Thursday, February 26, 2015

Passive and Active Practices

NASA recently launched a satellite mission called SMAP, which stands for Soil Moisture Active/Passive.   

SMAP has a radiometer and radar onboard.  The radiometer is a passive sensor, which means that it simply observes the particular wavelengths of electromagnetic energy that reaches it from Earth’s surface.  The radar, on the other hand, is an active sensor that sends out a pulse of microwave energy, which bounces off the surface below, and returns to the sensor.  Scientists can learn about the moisture content of the surface below by observing how the pulse of energy changes from when it left the satellite to when it returned.   

NASA's Soil Moisture Active/Passive Mission launched January 31.
What has this to do with the spiritual life??
It turns out that when we study a phenomenon like soil moisture, it helps to have a mix of active and passive observations.  Hence, NASA is excited for what new information they will learn by having this new mission in space.

Now let’s bring this discussion back down to Earth. J  In my previous post on spiritual transformation, I said that it usually doesn’t happen until we intentionally choose to pursue it.  

But exactly what activities are we talking about?

As with satellite observations, there are both active and passive spiritual practices, and our spiritual lives are usually healthiest when we have a balance of both.

  • ·      Passive practices (sometimes called disciplines of abstinence) involve “sensing” or “absorbing” the Divine Presence in our lives.  We often have to intentionally stop doing other things so we can make space for God.  Practices such as silence, solitude, prayer (certain types), meditation, and study might fall into this category.
  • ·      Active practices (sometimes called disciplines of engagement) are things we do that “send out a pulse” hoping to “sense the Divine”.  We engage the world around us, we serve our neighbors far and near, and through these activitities, we experience God.  Practices such as service, confession, worship, guidance, and celebration are typically active practices.
Sin can also be thought of a practice. Getting back to our satellite analogy, we might imagine sin as clouds in the Divine Atmosphere that obstruct our ability to sense God.  We don’t usually succeed in removing a sin (a “negative” practice) by sheer willpower alone; we need a “positive” practice to replace it. 

Spiritual practices can be the antidote to sinful practices.

We can break sins down into sins of commission—things we do that we shouldn’t—and sins of omission—things we neglect to do that we should. 

A rule of thumb is that if you struggle with a sin of commission, passive practices will probably benefit you, whereas if you struggle with a sin of omission, you probably need to engage in active practices.

You may notice I have kept things general and do not say much about specific practices.  The reason is because that ground has been thoroughly covered in other sources and is beyond the scope of a short article.  If you want to learn more I highly recommend books such as: Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster; Spirit of the Disciplines by Dallas Willard; The Life You’ve Always Wanted by John Ortberg; Rediscovering the Ancient Practices by Brian McLaren; The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook by Adele Calhoun.  Each of these books categorize and/or describe the “nuts and bolts” of specific spiritual practices.  The number of activities listed in The Spiritual Disciplines Handbook is a good reminder of why making a definitive “list of disciplines” is so difficult.  

As we walk the spiritual journey, we find that almost any activity can be a spiritual practice when we intentionally pursue it as a means of drawing us closer to God. 

So if you were looking for specifics, I am sorry.  I’m afraid we each have to do the hard work of determining what practices are best for us.  Each list will be as unique as the person writing it.  

With that being said, after quite a few years on the spiritual journey myself, I think I can definitively say that the pursuit of these practices is not optional if we want to grow closer to God. 

I hope the thoughts I’ve shared are helpful and that we can use the season of Lent as an opportunity to intentionally pursue spiritual transformation.

Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Thoughts on Transformation

Ezekiel 36:26.  A new heart will I give you, and a new spirit I will put within you; and I will remove from your body the heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh.

During Children's Time a couple weeks ago, the children were asked to think about two words: transformation and transfiguration.  The leader asked them to consider how these words are similar, and how they might be different; the sermon that day further challenged us "older kids" :) to think about the links between these two words.  Our pastor shared some of her own personal experience of transformation.  Transfiguration is typically viewed as a specific experience Jesus had with Peter, James, and John (although my last post  suggested a much broader interpretation of the word is possible--and maybe even preferable).  Transformation, on the other hand, suggests an ongoing process of change.  

We might say that Jesus was transfigured so that the world could be transformed.  

Let's think a bit more about this word transformation...

A rule of nature is: give anything in creation long enough and it will transform--physically.

In the natural world, transformation is always happening.
Plants transform, changing throughout their life cycle: from seed, to seedling, to full grown, to blooms, to decay.  Animals transform too;  they "grow up" and change throughout their lives.  

Even the rocks beneath our feet that seem "unchanging" to our perception are actually undergoing a slow and gradual transformation.  Human beings are animals, and just like our fellow creatures, we too transform physically.  We "grow up" and our body changes over time.

What sets human beings apart from the rest of creation, however, is that, in addition to changing on the outside, we have the capacity to change on the inside.  To say this another way, our hearts can be changed; we can experience spiritual transformation. 

The human heart is something of a paradox.  Sometimes a heart is soft as talc, vulnerable and easily shaped and even scarred by circumstances, but other times it seems stronger than a diamond--only transforming under intense pressure, usually when the stress of staying the same becomes worse than the stress of not changing.  

Unfortunately, when it comes to spiritual transformation,  our hearts tend to be more like diamonds than talc.

Unlike physical transformation, which will "just happen" if you give an object or creature enough time, time alone does not tend to change a human heart.  

Spiritual transformation usually only happens when we intentionally choose to pursue it.

It doesn't take long to see the reality of these words.  If spiritual transformation "just happened" because we followed Jesus long enough, I suspect this world would be a far better place than what we actually see.  The truth is, because human hearts are so resistant to change, left to our own devices, we tend to drift away from the very life with God that we are created to enjoy.  In order to redirect toward God, we have to make a conscious decision to engage in activities that will--given enough time and repetition--redirect our hearts toward God and create space for the Holy Spirit to work within us.  As we engage in those spiritual practices, we begin to train our body, mind, and soul to more instinctively respond to circumstances we encounter in our lives "as Jesus would if he were us".  There's no getting around the fact that this requires longterm commitment on our part:  lots of time, lots of practice--and, above all, lots of patience. 

The Scriptures, and other Christian witness throughout the centuries tell us, that such transformation is possible and that when it happens, it has a powerful impact.  Sometimes, the actions of an individual or a small group of transformed disciples have literally changed the course of human history.

Imagine the impact that this kind of spiritual transformation could have on your home, your church, your community--and even the world.  I invite you to run with those thoughts during the season of Lent, and see where you feel led take action (or perhaps to spend time in contemplation).  Most of all, I urge us all to continue to chase after Jesus with all our heart, mind, and strength.  

Friday, February 13, 2015

Transfigured Living

The passage we often read on the Sunday before Lent begins is an account of the Transfiguration of Jesus.  I was struck by something this year that I hadnt thought of before.  While Matthew, Mark, and Luke record this story, John does not.  At first it seemed a little odd that Johnwhom all the other authors agree was actually theredoes not describe his own experience.  Im not sure why he doesnt talk about it, but heres a thought:

The Transfiguration of Jesus
Mark 9:2-8
Perhaps Johns point in not describing the Transfiguration experience was to focus us less on John and more on Jesusless on describing a personal mountaintop experience and more on helping others find God in the midst of their everyday lives.

Certainly, that seems to be the message Jesus tells his disciples as they come down off the mountain.  He urges them to keep what they experienced between them and focus on the ministry that lies ahead when they return to the valley below.  He knows that from this point on, life is going to get harder for his itinerant band, as they begin to make their way toward Jerusalem and move toward an inevitable confrontation with the rulers and authorities.  If you read the accounts in the Gospels (e.g., Mark 9:14), you see that a crowd of needy people waits for them the moment they come down of the mountain.  There is no time to bask in the afterglow of their special experience and feel superior to the other nine disciples who didnt get to go with Jesus. There is work to be done!  In our modern parlance we might say:  The retreat was great but all too soon its back to reality.

Johns entire Gospel reads like a testament to the impact witnessing the Transfiguration had on his life.  His essential message is that if we have eyes that see, every moment we are alive offers opportunities to glimpse Gods glory.  If we see Jesus, we see GodJohn 14:9or as songwriter Michael Gungan puts it:

Our praises will rise,
As we come to recognize,
Jesus is near,
Glory is here!

As the Gospels make clear (especially if you read Marks account), even after the Transfiguration, the disciples are slow to recognize Jesus for who he really is.  Jesus tries to explain what lies ahead, but no one seems to be able to “hear” what is being said. Ironically, the ones who got the special glimpse of Jesus up on the mountain sometimes seem the most obtuse in their understanding.  Jesus gets frustrated, but he understands.  He also remains committed seeing his journey through to the end.

The mountaintop experience they have just had is important, but only insofar as it helps to prepare them for and sustain them during the difficult journey that lies ahead. 

FOR REFLECTION: Think about a mountaintop experience in your life?  What made it special?  Did it help you see God more clearly?  How has it sustained you on your journey through the valleys of this life? 

Friday, October 3, 2014

Practice: Not a Spectator Sport

Brady's first time pitching.
I like to go to Brady’s baseball practices.  (Which is a good, since they account for many hours of a parent’s life during the season.)  I watch intently as the coaches lead the players through pitching, hitting, and fielding drills for about two hours.  At one practice recently, the kids were warming up their arms.  I was standing near the dugout, and the coach asked me to throw him a ball.  It wasn’t pretty—a wounded duck if ever there was one.   

After my stupendous throw, it occurred to me that while watching many hours practice may have taught me a thing or two about baseball, it has obviously not “taught” my body how to throw a baseball correctly.  No, for that to happen, I would have to actually get out on the field with the kids and participate in the practice.  It would be pretty humbling to get out there as a nearly 44-year-old man and practice with kids, but since I didn’t play baseball growing up, that’s really where I would need to begin.

There’s no getting around the fact that if I want my ability to play baseball to improve, I would have to put in the practice.  No one can do it for me.

Just like baseball, church is not intended to be a spectator sport.  While we can gain something simply by showing up on Sunday and “watching” the worship service, there’s a limit to how far that can take us.   Unless we actively participate in worship and in prayer, fasting, service, etc., on a regular basis, we shouldn’t expect to see tremendous transformation in our lives.  Just as in baseball, even if we do practice, our progress will be slow, which may not seem all that encouraging. 

But then life unexpectedly “throws you a curveball” and all you can do is “react to the pitch”.  There isn’t time to think about your response, you can only let whatever is in you flow out of you.  When, in that moment, you “step to the plate” and “smack it out of the park” spiritually, you start to realize the value of all those hours of practice.  The drills seemed pointless at the time, but they actually served a purpose!   They trained you to respond “as you should,” almost without conscious thought.

Animate: Practices
This fall, the Adult Sunday School at my church is doing a study called Animate: Practices.  Essentially it’s an opportunity for us to practice seven different spiritual activities: Prayer, food, worship, sacraments, money, service, and community.  There is an accompanying DVD and journal.  The DVD speakers are well-known Christian pastors, authors, activists, etc., so we can think of these as “coaches” who share what they’ve learned on their journey in hopes that it helps us as we seek to practice.  

Just as my baseball game hasn’t improved that much sitting watching my son’s practices, our ability to pray, worship, serve, and so forth, won’t substantially improve just by watching a DVD.  We have roll up our sleeves and practice what we’ve discussed and seen demonstrated on Sunday.
God’s grace is free but our growth requires effort (practice)
So while the class gatherings are important and the fellowship and discussion is great, I would say the journal is the most critical part.  Each week, there are six exercises related to the activity being studied.  These provide opportunities to practice what we talked about on Sunday during the week. Of course, the exercises are optional, but it’s been said that, “we get out of something what we put in”.  I can’t say I do them all, but I’ll share a few of my experiences in the next few posts.

Next: My experience Practicing Prayer.

Thursday, July 31, 2014

It's All About the Fundamentals—Part II: Practicing Life With God

Spiritual growth has a lot in common with baseball—or any other activity we do involving our bodies. While we may learn something about an activity by watching others and taking notes, we only truly learn how to do something when we do it ourselves.   We need to find “coaches” who can come alongside us and provide guidance for us on our spiritual journey.  We can also learn reliable and repeatable patterns and practices (sometimes called spiritual disciplines) that help create space for God to work in our lives on a regular basis.   We could think of these activities as batting practice for the spiritual life.  Just like the baseball players, we need to practice these activities over and over again until they become routine to us—until doing it the wrong way is what feels unnatural.  My son attended a baseball clinic recently, and a couple times while demonstrating to the group, I heard the coach say, “I have a hard time doing this the wrong way.”  In other words, he has practiced the right way to swing so much that he finds it hard to demonstrate incorrectly. Could we imagine our spiritual life reaching that point? 
These are practices we can do with our bodies
that help create space for God to act in our lives.

In the life of Jesus we see a perfect example of living a divine life through a human body.  Like Coach Nick at Brady's clinic, Jesus had passion, but in his case, it wasn’t just for the game of baseball, but for the human race and all of creation.  Ultimately it was that passionate desire for you, me, and all of creation to be “put right” and set free to become all that God intended us to be that led him to give his life on the cross.  If Christ had that kind of passion and love for the world, we can too. 

Over and over again in his letters, Paul asserts that Christ is in us and we are in Christ, which implies that what Jesus did as a human being is possible for us.

Practically speaking, however, it can seem difficult, if not impossible, to do even a fraction of what Jesus did. To walk in the way of Jesus’s unconditional love and grace for all people seems completely counter to what comes naturally to us as human beings.  It’s hard to practice this way of living day after day when the world seems to war against it—sometimes literally.   

Ultimately we have to choose in which school we wish to enroll: the School of the World or the School of Jesus?   Many of us try to straddle the fence and dabble in both schools, but that usually doesn’t work well. The techniques each school teaches will inevitably contradict each other and we will become confused and frustrated at our lack of progress.  Once we intentionally choose to focus on the School of Jesus, however, we can begin to make progress in our spiritual growth. 

Like Coach Nick, Jesus has a well-earned reputation as a good ”coach”.  In fact, he is the best instructor for living life with God that I know. His school teaches the rigorous Kingdom-life curriculum—a counter-cultural way not for the feint of heart.  Also like Coach Nick with his players during practice, Jesus demands our utmost concentration and effort when we are in class.  Anything that distracts us must be put aside; we must be committed to the training we have started—Luke 14:25-33.  His is a hard teaching, and it’s not for everyone—John 6:60.  However, former students, such as Peter, Paul, and so many others that have set at his feet through the centuries, swear by him.   They promise us that if we stick with him, even when the going gets tough, he will show how we ought to live.  

Just as a change to how we swing a baseball bat seems strange at first, it won’t seem natural to respond as Jesus would at the beginning.  Our body (including our mind and spirit) has not yet been trained to do it, so we will feel awkward and clumsy trying to do what Jesus did. With practice, however, responding, as Jesus would if he were me, becomes easier—more natural. 

Imagine what a difference it might make if more of us committed to the School of Jesus—not just for a week, a semester, or even a four-year degree, but for a lifetime.  Every follower of Jesus must continue to learn; every day is an opportunity to practice living life with God—a Kingdom-living clinic if you will.  Imagine the burdens that could be lifted and the power that could be released if more of us had our eyes and ears opened to see life that way.  Everything we live through—the good, the bad, and all the ordinary days in between—trains us for reigning in God’s Kingdom both now and eternally.  Surely, learning to see life that way could make a difference in some of the seemingly intractable personal and global crises we face in our families, churches, communities, and world.  Who knows, it might even literally transform the world.