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? 

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