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.

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