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.
What it’s about.
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.
Why you should get it.
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.
I need to preface this post with a disclaimer: I do not have a life of simplicity. My life is really complicated. But I hope to change that someday. I’m writing now with that longing in mind.
I came across a passage in our Bible reading schedule that stopped me cold.
“Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life and attend to your own business and work with your hands, just as we commanded you, so that you will behave properly toward outsiders and not be in any need.” 1 Thessalonians 4:11-12 (NASB)
I’ll come back to this passage in a paragraph or two. But first a question for anyone who has gone to a church.
Have you ever noticed the pressure in evangelical church culture to live an activity-filled life?
I’ve talked to more than one individual who felt this pressure. And as a result, condemnation, albeit indirectly, by their fellow Christians, for not being as “on fire” as the critical mass of worshippers in their church. Now a second disclaimer: No blame should be left at the feet of those who are passionate about their faith. Especially if they are excited about following Jesus. Passion is needed in the church. All I’m suggesting here is that not everyone is in the same place that you are, spiritually speaking. And they don’t have to be. Everyone has their own pace at which they grow in their spiritual walk. All that really matters is that you’re growing. We shouldn’t quench the fire of the zealous ones among us; neither should we quench the smoldering wick of the Christian who is just trying to make it through the day without screwing up. For that reason, I can’t stop going back to Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians. Specifically, those two verses in chapter four.
Paul’s instruction are a blatant contrast from the now overdone trend in Christian youth culture to be radical, sold-out, and influential.
There is this prevalent idea among Christian (evangelical?) millennials to live in a manner that is unparalleled by their peers. In a way that stands out. There is an external pressure to wield as much influence, power, and connection in the world as possible. After all, this is the “next great generation,” as they say. And we have a hefty expectation to live up to. “Ahem”…for the glory of God, of course.
Now, I do believe God’s call on our lives is radical in itself. Jesus changes our innermost being, relationships, worldviews, social structures, and then sends us as disciples into the world to repeat the process with others. Just the nature of our salvation, involving the mysterious union we have with Christ is beyond the scope of imagination. Consequently, anything we do as Christians, if the presence of Christ is in us, is by association, of a radical nature. To share the gospel with a non-believer, if done with the Spirit of Christ in us, is a radical commission. To open our doors in hospitality to our neighbors, when infused by the Spirit of Christ in us, is radical. If we are one with Christ, then talking to a cashier at the local grocery store can be radical. If, by radical, we mean, “far-reaching or thorough” in its “affecting the fundamental nature of something.” You can see how talking to a cashier in a grocery store about Jesus can have “far-reaching affects” if you are speaking by the power of Christ’s indwelling presence.
So then why are millennials so unsatisfied with their jobs, homes, churches, environment, and callings? It’s not the technical definition of “radical” that we seem to be after. For then, we’d already be satisfied in the seemingly mundane, as long as God is present with us. But we’re not satisfied. We’re the unsatisfied generation. I lost count of how many restless friends I’ve known who left the town they initially thought they were “called to.” It’s like they’re always on the run to find the next best thing “God has for them.”
I wonder, why don’t I ever hear of millennials staying in the same place, for years and years, faithfully ministering to the same people, day in and day out? Why don’t I ever hear stories about that twenty-three year old who worked for twenty years at a job she hated because of the uncontrollable burden on her heart for a co-worker? Why do I less stories about millennials counting the cost to obey Christ, and hear instead about “chasing my dreams”? Why do I see young people hopping from “calling” to “calling”–as if God keeps changing our minds (or His) on what He’s called us to?
Could it be that we have turned an already Great Commission into a romantic expectation?
Maybe our dream is of big venues, great movements, and the prestige that will come when God uses us. Perhaps we daydream about the connections we’ll make, the book deals we’ll sign, or the influence we’ll have. We see non-profits, CEO’s, celebrity pastors, entrepreneurs and kind-of-famous musicians. Even if we can’t be that big, we at least dream of being as happy. We feel as though our right as Christians is to serve God doing what we want to do. We have passionate ambitions. We cannot imagine serving God in anything less than our dream job, with our best gifts, on our terms, and according to our schedule. I fully support dreaming big. But sometimes big dreams emerge from small beginnings.
I remember visiting the Sistine Chapel six years ago. The swell of global visitors in that room was astonishing, as everyone stood on tip-toes clamoring for a blurry shot of the famous ceiling frescos that were too far away to promise any photographic detail. Greatness. We want to be the Michelangelo of our day. But Michelangelo was primarily “gifted” as a sculpter. In fact, it’s said that he had a low opinion of painting. How many of us would turn that opportunity down because “our gifts are not being used,’ or “it wasn’t my dream job!” But Mike faithfully undertook the commission. Four years later, a masterpiece was born. That’s true greatness. But lying on scaffolding, with paint leaking into your eyes after the 10th hour on your back is certainly not romantic. Greatness rarely is. And according to the apostle Paul, the greatest ambition we should be pursuing is an invisible one.
What if God never intended for you to be legendary? What if you never made the paper, the TV, or even Youtube? Are you ok with being insignificant in the eyes of culture, to be obedient before God’s? What if God just wanted you to be faithful to your classmate, your friend, your neighbor, your kids? What if the inner change that occurred over the slow months of investing into them was the world-changing venture God had in mind for you? What if God just wanted you to teach others what you were once taught? Would you be ok with that? Because Paul’s verse to live a quiet life, not bother anyone, and have a good reputation would also certainly dovetail with his calling to make disciples. Paul is consistent. Maybe we’re the ones that have it skewed.
In Hebrews 11:32-40, aptly nicknamed the Hall of Faith, some of the most faithful believers don’t even get named. To be sure, some of them “stopped the mouths of lions” (33). But others were simply mocked, flogged, or imprisoned (36). How unglamorous. All of them went down in history nameless and unknown to us. Yet they are unforgettable to God. In fact, the author of Hebrews describes them as people “of whom the world was not worthy” (30). A backhanded jab at prevailing culture’s adulation for celebrity, fame, and power. The irony is that most of us don’t even know any Greek pagans from that time in history–the ones with honor and prestige. But our churches exist because of the nameless in the Hall of Faith. The explosion of the early church was founded on the faith of such men and women. So yes, history yields a radical result. It’s just not worthy of the world’s fame. Or even a headline in a blog. But God is thrilled. Is that enough for you? To be praised by God, if not by the Huffington Post?
I think that Paul is calling us to a life of simplicity and obedience.
This grinds in the face of what many of us think we want (try sitting in a chair for 20 minutes without having to look at your phone). In fact, Paul seems to correlate the overall health of our relationships with non-believers to a simple and quiet life: “lead a quiet life and attend to your own business…so that you will behave properly toward outsiders”
I have recognized the glaring absence of simplicity in parts of my own life.
As I mentioned at the beginning, my life seems anything but simple. The times my life is the most complicated, sometimes also happens to be the most lacking in true, heavenly power. And I wonder if there’s a correlation. I long for simple power. To not be dominated by my calendar, technology, bills, emails, and urgent-but-menial tasks. I’m guessing that for a lot of you, it’s the same. That would make simplicity a discipline that we must enter into and practice if we’re going to take seriously God’s Word. It won’t just happen. But the discipline we enter into is not some spiritual form of self-flagellation. It’s a pattern by which we subvert dangerous cultural norms that threaten to derail us from true peace of mind. It’s a discipline by which we experience and reflect God’s power in our lives regardless of the external pressures of our world. It’s a way of saying, breathing, and living a simple motto: my union with Christ is enough. It lies latent in every believer who can slow down enough to trust and obey their Lord. It will cause us to slow down and refocus our inner life on the indwelling presence of Jesus, if we let it. But since acts of simplicity are an enigma for many of us, it might help for me to spell it out for the sake of clarity. Since I am still a novice at it, I’ll offer direction from one of the great modern-day contemplatives.
So my next post will bring with it ten acts of simplicity, by Richard J. Foster. A guy who knew where the radical nature of Christianity lied: the interior life of every Christian.
Book Review ~ Sacred Rhythms: Arranging our Lives for Spiritual Transformation, by Ruth Haley Barton
“I cannot transform myself, or anyone else for that matter. What I can do is create the conditions in which spiritual transformation can take place, by developing and maintaining a rhythm of spiritual practices that keep me open and available to God” (12).
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.
But something was still missing.
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.
The flow of the chapters are what drives each discipline home.
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.
I’ll conclude my review with eight quotes from the book…
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 think every Christian should familiarize themselves with spiritual formation and the practices that cultivate it.
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.
- A Contemplative Approach to Christianity (doctrineontap.com)
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.
Hip Hop, dare I say, is the language of my soul.
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.
Journaling is gathering your thoughts, processing your feelings, remembering, dreaming, celebrating, etc., by writing these things down in a notebook. Read the rest of this entry
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.
I don’t think I know a better person to share about meditating on God’s word than my friend, Jason Lomelino.
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.
Meditating on the Word is not about how much you read but the way you read it. Read the rest of this entry
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…
In my life with God, I have consistently encountered him in the secret place.
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.
Spending time alone with God is a process. Read the rest of this entry
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
In the last blog post, I put forward the ancient practice of memorizing God’s Word. Many of us, if we’re Christians, might find this easy enough to ascend to if only because God tells us to do so. But, perhaps in the back of your head you are still wondering, “why devote so much time and energy to memorizing Scripture when I can just look it up on my smartphone?” It certainly does seems like the Christian climate is saturated with an eclectic array of spiritual disciplines. I can’t count how many times I’ve inundated myself with trying to keep up with all the latest spiritual fads promising freedom from sin, eternal joy, and sanctified living. I don’t think the fads will ever taper-off. As long as there is a consumeristic demand for easy spirituality there will be a supply of products to meet the insatiable thirst for Christian nominalism. If you’re tired of the noise…I would like you to consider going back to the timeless practice of memorizing and meditating on Scripture. But this brings up another objection…
Why devote yourself to memorizing the Bible (which is old) when there is so many other contemporary techniques (which are new) to choose from?
What is the value of memorizing Scripture? We need only look to the Bible itself to find it wrought with testimony of the effect it has on the believer’s soul. Allow me to share a few…
What does Scripture do for us…
- Scripture sanctifies us (John 17:17)
- Scripture renews our minds (Rom. 12:2)
- Scripture conforms us to Christ (John 15:7-8)
- Scripture is our weapon in battle (Eph. 6:12,17)
- Scripture keeps us pure (Ps. 119:9)
- Scripture helps us fight temptation (Ps. 119:11)
- Scripture guides us (Ps. 119:105)
- Scripture gives us life (Ps. 119:25, 93)
- Scripture comforts us in our grief (Ps. 119:28)
- Scripture comforts us in our suffering (Ps. 119:92)
- Scripture is more valuable than gold (Ps. 119:72)
- Scripture is sweeter than honey (Ps. 119:103)
- Scripture is our source of joy (Ps. 119:111)
- Scripture is our source of enlightenment (Ps 119:130)
- Scripture is our source of peace (Ps. 119:165)
- Scripture keeps us from drifting from Jesus (Heb 2:1)
- Scripture reveals Jesus (2 Peter 1:19)
As good as these disciplines can be, Christian bestsellers, worship music, devotionals, being in nature, and sermons (among others) just cannot match the supernatural weight allotted to the Word of God by the Holy Spirit in the life of the Christian, not the least of which is the divine guarantee that if you give yourself wholly to memorizing the Scripture and letting the word of Christ dwell within you richly, you will be transformed.
What would you add to this list about Scripture?
- Scripture memorization: why? (christopherlazo.com)
I’ve been listening to Future of Forestry a lot.
There’s something charming about carefully crafted music.
Perhaps it’s the eerie melodies, or the way they’re able to dominate space and rhythm. Maybe it’s the emotive themes, the joy behind the sadness, or their addiction to the Glockenspiel. But when one of their tracks is playing, my soul begins to resonate.
Unfortunately, much of the music that I’m expected to listen to as a worship leader is not this way.
Popular worship tunes will sometimes have catchy hooks, but “catchy” doesn’t move my soul anymore than “popular” does. Eric Owyoung and FOF keep the beautifully arranged music coming, even back in the Something Like Silas days—Hume anybody?—but when I turn on the rest of Christian radio, it feels as though many worship leader/song writers are being arranged by the music itself (or the “worship” industry). Some worship albums sound like something I listened to—and vaguely tolerated—in the early nineties. Truth be told, I don’t drive down Highway 101 pumping worship music. If I’m on a road trip, I’m probably listing to a lot of synth-pop, heavily-layered electronic music, rockabilly, crooners, experimental, etc., because that’s the music that deeply affects me.
A typical worship album doesn’t cause the endorphins to make a mad rush for my head, just as reading the Spark Notes version of The Brothers Karamazov will cause me to feel the spiritual drama of modernized Russia. I need artistic, authentic expression, not a Dove award nominee. But this is generally what happens when music starts sounding like a Xerox of everything that’s been done before, packaged with the same lyrics, rhyme schemes, pop hooks, and arrangements…yet adulated as “worship” because the lyrics fit a stencil of what can be sung along to by the majority of Christians. My burning question: When did worship move from being an expression of music to a style of music?
I am bit reluctant to accept mediocre music just because the lyrics say something true about God.
That being said, I have heard a few Christian bands begin to stretch the boundaries of music for something beautiful—FOF’s haunting acoustic ballad, “If You Find Her,” Elevation’s strangely handsome rendition of “All Creatures,” and the creative dance that Aaron Keyes engages his instruments with on the song “Dwell“—and that makes me excited.
But I’ve also come to grips that I’m finding more honest expression in secular arts by virtue of their musicality, while praying for more Christians, who like J.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, will lead the artistic charge rather than follow it. Unfortunately, I do not have that gift, so I will find inspiration where it exists, and reclaim it for the glory of God.
Abraham Kuyper once said,
There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’
Well, there’s my que.
Sometimes you gotta go out to the barn to find the right kitchen tool.
But who knows—maybe after an hour of scavenging the barn, you’ll realize that when you were last in the kitchen, you were defiantly using grandma’s cookie cutter for the perfect Crème brûlée of foie gras.
What does all of this have to do with missional millennials?
Well, I’ve shared about enjoying Jesus through the lens of music. But all Christians enjoy Jesus through a variety of ways, and therefore, we have a lot of opportunities to grow stale in what we sometimes call “spiritual disciplines.”