-to-door, or making cold calls to sell insurance. Now, you may think, “This guy is just ashamed of the gospel!” But I want you to think about that for a moment. Are you ashamed of having insurance just because you would never sell it door-to-door? Are you opposed to businesses everywhere just because you hate making or receiving cold-calls? Of course not. You can promote your insurance company while at the same time disdaining the way some insurance salesman treat you at the front door when they try to make a sale. (This is all hypothetically speaking, of course…I’ve never been approached by a door-to-door insurance salesman). There might be a few people who are wired to make “cold calls” in evangelism and great at doing it. But others ask, “Wait, people still do that?” Exactly. This is his perception of “evangelism” as it is often caricatured. And it’s an awkward feeling he will never escape. You see, he’s the pastor of an evangelical church. And evangelicals can sometimes hold a parochial definition of how evangelizing is supposed to go down. By the way, that guy is me.
But it’s not just me. Probably half of my congregation are introverts.
There are some very common misunderstandings about introverts that have made evangelism seem very untouchable. One is that introverts are shy and anti-social. You can see how this might affect our view of an introverted evangelist: “It’s a misnomer.”
But introversion and extraversion have less to do with a person’s identity, and more to do with how they choose to recharge. Susan Cain, famous for her 3 minute TED talk on the power of introversion, offers a simple definition in her book, Quiet:
Today’s psychologists tend to agree…introverts and extroverts differ in the level of outside stimulation that they need to function well. Introverts feel “just right” with less stimulation, as when they sip wine with a close friend, solve a crossword puzzle, or read a book. Extroverts enjoy the extra bang that comes from activities like meeting new people, skiing slippery slopes, and cranking up the stereo (Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, 11)
An introvert might be very adept to social interaction, but also need a proportionate amount of time to “recharge” in solitude. Whereas, an extrovert can read books, yet need to recharge by being around people. Think of how this affects evangelism. Maybe extroverts are generally more comfortable with “evangelistic” activities (like passing out tracks at the Farmer’s Market), because they are energized through interaction with groups of people.
Either way, no character trait should keep us from heralding the gospel.
I cannot say, “I’m not going to talk about Jesus with them because it’s out of my comfort zone as an introvert.” However, evangelism does seem monopolized by the extroverted ideal. And that’s not ok. While it may work well for the outgoing type, those who are more introspective need their own working model. We’ve all been trained over the decades to see effective evangelism through certain caricatures, i.e., street preacher, the altar-call giver, the stadium evangelist, and the person who talks a lot but never asks questions. There is nothing wrong with any of these caricatures, per se, but they aren’t all that there is to evangelism.
Again, this doesn’t mean those with introverted tendencies hate talking about Jesus. I would hate for you to misconstrued this post as a cop-out. Christians love Jesus. Introverts just don’t always like evangelizing on the same terms that are normally appreciated by our extroverted brothers and sisters. Nor is it always as effective, since we have differing gifts. God doesn’t assimilate our personalities into some universal ideal; the doctrine of Union with Christ teaches us that the image of God in us is being restored by His indwelling presence. That means we are being restored to the original luster of who God intended us to be. I would think that this includes our personality quirks. The question is not whether introverts should evangelize, but in what way? If an extrovert, who may love the thrill involved in, say, street-preaching, can evangelize in that way and be true to who God made them, how should introverts be evangelizing in a way that is faithful to Christ, and utilizes their gifts as well? That’s a question worth pursuing.
Unfortunately, the pressure from these over-the-top caricatures, and the shame attached to introversion in the church have inundated a large portion of gifted, caring, spirit-filled men and women in our church, and rendered them outsiders. (See Adam McHugh’s, Introverts in the Church) But it ought not be this way.
It’s Father’s Day!
In the last month, my twenty-month old Abby has choked on grapes, split her lip, stepped in a mound of fire ants, sprayed herself in the eye with chemical cleaner, developed a disturbing preoccupation with electrical outlets and hot coffee, and has incessantly pestered temperamental dogs. And our boy hasn’t even been born yet!
If I’ve learned anything this year, it’s that parenthood is the hardest thing ever. But strangely enough, as many parents will attest, it’s also the best thing ever. Because every difficult moment is outmatched by the joy of seeing her smile, pointing at a bug, giggling at me while hiding under the kitchen table, dancing to AC/DC, or cuddling on the couch. So yes, there are hard times on the parenting end, but there are way more good times to care about that. It’s the hardest and best thing ever. Which is why this Father’s Day will come with a certain satisfaction for me. Of course, that’s probably because I have a good dad, and love being a dad to my daughter.
But Father’s Day evokes a wide spectrum of emotion in different people
For some, Father’s Day evokes a different response. It reminds some that they lost their fathers–perhaps through war, a car accident, or cancer–the men who used to make them laugh while making faces under the kitchen table, have left an empty table setting at dinner. Others have fathers who are there, without actually being around. These are the successful dads who love their work more than their family, and kids who’s only memory of their dad is that success is the most important thing in life. I think also of dads who lost their daughters and sons during the tragedies that unfolded at UCSB in Isla Vista on May 23, 2014. Daughters who once put a smile on the faces of fathers, and the unspeakable pain that has been left in their absence. I thought of Abby when these stories surfaced in the news. I had no words. The dawning of Father’s Day for some of these people isn’t just hard, it’s unspeakably painful. And there is no silver lining.
I wonder what some of these must feel when we applaud dads in church on Sunday. Not to take away from the dads who were faithful and the kids who are appreciative. Good dad’s are rightly celebrated. And Father’s Day is a celebration for many dads. But for some, it’s an annual reminder of despair. And as it draws closer, some of you are dreading the day.
Fortunately hope doesn’t revolve around a day
In Colossians 2:16-17, Paul tells a bunch of Jewish Christians that they are no longer held to the ritual practice of their old “holy days.” The reason, he argues, is because these festivals, Sabbaths, and special days point them to something better: “the substance is the Messiah” (17b). This is loosely analogous, but when I read this text, I thought about Father’s Day. See, for many of you, this holiday reminds you that you don’t have a dad. For other’s it reminds you about how your dad has disappointed you, or was never there to begin with. But I want you to consider a new thought to fill your mind with this weekend. The gospel (good news) in the Bible is that when we are united with Christ by faith, we are brought into the family of God, and adopted by God the Father. We become HIS children. The apostle John exclaimed, “See what kind of love the Father has given to us, that we should be called children of God; and so we are” (1 John 3:1). It’s easy to think of your fatherlessness on this holiday, but in Christ, you have a perfect Father.
For others, Father’s Day is a continual reminder to some fathers of the loss of their child. No pat answer can remove that type of pain. But the gospel does offer you hope that all the turmoil and tragedy we’ve experienced–even the loss of a child–will somehow be reversed and turned inside out, when Jesus returns. I don’t know how that works, but those are the outlandish claims of God. The gospel is more than a pat answer. It offers deep hope.
There is also something else worth remembering for the rest of us. That Fatherly love of God is (sometimes) intangible until the family of God brings in those who hurt and gives them a family to belong. That’s what makes the gospel less than a pat answer for many people. Someone hurting may believe and experience the gospel of a Father to the fatherless by the power of the Holy Spirit. But a family of believer’s are responsible for driving that truth home.
Participate in Father’s day this year
This Father’s Day, let’s remember the fathers.
Remember the fatherless.
Remember the fathers who were robbed of their children.
Weep with those who weep.
Rejoice with those who rejoice.
And bring in those who have no where else to go.
Look around your church, workplace, comm group, recreation, and neighborhood. Is there anyone in your life who has a bad experience with Father’s Day? You have an opportunity. Celebrate by giving expression to the Father’s love.