Someone gave it to me in passing a couple of years ago. I opened it the next day, skipped the introduction, and began reading from left to right, as quickly as possible. The first chapter was on “celebration,” and the second was on “gratitude.” Since I felt devoid of both, reading about their explicit practice was too much for me to bear. I felt exhausted, and stopped reading the book altogether.
I know. Awkward way to start a book review.
But I’m reviewing the book because months later, a friend told me that I was not supposed to read it from back to front; and that reading the introduction was vital to my understanding the rest. So I sat back down with what I thought was a terrible book, and read the first twenty-three pages that night. Everything changed. That night.
It morphed from a book about trying harder to a book exposing my innermost self. Calhoun spends the first few pages carefully articulating a theology of desire; that is, how our desires work, how sin distorts our desires, and how God heals them. Against this, I always thought of spiritual disciplines as pietistic acts of self-hatred—-means and methods for suppressing desires, not listen to them. Now, there is a clear thread of self-denial woven through all biblical disciplines; but self-denial is not self-hatred. As Calhoun explains, the process leading to self-denial must inevitably start with a degree of honesty and vulnerability. This means listening to our desires. It doesn’t mean they are right desires. It doesn’t mean God won’t change those desires. It just means they are true, and that they tell us something about ourselves. This makes the beginning of any spiritual discipline fairly straightforward: “We simply desire. We bring our ache for change, our longing for belonging, our desperation to make a difference” (19). All of this then sets us up for any spiritual discipline worth its salt: “they simply put us in a place where we can begin to notice God and respond to his word to us” (19). That’s just from the first few pages of the introduction! The rest explains how our desires help us find what discipline is necessary for spiritual maturity in any given area of our lives.
After reading this introduction, I felt a hunger in me begin to simmer, and skimmed through the various disciplines Calhoun lists to discover what I needed to single out the most in my life. The result has been spiritual, emotional, and even physical health; the thing I’ve learned the most through this process is that time spent alone with God is the best thing I can do for myself and others.
The structure of the book is easy to follow. After the introduction, Calhoun offers sixty-two disciplines (!). This large swathe of practices makes up seven larger groupings: worship, opening self to God, relinquishing the false self, community, hearing God’s Word, incarnating the love of Christ, and prayer.
Each discipline is given a page or two of summary, along with simple, practical instructions, Scriptures, and questions to not only discover which disciplines are right for each person’s desires, but also to guide the process of practicing them once the right discipline is found.
If you have ever felt a longing inside for something deeper in your spirituality, this might be the book for you. If you’ve ever felt a disconnection between your heart and your actions, this might be the book for you. Or if you just want to wake up every day and “train yourself for godliness” (1 Tim 4:7)—in other words, to live everything Jesus taught and did at every moment of every day…this might be the book for you. Over the last two years, I have felt all of these things to the point of frustration. And this was book really helped me. It is the single most comprehensive, simple, and practical book on the disciplines I’ve ever read. I would probably still be depressed, teasing burn-out, and closed off to God (I share about that here and here) had it not been for the compassionate wisdom and simplicity of Calhoun’s writing. Needless to say, this book comes highly recommended by me.
It’s important at this juncture to know at the outset that spiritual disciplines are the means, not the end. Spiritual transformation is the end. Things get out of hand when these get mixed up. What transforms a person is not disciplines, but the Spirit of God in Christ indwelling the human heart. What disciplines can do is posture that person, already desiring God, to then receive from God and live for God; not just in moments of spiritual prosperity, but in the tedium of normal life. It’s this consistent Spirit-fanned flame of devotion, even if small at first, that causes the Christian life to soar long and true through circumstances and setbacks of any kind. Isn’t this the Christianity we long for? It is available to you. You just have to want it bad enough.
Purchase Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us, by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun here.
Sacred Rhythms is an introduction to spiritual disciplines. It’s about creating space and cultivating rhythms that allow you to enjoy God.
I know this an older book–it’s from 2006–but it so resonated with me because of its personal effect on my soul. I am a pastor–which assumes, to some degree–that I am being spiritual quite often. That’s open for debate. I know one thing for certain: I can keep myself busy. But is business necessarily spiritual? Is productivity? Success? Barton argues that those things can actually be harmful to your spiritual health when they are able to wield control over your life (a condition she calls Christian fatigue syndrome). As a “minister,” there were many opportunities to get involved with spiritual activities, a lot of opportunities to make myself busy, and even a heightened knowledge of the Bible that I developed over time.
I made the process too intellectual, too rushed, too goal-oriented. Some of this led to a feeling of disconnection in me from the very God who lives inside of me. That’s probably why I loved this book. It clearly explained what was wrong with me for many years, and offered a simple invitation back into the arms of Christ.
If you have enjoyed the recent series here on the blog, Contemplative Approach to Spirituality, and want to know and learn more, you’re hard-pressed to find a better place to start. Here’s a bit of what to expect in the outline–three basic parts.
1. Introduction to Spiritual Transformation
I felt like Barton was talking to me in the introduction. I put my highlighter down when I realized that I wanted to highlight every single line on the first three pages–it really defeats the purpose of highlighting when you do it on every line. After the first three pages, the rest of the introduction is preparing you for what to expect in the writing: book outline, practical instruction, group suggestions, etc. But it’s in the next chapter when things really get rolling.
2. Invitation to Spiritual Transformation
This is, in my opinion, the fulcrum of the book. Barton spends some time here whetting the appetite of the reader, exposing our need, and pointing us towards our truest desires. Since disciplines can seem a laborious drudgery to the uninitiated (or the badly initiated), this chapter is valuable in dispelling myths, and revealing our deep spiritual thirst, as well as the value in posturing ourselves to receive from God’s endless wells. This chapter alone is worth the price of the book. But it gets better.
3. Seven different types of disciplines
This section on disciplines are pure gold. Each of the remaining chapters explain a spiritual discipline. Collectively, they form a well-balanced diet of the Christian life. The disciplines are solitude, Scripture (lectio divina), prayer, honoring the body, self-examination, discernment, Sabbath, and The Rule of Life.
Instead of bombarding you with practical instruction or ancient sayings, Barton appeals to your deepest desires, and pulls you into a story that you want to be a part of. The danger in plunging into spiritual disciplines is two-fold: You don’t realize you need soul-care, and are cavalier with it; or you approach it as another to-do list, and end up more exhausted than ever. However, I think Barton pirouettes around these issues gracefully.
Each chapter begins with her personal experience to draw your attention. Then she explains the inner desires the practice effects. After she persuades you of your need, the practical steps for getting started are laid out to be received. There is no chance of getting lost in some author’s convoluted sayings–Barton offers detailed, clear explanations on how to engage each particular discipline. Peppered throughout are historical insights, careful attention (and mercy) on our weaknesses, and expressions of the practice from Scripture. By the time I finished each chapter, I wanted to put the book down and seek the face of God.
This is fundamentally what spiritual disciplines are all about: choosing a way of life that opens us to the presence of God in the places of our being where our truest desires and deepest longings stir. (13)
A prayer welled up from the depths of my being, a prayer so full of desire that it was barely articulate: “O God, give me more moments like this–moments when I am fully present to you and to others in love.” (21)
Your desire for more of God than you have right now, your longing for love, your need for deeper levels of spiritual transformation than you have experienced so far is the truest thing about you. (24)
Solitude is an opportunity to interrupt this [vicious] cycle by turning off the noise and stimulation of our lives so that we can hear our loneliness and our longing calling us deeper into the only relationship that can satisfy our longing. (36)
We need a way of approaching Scripture that will move us very concretely from our over reliance on information gathering to an experience of Scripture as a place of intimate encounter. (54)
One thing I know for sure about prayer these days is that we do not know how to pray. It is only the young in Christ who think they know how to pray; the rest of us know we are beginners.(63)
One of the deepest longings of the human heart is to be known and loved unconditionally (91)
Sabbath keeping is a discipline that will mess with you, because once you move beyond just thinking about it and actually begin to practice it, the goodness of it will capture you, body, soul, and spirit. (133)
I also believe the person who would experience immediate benefits from this book are those who are spiritually dry, fatigued, or just burnt out on the church, God, or Christianity. Sacred Rhythms takes advantage of the Christian’s existing union with Christ–not by shaming you into to trying harder–but by posturing you in your weaknesses towards the One who already lives inside you.
And as a result, this may be my favorite book I’ve read all year–I’ll let you know in December. Until then, get this book, and drink so deeply!
You can find the book on Amazon: Sacred Rhythms.
This is part five in A Contemplative Approach To Christianity, a series dedicated to introducing the quieter side of Christian practice, featuring a new writer every week. These are all from men or women who have been able to connect with God in the middle of the noise–often using spiritual disciplines that are very similar to those found throughout historical Christianity. I’ve asked these authors to share details about what their practices look like, to include us all in the opportunity to take part! As far as the blog series goes, you can speak up at anytime. Ask questions of the writer, or of me. Add your experience. Your apprehensions. It’s an open place. We’re all exploring. And may you be refreshed as you return to first things.
When I first learned that Christina married the tenured practice of journaling with hip-hop music, I must admit, I was intrigued. I know a few people who express their thoughts and prayers, examine their hearts, and confess their sins to God through journaling, but to intermingle this spiritual discipline with music is unique. I wanted to hear what she had to say, but I knew it would be too good to keep for myself. So we present it to you for your joy. For those who want to learn how to engage the soul in the disciplined art of journaling, Christina will, of course, lay out some helpful steps; much of this can work with or without music. But what I love about her approach is that you don’t have to constrain yourself with rigid formulas. Who’s to say you have to practice the presence of God exactly like Brother Lawrence, or balance your life just like Benedict of Nursia, or enjoy Lectio Divina only as outlined by Guigo? The point of any spiritual discipline is to connect your soul to the Christ who is already in you. It is not to fill a quota, check off a spiritual to-do list, or feel righteous about one’s ability to replicate someone else’s regimen. And for Christina, well…it seems her combination of writing mixed with the infectious sounds of a beat have done what was needed to help center her soul on God. I hope it greets you with refreshing intensity. I also hope it opens your eyes and heart to a world of spiritual creativity.
The rest of this post is in Christina’s words…
I am currently transitioning out of full time ministry that I have been engaged in the last two years. I am moving towards being used as a vessel of the Lord to be catalytic in the awareness and participation of African- Americans in global missions work. I am originally from Southern California but now I live in Orlando, Florida. Graduated from UCSB in 2012. Studied black studies, minored in applied psychology and education. I’ve known and loved Jesus as much as I knew how since I was five years old, but I’ve truly and wholly been walking with the Lord for the last six years. I have five siblings ranging from ages twenty-five to three. I am an auntie of one sweet baby girl who will be one soon. I have lots of friends in California that I love and dearly miss. I love all things creative and cozy. I enjoy cooking, eating, writing, singing, dancing, and Spotify. I am thoroughly amused by dry and corny humor. It’s the best when I am the only one laughing at a joke in a large group setting. I especially love word crafting like that expressed in spoken Word, poetry and Hip-Hop music.
These wordsmiths say what I would say in a way they thought of first. My first experience with hip-hop that exalted the God of Heaven and preached the truth of the Gospel was through a friend of mine, Barry Moore, my senior year in high school. He met Jesus; gave his life to him and renounced all things against the Lord. For him, part of that meant throwing away his extensive music collection and replacing it, to which we both benefited from during rides to and from school. Then my freshmen year in college when I said no more to my divided heart, the Lord used this Hip-hop, alongside a church I love, to take my understanding of the Gospel from a hundred to about a thousand! Yet, it is ever increasing even now. I love Hip-hop music because artists can use such a small amount of time to say so much, and when you are speaking of an infinite God with infinite love, I say what better way than through a few 16s (or verses) over some incredibly engineered beats.
It is like a Dear Diary, to God. You can be brutally, embarrassingly honest but find comfort in the fact that He knows you already, and you don’t have to be ashamed. Take it with you to church to take notes on the sermon. Keep it in your car or bag, somewhere on your person, so that it is accessible to you whenever you need it.
When Lazo asked on Facebook what ways folks connect most with the Lord—as I was scribing my answer of journaling or praying to God through my pen while listening to hip-hop music with a biblical world view—I was shocked at the recent lacking of this discipline in my life.
Through each bar (line of a verse) the God of Heaven is magnified and I am made small; my folly is rebuked and I am called to life; met with his undying love and lavish grace. The Lord is speaking to me showing me the truth of his character, the truth of my brokenness, what Jesus did to reconcile me, how I ought to respond and bring others along. I worship as I write all this grandness and emotion that wells up inside down. Repeating the words I have heard on my paper or crafting my own response to them, to him.
When I consider the words below all said in about a hundred and five seconds over a simple drum beat accompanied by a variety of sounds from the drums, piano, guitar/bass, my heart surrenders to this amazing God and rejoice that my story is in his:
How sweet the Gospel sounds to ears like mine
Well acquainted with pain and strained relationships
Friendships that suffer from long distances
Or even worse they get severed from something more severe
And He still hasn’t wiped away all my tears yet
My cheeks get wet every now and then
Even when I give my best, I know I fall short
I get scared when the ball’s in my court
Focused on my performance, wretched and poor
It makes the message more real when I preach it
I’m not there yet so I’m reaching, reaching for a goal:
To stand before my King and be speechless
Then, never again will I question if His grace is sufficient to cover my sin
Cause death is gone, and all the effects of evil and wrong
Will be conquered when His Kingdom comes
So this is my hope and my prayer
The air that I’ll breathe in eternity with lungs that never fail me
If it pleases my Lord, and only by Your grace
Use my life ’til it’s poured out for Your sake
Until then I’ll remain where You have me
With joy when I feel unhappy
And a peace that surpasses all my understanding
My life is in the hands of Your love everlasting
(Verse two of Beautiful Eulogy by Beautiful Eulogy on the album Satellite Kite)
What are these things telling you about who God is? What is it telling you about what God says about you? What Jesus has done? The hope of eternal life we have in him? How does the artist engage culture through the above questions?
Below are just a few suggested record labels who host a few different varieties of artists. Some will be relaxed, close to an R&B sound, if you will, while others may seem a bit rowdy. It’s up to you to choose your style and maybe you give them all a chance.
There are of course independent artists as well who you will find along your journey. One of my favorite right now is SPZRKT (pronounced Spazzy Rocket) listen to him here : http://spzrkt.bandcamp.com/
What are they saying? Check out http://rap.genius.com/
You might want to have the lyrics pulled up if you need them to follow along better as you listen.
Note: Your head may began to bob, your shoulders do a little lean or something, maybe even your hands shoot up in the air, or you let out a “whoo!” at a line that blows you away. It’s all a part of the process. Enjoy. I pray that the Lord would meet you like he has been faithful to do with me in these times.
I will remember the deeds of the Lord;
yes, I will remember your wonders of old. ~ Psalm 77:11
I’ve been looking forward to to this weeks post in A Contemplative Approach To Christianity.
This series is dedicated to introducing the quieter side of Christian practice, featuring a new writer every week. These are all from men or women who have been able to connect with God in the middle of the noise–often using spiritual disciplines that are very similar to those found throughout the history of ancient Christian church. I’ve also asked these authors to share details about what their practices look like, should any of you wish to partake. I hope this series has been as refreshing for you as it has for me!
So far, we’ve looked at Contemplative Prayer, and Cultivating a Lifestyle of Listening. Now, let’s move on to a personal favorite of mine–and one which I believe all others to hinge on–the meditation on God’s word.
Jason is a pastor at Isla Vista Church, where he, his wife, Holly, and their five kids live and do ministry together. They are a compelling presence of God’s love in a city that never slows down. I’ve heard many testimonies of transformation in people from Isla Vista and UCSB by God through the Lomelino family. (You can read some of their stories in Jason’s book, Jesus Burgers). I experienced this “presence” during a public worship night on the UCSB campus in the aftermath of the much publicized shootings that took place there. Jason addressed the crowd of hundreds with fatherly love, brotherly tears, and the mercies of God that night. I wondered how he was able to pour out so much love during a time when his heart was so broken. But now I understand. After reading his essay, you’ll understand too.
The rest of this post is in Jason’s words…
I am originally from San Diego and every year in Carlsbad these extraordinary colorful flowers bloom on a fifty-acre hillside that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. It is breathtaking, even from your car as you drive by the hillside. However, the majority of locals are content with just viewing them from their car as they drive by. They don’t want to spend the time to slow down and get out of their car to view this work of art up close. But in order to really enjoy the flowers, one must slow down and go walk amongst them. Meditating on the Word is a similar experience.
There is something special about slowing down, turning off distractions, and opening your heart and life to God through His Word. There are many ways to grow deeper in our relationship with God; some may call them spiritual disciplines. Yet I have not found any of them to be richer or more rewarding than meditating on the Word of God. Many Christians know we are called to meditate on the Word, though in my experience few actually know how to do it, and even fewer actually do it.
In a culture that prides itself on doing more, reading more, having more, being more, needing more, you can understand why biblical meditation is not as high of a value in culture of “more.” It’s sad, but it seems in Christian culture today that reading the Bible has become more of a duty than a delight. It becomes another thing we should be doing rather than something we desire to be doing. Thankfully, my experience as a believer has never been one of duty as I was not raised in a Christian home or culture that told me I should be reading the Bible. When I did encounter the love of God in Christ Jesus at the age of twenty-one years old I didn’t need anyone to tell me to read it, all I wanted to do was read the Bible. I was passionate about getting to know this Man who rescued me and set me free. I guess you can say I was just reading to cultivate a relationship with God not for more information or anything else for the matter.
Even the way I stumbled upon the gift of meditating on the Word was an act of God. At the time of the discovery I was working full time and going to school full time, meaning I had minimal time for anything else. The only problem–a good problem–was that my appetite for knowing God was ravenous which made me determined to find a way to connect with Him through His Word all throughout the day. This led me to writing down verses on 3×5 cards and meditating on them while at work and school.
Professors would be talking and I would be having my mind blown by what I was meditating on (I don’t necessarily recommend that, but I think my professors thought I was highly intrigued by their material). Anyways, meditating on His Word went from something I stumbled upon to a lifestyle I started living. I learned a lot about silence and solitude during this time too, as what was happening during the day was being carried over into the night once my wife went to bed. I must say this was before five kids entered the picture and pastoring a church, which left me with just a bit more time and energy. Nonetheless, something I put into practice while having more time and energy has stood with me, continued to affect me, and brought about a desire for this kind of relationship with God through His Word in the midst of busyness in every season of life for me.
The promises are stunning throughout Psalms and other places in Scripture for the believer who meditates on the Word:
“How blessed is the man who does not walk in the counsel of the wicked,
Nor stand in the path of sinners,
Nor sit in the seat of scoffers!
But his delight is in the law of the Lord,
And in His law he meditates day and night.
He will be like a tree firmly planted by streams of water,
Which yields its fruit in its season
And its leaf does not wither;
And in whatever he does, he prospers”. (Psalm 1:1-3)
“This book of the law shall not depart from your mouth, but you shall meditate on it day and night, so that you may be careful to do according to all that is written in it; for then you will make your way prosperous, and then you will have success.” (Joshua 1:8)
The best advice I found came from Nike years ago when they told us, “Just Do It.” Like riding a bike or learning to surf you can receive instructions all day or watch videos on tricks and tips but eventually you just need to do it.
He alone is the desire of every nation. He alone can fulfill the words of King David, known as the sweet psalmist of Israel, when he said, “Whom have I in heaven but You? And besides You, I desire nothing on earth” (Psalm 73:25).
Even though to this day I have yet to find something richer or more rewarding than connecting with God through meditating on His Word, I too like most believers I know, find myself struggling to “just do it.” I guess it is like the gym for some people or healthy eating for others; we know our body will say thank you afterwards but we for whatever reason choose differently.
My prayer for all of us reading this, including myself writing this, is that we would return back to the ancient paths. History has shown us that those who found a lifestyle of meditating on the Word had hearts that were set ablaze for Jesus and His glory in all the earth. May all of us spend a little time this day or week taking a verse or two and letting God blow our minds with who He is and all He has given to us in Christ.
Thus says the LORD, “Stand by the ways and see and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way is, and walk in it; and you will find rest for your souls.” (Jeremiah 6:16)
This is the third post in our series, A Contemplative Approach To Christianity, dedicated to introducing the quieter side of Christian practice, through historical practices and personal testimony. The goal is to hear from different Christians ways they connect with God–these are very similar to ancient practices of the Christian church–and to share a few details about what that looks like for anyone who wants to dip their feet in a more quiet spirituality. We’ve already started with Contemplative Prayer. Now let’s move on to listening.
Listening may sound repulsive to the ear at first. We are not much of a listening culture. But the pathway of Christ beckons us against the grain to a lifestyle that resembles Samuel’s innocent posture to the Lord: “Speak, for your servant hears.” (1 Sam. 3:10, ESV). There is no shortage of noise in our lives. But there is lacking a word from God in our ears. Perhaps there’s a connection between the noise of life and the shortage of God’s presence. Amos’ warning resonates with many of us,
The days are coming— this is the declaration of the Lord God — when I will send a famine through the land: not a famine of bread or a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord (Amos 8:11, HCSB)
Do you experience this famine? Then read on, friends.
My friend, Samantha Miller serves in our local gathering in the areas of prayer and biblical counseling. It is because of the inner joy that she so gracefully wields despite the heaviness that sometimes accompanies intercessory prayer and counseling that I believe Samantha has some worthwhile things to share. So I asked her to share about the practice and importance of listening to God. The rest of this post is in her own words…
Christians often talk about “the secret place” like this magical land where all your problems go away and you experience perfectly undistracted unity with God. Honestly, my secret place is pretty messy! All it is, is placing a value on time with God and positioning myself to receive from Him. On some days I may need to deal with some heart issues before I can really connect with Him, or I need to plan a little extra time in my schedule cause I know its going to take a while to quiet my distracted mind. Yet whatever it looks like, I am simply setting aside a time and a space to sit in solitude, surrender my emotions, thoughts and needs, and let God show me who He is.
Jesus says in Matthew 6:6 “And when you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret will reward you” (ESV). We find the Father in the secret place. When we separate ourselves, go into our room and close the door, he rewards us in secret. However, learning to sit in solitude and quiet is very counter-cultural, so it can be hard work to develop this type of lifestyle. But let me tell you, when you seek Him, you will find Him.
I remember in high school, I made a commitment to my Dad that I would spend time alone with God (my “quiet time”) every morning or I couldn’t watch TV for a week… Let’s just say, I did a lot of reading in that season! Eventually, setting aside time with God became easier and a part of my normal routine, but honestly, I felt so dry spiritually and often like I was just praying to the ceiling. Right before going off to college, I worked at a summer camp and the leadership there encouraged all the staff to spend time with the Lord every morning. So, I continued my practice of this, not really feeling much. Then we all had to take a full day to go off by ourselves in the woods on a 24-hour solo- just me and God, undistracted for a whole day. It was so hard. I literally built a tree fort to sleep in. But in this season, I learned the value of setting apart time to be with God.
The more I spent time with God and laid aside my agenda and desires, He began to speak to me. As I stilled my heart, His voice became clear. It was all about building a history with God, learning that I could trust Him, and Him building a faithfulness in me so I could steward the things He wanted to give me. I have since done many 24-hour solos and they have become some of the most significant hinge-points of my life and favorite memories with God. Time invested communicates value.
Connecting with him should always be our motive, rather than just the obligation of something we “should do” (although its ok if some days it feels like that). For me, this has looked like choosing a time and a place where I will spend time with Him (i.e. first hour of my morning on my porch with a cup of coffee). Sometimes I’ll start with worship, or thanking Him and remembering what He has done, or reading the Psalms, but I always end up taking time to sit still and let Him talk. I don’t want to dominate the conversation, because honestly, He has better things to say than I do!
This looks like asking Him good questions and waiting for a response. Sometimes I’ll ask,
“God, how do you see me”
“God what are you doing and how can I partner with that”
“God what season am I in and how can I steward that well?”
“God, what do you want to show me about who you are today?”
“God what promise do you want me to hold onto today”
“God, what do you want to speak to me today?”
Then, I just wait.
Sometimes, a scripture will come to mind, or a song will rise up in my spirit. Or, I’ll hear that still small voice, which speaks with wisdom and always brings peace.
And yes, sometimes doubt creeps in and I question if it’s really Him.
And sometimes I feel like I hear nothing at all.
But, I trust that He wants to speak to me more than I want to hear from Him, so I’ll ask Him to remove anything that may be in the way of me hearing Him.
Sometimes, we so want to hear what He is saying about something specific, that we can miss what He really wants to show us. So, it is important to be constantly surrendering our agenda and let Him lead us.
Sometimes, he just wants us to rest, to be with Him and to enjoy His presence. And that is just as successful as receiving a life-changing revelation.
Hearing the voice of God requires a greater level of responsibility and obedience. He is outside of our control and bigger than the boxes we like to try to keep our lives in. There have been times where God has asked me to step out and take risks and everything in me wanted to say no, but because I valued intimacy with him, I knew the risk was worth it and I responded in obedience. This may look like making decisions others don’t agree with, or going out of your comfort zone to speak into someone’s life. In this process, God is building an ability in us to value and steward what he shares with us, as well as a confidence in us that we hear him.
Recently, I was serving on the prayer team in a church service and a woman came up and asked me to pray for her daughter. Immediately, I felt like God said “It’s not the daughter you need to pray for, it’s the mom. And she needs to know its not her “fault.” I felt pretty sure that it was God, but at the same time knew I could totally be wrong, but in faith I asked her if I could pray for her as well. I told her I felt like God was saying that its not her fault. Immediately she crumbled to the ground sobbing. As I kept praying for her, God showed me that she had lost people close to her that had died and had been carrying the responsibility for that every since. She confirmed that all this was true (her sister and husband died in an accident 3 years before that). She repented for carrying the guilt around and God showed her the truth about how He saw her. That woman was set free and able to receive healing in an extreme place of pain. A life of listening, joined with responsibility and risk, is a powerful tool that God can use to set captives free and bind up the broken hearted.
So, dear friends, enter into the secret place, take the time to listen and position your heart to receive, but above all, enjoy your Father enjoying you! ~ Samantha
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.
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!
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.
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.
One day in counseling Karen led me to ask God, “How do You [God] see me?” Now I was even more skeptical; God gives visions [apart from gifts of the Spirit]? When I asked God how He sees me, a scene appeared: I was a bride, decked out in a white dress, and standing at the altar. Christ, the groom, was walking toward me. His gaze was fixed on mine and the audience was fixed on Him. I was so stunned that I couldn’t speak. My anger was shattered in an instant. The truth of Christ’s love broke through the lies and the hurt.
I have been a believer ever since then. For me, the prayer is more humble, more relaxed, and less about me. I show up to hear from God, not to get something out of it. I do ask God a lot of questions. Sometimes it feels like sitting with an old friend in silence, no words needed. The practice has made me more sensitive to the Spirit and I also feel like I hear God’s voice more clearly when I am going about any given day.
For the Christian who hasn’t practiced “being” with the Holy Spirit, the discipline may seem weird, or forced. There is no easy way to explain it, as the practice is unique for each individual. Thanks to contemplative prayer (and practice), I learned to be comfortable engaging or meeting with the Spirit. Depending on my feelings or the Spirit’s leading, I meet with all Persons of the Godhead, or just a specific One. This is what my prayer looks like (in this example, I meet with the Holy Spirit):
• I begin by inviting the Holy Spirit to direct and lead me.
• I then imagine my safe place* and visualize myself meeting with the Holy Spirit.
*For me, this place is imagined; a place where I feel safe and can find peace and healing. It’s also the same place each time. You can ignore the safe place and the imagery if it’s too weird for you and just ask God to meet you.
• I see myself and feel myself sitting in the presence of God.
I have learned to better sense His presence and can physically and spiritually sense when I am there.
• Sometimes I ask the Holy Spirit if He wants to tell me anything or I ask Him a specific question.
• I often follow my questions with, “Show me what this means?” in order to get clarity from the Holy Spirit.
• Other times I am led to sit in silence, just being with the Holy Spirit. It’s also a sweet place to worship.
When I am overwhelmed, hurting, or fearful I often go to my safe place with the Holy Spirit. The presence of God continually reminds me of the most important things: He is God and He is in control.
Lazo: the next time you are overwhelmed, hurting, or fearful this week, try these simple six steps of posturing that Brittany offered. In so doing, you are becoming more aware of the presence of God with you, especially during difficult circumstances. A moment in the presence of God can answer a lifetime of questions. And share with us any thoughts you have in the comment section!
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’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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
In some circles that I’ve been in, even contemplation and meditation have been ways to seek identity of importance, just like being charismatic was back in the seventies…the disguises of the ego are endless. So we must make sure that, in taking on a spiritual practice, we are not just seeking moral high ground in our own eyes and the eyes of anybody else. Is meditation leading me to a new vulnerability and intimacy, or the opposite? is contemplation leading me to what John Main calls dispossession, instead of another new possession? Be careful of any I have our I am language, except the great I am that we are in God. Maybe this is one interpretation of Jesus’ advice to “pray in secret.”