Category Archives: Formative Spirituality

Ever since Socrates defined the human spirit, we have been on our search excellence. A basic fact: humanity transcends itself. It’s in our DNA. We either become better, or we deform. In the end, we have been 12 or a hundred different people. We unfold. We follow some primordial call.

Thousands of years of spiritual Masters have been on this journey, mapping its contours. Major streams of thought and untold religious effort have been spent to endorse, extinguish, capitalize upon, and support this one fundamental piece of the human DNA.

The discipline of Formative Spirituality, conceived by Father Adrian van Kaam, seeks to scientifically explain the unfolding of a healthy human spirit and locate its obstacles. At its core, spirituality aids a person in the discovery her unique-communal destiny (what one is called to be and do). The pressures of a sick spirituality reinforce human pride and the impulse to dominate and control even one’s own destiny. While Christian Spirituality does not claim that it alone creates deeply good and selfless human beings, it does claim to map the deepest image of reality, particularly the full flowering of one’s individual calling culminating in the creation of a divine community and embraced by the Creating Mystery as Cosmic King.

Compassion and Nehemiah 3

There is no more important posture one needs, in rebuilding broken things, than compassion “a willingness to suffer” with those who languish under the weight of ruins. Suffering with another person is the willingness to enter into the mess and, with a Christ-like reverence for those whose lives are broken, being present with them in the reconstruction process. As Thomas Merton said in The Sign of Jonas of God’s compassion: “I am noisy, fully of the racket of my imperfections and passions, and the wide open wounds left by my sins. Full of my own emptiness. Yet, ruined as my house is, You live there!”

The ministry of Young Life played an important role in my adolescent years. My local leader, Phil, served as a constant presence in my messy young existence. He shepherded me to three impactful weeks of summer camps, bravely sought me out for short conversations at school events, was willing to look like a fool week in and out performing skits and outdated pop-songs at our weekly club, and organized regular nerf-war games in his church fellowship halls on Saturday nights. I am confident that this kept us out of a lot of trouble we might have otherwise conjured up. I was a mess of a kid, emotionally and relationally. There was no more vivid symbol of this than my first camp experience. The night before departure, I came down with a wicked cold. I lost my voice and I became a flowing fountain of mucous. By the time we arrived at camp two days later, having sat and slept in a fifteen-passenger van, there were three Kleenex boxes worth of tissue-balls piled around me and scattered throughout the van. At Young Life camp, arriving in wild style is one of the most important aspects of the week. They pulled us immediately out of the van and took us on a clothes-soaking ride atop a giant intertube on the massive Minnesotan lake. Soaked, we were rushed off to a spectacular introduction to the rest of the camp grounds. I found out later that Phil spent a small portion of his free time that day gathering up the moist tissue balls to throw them away. I shudder. If anything, Phil resolved to suffer with me on the first leg of what would be a decisive week of my life. I’m sure this was only a small glimpse of the ways Phil suffered in those years for giving me a role model in return. Ruined as my house was, Phil lived with me there for a season.

Without compassion the kingdom of God cannot be established. We see another symbol of this reality in way Nehemiah chose to dwell among Jerusalem’s ruined house and rally together those there living in ruins. As told in Nehemiah 3, he catalyzed everyone as manual laborers, from the unlikely High Priest with his order to the Gibeonites who the author tells us had some relationship to those in charge of Judea. This means that there were tensions of authority inherent among these two groups. The author describes the complex community of co-laborers and their work in a counter-clockwise fashion, beginning at the sheep gate (near the temple) and ending at the little north-west portion of the wall that stood between the muster gate and the sheep gate. This mean that in that section the priests and the goldsmiths and merchants worked next to one another. Would that be true in our day as well. May professional Christians and business men somehow labor side by side. Some workers focused on the gates, while others performed epic restructuring of long stretches of the wall: “Hanun and the inhabitants of Zanoah repaired the Valley Gate; they rebuilt it and set up its doors, its bolts, and its bars, and repaired a thousand cubits of the wall, as far as the dung gate’ (3.13). Some worked in relatively common sections, while others worked near the palace and grave of David. People from all classes and tribes suffered together to rebuild Jerusalem. Only the nobles of Tekoa ‘would not put their shoulders to the work of their Lord’ (3.5). Lord, let not our nobles be like Tekoan nobility. The author of Nehemiah gives us no sense in this chapter of discord or a sense of self-importance rising from one quarter or another. Almost all put their shoulders to work, and the picture is of great harmony as the psalmist celebrated, “How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity” (Psalm 133.1). With such concord, the community would be ready to take their stand against inevitable opposition, coming in the next chapter as a great cloud of sand.

Advertisements

The Heart of Social Presence

An excerpt from “A Spirituality of Social Presence”, by Keith Jagger. (Epiphany Academy Dissertation).

At the center of the Judeo-Christian worldview towers one stubborn conviction: “The earth is the Lord’s and everything in it and all who live in it” (Psalm 24.1). Yet our headlines fill themselves daily with news of genocide, corruption, rising global temperatures, widespread extinction of species, violence, wasting of resources, and evils far more insidious. The world seems to spin out of control. If this entire place is God’s, then it appears that something is very wrong.  Something sinister has crept in or been allowed entry. The hands that run the machines of our age seem too strong to oppose. And many resort to violence, for one cause or another, confident that they are doing right. Others have resigned themselves to the way things are, as we found them. We are after all each in our own stages of survival. Damned if you care, damned if you don’t. Now, with our spiritual and moral guides muted by the contemporary “wisdom” of progress, and in the face of such deep social turmoil, many ask themselves what they, one small human, can do to fix this world. We forget to follow the advice of the sages and to ask the most important question of all: who am I becoming?

This question poses itself to us all, but I want to ask it here for those interested in social work, community development, or for anyone who still believes that we can we have a role to play in changing the world, not simply maintaining it.

One of my key observations after half of a decade of work in my local community is that doing justice is never about mustering up enough energy or compassion to complete a project, no matter how noble. Rather than fighting the evils of racism, violence, poverty, and ecological ruin with our own power and ingenuity, we need something far more powerful: strong, consistent, and purified hearts. The hidden pride of the human heart can trick even the most spiritual among us. We are a thicket of mixed motivations. We are attached too much to success and to the ideas we think up. At worst, we turn people, even God, into objects that serve our ambitions. God should never become our co-pilot. People are never projects. So time and time again I have had to return to God’s altar. Often I came looking for forgiveness and guidance, the chance to offer God my struggling projects, and the opportunity to express my deep longing to love and be loved. Much of the time, I sought to release some inexpressible weight, collected over the course of too much striving.

What I needed more than strategies and mission statements (though vision is important) was to be schooled in faith, hope, and love and to gain the blessed realization that in the darkest of alleyways, God was there first. He has been working on the toughest issues long before we arrived. And to join him we need to become far more like Jesus than we may think possible. Carlo Carretto, social activist turned monk put it this way: “There is something much greater than human action: prayer; and it has a power much stronger than the words of men: love.”[1] Samuel Escobar, scholar of world Christianity, agrees, “If Christian mission is first and foremost God’s mission, Christians must always conduct mission in an attitude of humility and dependence upon God.”[2] Love. Dependence. These take the pressure off of too much striving. We long to be transformed into true healers, but we must confront our own demons along the way. We long for an authentic spirituality but we find it in an unexpected place, where God is in control and we are along for the awe-filled but unexpected ride. We long, in the end of it all, to be stretched by His loving hands.

::

So, for the community developer, how is the heart steadied (faith), strengthened (hope), and purified (love), and what can we expect to change about this world once our hearts are made ready? For starters, we need faith in order to do the work we do, a confident attitude that Jesus is Lord, even today. Next, we must avoid faith’s shadow forms, which include excessive fear on the one hand and the need for certainty on the other. We remember what Jesus said to Thomas, “blessed rather are those who have not seen and yet believed” (John 20.29). Crucially, faith, as it turns out, grows more consistent when in community, not in isolation. When we come to moments in our journey when we lose sight of our confidence, we need others who have experienced God. When we cannot see, we learn to see through their eyes. We turn to Jesus as the primary witness to God’s presence among us. He was intensely devoted to the invisible God, and (as his followers tell us) reflected God perfectly. We also need the spiritual masters who for two millennia have given witness to their experiences of God. And we need to listen in relationship with living saints to these blessedly departed. We need scripture and the masters. We need to become part of this scripture-saturated web of faith. So if you haven’t found a small community yet who reads, and worships, and contemplates on God’s recorded actions and upon his creation together, do so. You cannot become a person of radical faith alone. You need some form of small group and a worshipping community. Then, over the course of time, you will find that the witness of faith we received from others becomes validated by our own spiritual insights.

We also need strong hope. Hope is a steadfast endurance in the conviction that whatever we do in the Lord is not in vain (1 Corinthians 15.58). The enduring muscle of hope strengthens or atrophies for a number of reasons. Hope atrophies when we loose grip on the meaning of our suffering. We must continually pray and reflect on what formative purpose suffering may hold for us, sufferings that range from small disappointments to outright assaults on our faith or ministry. Also, hope atrophies when we engage in “grass is greener on the other side” mentality. Hope atrophies when we yearn to escape situations that depress us. We must learn to recognize what exactly it is that causes us to pine for other situations, and we must learn then to stay in our own situations that tempt us to escape. We must learn contentment in our present situations, and we must stay faithful to the relationships and work, to which God calls us, unless we begin to crack. Then we prayerful retreat rather than attempt to restore. This is why journaling is so important. It is nearly impossible to know why we suffer until we go through it. It is nearly impossible to learn why we catch ourselves pining for something else if we do not already have a record of God’s past reasons for taking us through previous pain. God never orchestrates evil, but He uses everything for our good, and our hope grows when we have eyes to see that. But, there is something deeper. Hope has a core, and when the world wants to weaken our hope it goes after the core first: resurrection. We believe that Jesus was resurrected in the middle of history, as a first fruits of what will happen to us and as a jumpstart of New Creation. As the psalmist foresaw about hope, we expect to see God’s goodness in the land of the living (Psalm 27.13).   Learn everything you can about the resurrection so to put your hope in something worthy of the hope you feel inside.

Love is the most mysterious. We have little control over the purification of love in our hearts. Love purifies when the sins of our heart are drowned, our pride, our envy, our greed, and so forth. God leads this work. So we must abandon ourselves in every minute detail of our lives to God. Learn to make the connections between your trials and joys and God’s purifying work in your life. And when in community you find your spiritual heart beating purely (love), with strength (hope), and consistently (faith), so will you find your reverence for life increasing, your appreciation for people’s uniqueness intensifying, your ability to draw the best out in others around you widening, your willingness to work across boundaries expanding, and your spirit will be filled with the harmony that Jesus demonstrated, with the convergence of justice, compassion, peace and action.

If you want to become this type of person, you need a small community of people to do this with.  And together you need to listen wisely and carefully to the witness of social masters from the past.  You also need to listen to nature.  Together they tell a story about a way of life that we have both lost and have yet to imagine.  You furthermore need to find a way to reflect and contemplate.  If journaling works for you, this is the best proven method. You need to keep track of the meaning in your suffering and keep in tune with the way that your life is being purified by the successive situations you experience day in and day out.   And together, and this is crucial, you need to start serving.  Hope cannot grow in a stagnant community.  You must get outside of yourself and let others bless you in return.  Next, you have to commit to stay in situations that you want out of unless they promise to crush you.  And all the while you need to engage your brain.  Learn everything you can about the resurrection…it is the hope center of Christianity. Resurrection gives life and endurance to communities of change.

The blessedly-departed Father Adrian van Kaam was a Spiritan Priest who was set to graduate from seminary six months prior to the Nazi occupation of his home in the Netherlands. He spent seven long and hungry months sheltering and caring for terrified Christians, Jews, and Atheists from all walks of life. That experience convinced him that our world needed and would need a practical spirituality that translated across many barriers for the sake of the gospel to be rooted in the ancient 2000 year old Christian tradition.   His vision of 21st Century Christian social presence included:

consonant people who stand up for human rights demanded by the potential for human splendor. Their presence is marked by a personal respect for each person they meet. Therefore they emit a powerful appeal, evoking the best in others. Many feel uplifted by them. [3]

What if we committed to becoming this type of person? What if our communities were filled with these types of people? How many of these hope-filled, purified, strong people would it take to confront sufficiently the evils we experience around us? How many would it take to free those around who are enslaved by a host of modern captors?

The best of Christian spirituality works. But it does not strive. Nor does it flail. God invites many, including prophets and activists, into his light through his means of grace, not simply to transform communities but so that the insignificant many can become beacons of light that help others become their very best versions of themselves as possible. We can do this, we can become steadfast luminaries even in the darkest of situations, through which many struggle today.

[1] Carlo Carretto (1972). Letters from the Desert. tr. RM Hancock. Maryknoll: Orbis, xvii.

[2] Samuel Escobar (2003). The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone. Downer’s Grove: Intervarsity Press, 94.

[3] Adrian, van Kaam (2002). Formation of the Human Heart. Pittsburgh: Epiphany, 280.

Book Invitation: A Glorious Dark by A.J. Swoboda

Book Invitation:

We are all of us passing through cycles of resurrection. Old patterns of life die. We linger in the dust of the grave. And we wake up one day and find ourselves finally new. God is working on us, even if we can’t see it. Our faith must therefore imagine our souls as a frozen river with a current raging beneath.

Just in time for Holy Week, this new book on the pattern of death and resurrection in the Christian life,  A Glorious Dark, offers a fresh accounting of faith in the contemporary world. In this book, author, pastor, theologian, AJ Swoboda guides us through the story of Jesus’s death, burial, and resurrection.  Throughout Swoboda teaches us to embrace the Christian life with all of its mysterious discomforts.

I’ve come to believe that there truly is abundant—one might say, bottomless—life in Jesus. However, this life isn’t found on Sunday alone. Life is found in all three days—pain and death on Friday, doubt on Saturday, and resurrection on Sunday. To follow Jesus as we’re created is to simultaneously enter the whole weekend. Today’s Christians, lamentably, almost never embrace the totality of the weekend in their personalized versions of Christianity. Most remain selective, prejudiced, discriminatory, choosy: we’re picky about the one day of the weekend we desire to experience. And once we’ve landed on our favorite day, we rarely budge until we’re forced to. Incomplete, this makes for three cheep knock off versions of Christianity (p. 3-4).

Full of pastoral wisdom and with a constant eye upon the culmination of holy week, the book weaves through topics such as denominational exclusivism, the Bible, hypocrisy, divorce, social media, faith and intellect, scripture, addictions, entertainment-church (“entertainment is what the church does when it isn’t satisfied in God”), shootings, pornography, Sabbath, virginity, Atheist consumers of the Eucharist, and the resurrection. I had to drop my reading twice to run and read these following quotes to a friend. The first is about imperfect fathers,

The dream died for those who have deadbeat dads, distant dads, dads in the room who aren’t in the room, dads who left to go be with a younger, hotter version of Mom. Even dads who have died… Living life without God is like having everything you’ve ever wanted but having no father in the room to celebrate with (p. 36-37).

The second spoke into the recurring theme experienced of late by my circle of friends, who are searching for God’s direction in life:

What if God’s will is for us to do all the freaking out we’re doing trying to find God’s will? Searching out God’s will is God’s will for my life. It’s a ceaseless pilgrimage we all must make. It’s God’s will above all, that we should wrestle in finding God’s will (p. 52).

I love it when we get glimpses of the way forward in faith. This is it. I’d recommend picking up a copy and reading it before Easter.

Two Powerful Lenten Prayers: Repentance and Petition for Freedom of Modern Day Slaves

Written by students from Asbury Theological Seminary in 2010 and 2011:

Check out the article written in 2015 by now alumni on Human Trafficking and Pornography:

1: Lamentation over Human Trafficking

“Out of the depths we cry to you, O Lord” (Ps.  130:1);

Father, from the depths of our core where helplessness and hopelessness reside, we cry.  Our hearts are broken that your men, women, and children all over the world are bought and sold into sexual slavery and slave labor for the profit, pleasures, and comfort of others.  We cry for the slaves who are already crying out deep within because of the yoke of oppression they carry. We cry because they cry. We cry because your heart is moved the way a mother is moved by the cries of a hungry and thirsty child. In our tears, we are hungry and thirsty for your justice and mercy.

“Create in us a pure heart, O God, and renew a steadfast spirit within us” (Ps. 51:10). “So our spirit grows faint within us; our hearts within us are dismayed” (Ps. 143:4)

Jesus, we confess that we are part of the problem. We contribute to the injustice of slave labor with the things we buy and with the meditations of our hearts.  We repent for all the times we willingly submitted our wills to sexual perversion and exploited the beauty of your design in our brothers and sisters.  We have slept with darkness and therefore have perpetuated the evil of sexual exploitation against our brothers and sisters.

Spirit, we lift up those caught in the lust that causes them to pay for sex or view pornography. We lament over those that walk in darkness and help keep slaves in bondage, we cry. Lord, we lift up the exploiters- the pimps, johns, madams, factory, plantation, and brothel owners. We know it is your desire that they be redeemed as well. Lord, we lift up those who create the demand- individuals and families who exploit others for slave labor in their homes. As they sell, buy, and trade men, women, and children for pleasure or profit, we cry. Our tears fall with a confessing heart that pleads guilty of participation through consumerism and lust.

“Hear our prayer, O Lord; listen to our cry for mercy.  In the day of our trouble we will call to you, for you will answer us.” (Ps. 86:6-7)

Father, Son, Spirit, we ask that you would proclaim release for the captives, that they may know in the midst of their tragedy that you are good.  We repent for all the times we failed to pray for those in chains and hindered your justice from coming into the world.  We repent for all the times we turned our heads to the victimization of our brothers and sisters and said it was someone else’s problem and not our own.  We trust that you will guide us as a community in the fight against modern day slavery. We thank you and praise you for the work you are already doing and the people you are freeing from bondage all over the world, even as we pray. May your kindness lead us to repentance. May your grace lead us to action. May your mercy pour justice in our hearts. In Jesus’ name, amen.

——

II. A Lenten Abolition Litany

We are reminded this Lent that we have all been slaves to sin and death.   “We have all been there before, captive to the passions of our weak flesh, impulsively doing the will of our weakness. And like the rest, we were children whose nature deserved wrath. But You, exerting Your wealth, made a life for us together with Christ.”

(Ephesians 2.3-4)

Lord, our world has been deceived.  We pray this Lent against the industry of human trafficking, because when we do we are praying against many sins: greed, lust, materialism, apathy, prejudice, and selfishness.  Lord, we pray for our world, which is shackled in the chains of sin and death. In your mercy,

Lord, deliver us

Lord we cannot pray against modern slavery and mourn its existence without acknowledging our part in the mess.  Our shoes are saturated in the mire of slavery. Our bodies are covered with cheap products woven with suffering.  Our phones are smeared with the fingerprints of orphans.  The meditations of our hearts turn too easily into lustful desires.  In Your mercy,

Lord, deliver us

Lord, we cry out for enslaved women who are experiencing cruciform suffering every day, in vicious and nameless cycles of evil and degradation; Jesus, you know their pain.  In your transparency and vulnerability you are always with those who suffer and cry out for death. You can relieve them of the pain and give them life.  In your mercy,

Lord, deliver us

Lord, the darkness of sinful and selfish hearts thrives in our land. We cry out for enslaved men and children who may work from dawn till dusk in the Kentucky countryside for no pay. We pray against debt bondage. We pray against forced labor. Would you convict the hearts of a hundred slave masters today? In your mercy,

Lord, deliver us

Lord, in your Kingdom, darkness has no place.  All is transparent.  All is light.  Give us the courage to love those in chains in a way that defies a culture of materialism and sin. Awaken us as your body to embrace the plight of those who cannot defend themselves from the enemy’s agents of destruction. In your mercy,

Lord, deliver us

Lord, in your Kingdom you call each of us by name. Deliver us from our tendency to neglect our brothers and sisters, to ignore those who are sold like products all over the globe. Teach us how to be salt and light in this world; to be Christ’s hands and feet that walk into the dark grottos of civilization and unshackle the chains of idolatry and slavery. Lord, teach us how to LOVE. In your mercy,

Lord, deliver us

Remind us that we are our brother’s keeper. Free us from slavery to sin that we might be your deliverers through our prayers, words, and deeds. Raise up deliverers Lord. Make your church a house of justice. In Your mercy, build our empathy for those whose suffering knows no relief. May your kingdom come, Lord on earth as it is in heaven.

Amen.

John 4 and Begging for Miracles

When faced with evil beyond our control or illness beyond our technology, Christians often struggle, not knowing how to pray as we should.   If one helpless response is forcefully to demand a miracle, the other is to start counting our losses. We tend either to double down on top of our prayer efforts or we begin preparing for the worst (wishing somewhere in the back of our minds that God might do something drastic in our favor). Neither route does justice to the miracles we find in the gospels; neither can guide us Christianly in our efforts of calling down power from on high.

When I was a young Christian I temporarily lost feeling on my left side. My face went numb on the left, my left hand fingers, and my left shoulder. There was a sharp pain behind my right eye socket. I attended a gathering of charismatics, who prayed for me, and the numbing immediately left. For good measure I had an MRI, and there was nothing to be found. The doctor thought it was a passing virus. I have a hunch that it was a miraculous healing. When facing a wicked sinus infection, my friend went to a healing conference. When they prayed for her sinuses, she felt warmth and a popping, and whatever it was moved into her ear. She contracted her first ear infection of her life at the age of 30. I’ve never prayed for somebody to be healed dramatically, or to be raised from the dead, though I tend to believe in the many reports of modern miracles, though not all reported miracles are genuine. So what are we to do when we need an urgent intervention? Is there a formula? Should we seek out a healing conference? Is there any advice in the scriptures?

The healing of the child in John 4.46-54 proves helpful for anyone in need of an urgent and extreme miracle. For Christians, if our founder and Lord worked miracles, we should pay attention to the details of those accounts, which the gospel writers have left for us. At whatever point this young child fell ill we do not know, but John writes that the dying child’s father, an official of Herod, left his son’s bedside expecting either to return to a dead child or to a miracle. He searches Jesus out and asks Jesus to come and heal his child, and though there are a couple of ways to understand Jesus’s response, it seems to me that Jesus actually is less than straight forward with him. We might even say that Jesus is calculated. “Unless I do a miracle”, Jesus laments, “you won’t believe in me”. But this man didn’t come to Jesus to enroll as a follower. He came for a miracle. And he got a miracle, but the point is not that Jesus only works miracles for those who subscribe to his blog.   Something much deeper is going on. When Jesus says “Unless I do miracles you won’t believe in me”, it seems that he was saying something more than the words John has recorded. It was as if he were looking unflinchingly into man’s eyes and saying actually, “I will heal this boy, but wonder if it will only embolden and harden you? Will you see in his restoration the pre-tremors of my world to come, or will it merely contribute further to the old way, a titillating story to amuse Herod, a stumbling block for the countless souls who have begged for a miracle to the silence of the heavens?” Jesus has dropped a smoke bomb in this desperate man’s face, and when we listen carefully to the man’s response, it seems to me, we are stumbling upon a revelation about the mysterious secret of miracles.

The dying child’s father did everything humanly possible to put his son into the arms of God, and when all is said and done, he held together in one grip a tenacious hope and a very simple faith. He left his son’s bedside, searches Jesus out, asks for a miracle, endures when Jesus’s answer is not straightforward, and believed Jesus’s words.   Asking for a miracle today involves all of these things, putting ourselves or loved ones into the arms of God, asking for a miracle, enduring when the answer is not straightforward, and accepting the outcome. Miracles after all are not like lucky numbers or a formula. Following these “steps” does not require anything of God. Neither does ensuring that our motives are pure and faith is present. Miracles are about one thing only: windows into a world yet to come. We cannot conjure them, but we can appeal for them with a steadfast abandon. Miracles can happen, because the earth will someday quake into newness; today we see the pre-shocks of new creation, which has begun. But our need to control these quakes will only deepen a divide between us and God. As one commentator put it “a faith based on signs or works will not only prove insufficient but in due course will turn into rejection”.[1]The secret of miracles is that while they are all around us, and we can and should learn to open ourselves to them, though we must not confuse these signs with what they point to.

God cares for our loved ones and for us far more than we can ever match. If God wills a miracle and we’ve asked for it, it will happen. Many times the miracles will come even if we don’t ask. Usually he wills miracles when his name is at stake or when it will spur on faith. Otherwise we are bound to a grieving world, and we must learn to be part of it.  God requires tenacious hope, which is a steadfast immovability as we peek open the doors of the emerging new creation through prayer. He also requires simple faith, which embraces the resurrection of Jesus as miracle enough for us. When we embrace the resurrection, we begin living in this world as if something changed when Jesus rose. So bring your sicknesses to Jesus, seek him out.  He is nearer than we know.  And come to him with simple faith and not an ultimatum.

[1] Witherington, Ben (1995). John. Louisville:WJK, 126.

Earth Quaking Prayer

Prayers of the Saints

I remember a time in my younger spiritual life when imagination and prayer were wedded in unity. I would often imagine myself robed in purple cloth, clad over armor, kneeling at the throne of God. I would utter words of spiritual battle and stand poised in attention for any directive His Majesty would send my way. God has significantly rooted pride out of my prayer life since then, and that means that there’s not much left of my early zeal. Sadly, the imagination has gone with it. When I try to come back to spiritual battle gear, it all now seems like fantasy. It probably was much of that and a little of Holy Spirit power.  I’d like to grow more in my prayer life, but I’m not sure God wants me to go back to armor and robes. I sense rather that there is much more of sackcloth and ashes ahead.

In the journey of growth I think I share with many Christians a feeling of disconnection with prayer, in the same way that many husbands feel disconnected with their wives; we think we’re doing alright until some small argument leads to an all out fissure. We thought we were doing well, but maybe we haven’t paid much attention to our wives or God lately at all, actually. We shouldn’t be surprised, but we are. The erosion of our prayer life creeps up upon us until we can’t remember the last time we felt engaged in prayer. And all of the sudden prayer is to us a distant impossibility.

But when the early followers of Jesus prayed for boldness, the earth quaked (Acts 4.23-30), and they proclaimed the word courageously. Why should it be any different for us today? How do we catch ourselves before the crisis? How do we turn a desire to pray into a deep well of nourishing drink? And what does a powerful humility look like in a mature prayer warrior? Let’s see what we can discover from the Acts 4 prayer.

At its core the Acts 4 prayer is about courage and healing (4.29-30), and it seems to me that prayer runs right down both of these lines. It takes courage to pray and personal healing follows in its wake, also vibrant prayer is a marker of spiritual health, and it produces courage. Healing and courage both fund a life of deep prayer as much as prayer heals and emboldens. The reason, I think, therefore why a prayer life can be a challenge is that courage is hard won, and we are often wounded far deeper than we realize.

The Acts 4 prayer, remember, comes on the tail end of apostolic bravery against their most revered figures of authority. The priests and the captain of the temple guard (echoes of the Gethsemane mob crop up here) came up to John and ultimately threatened them to their core. But they were bold and offered this in response: “which is right in God’s eyes: to listen to you, or Him” and “salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under haven given to mankind by which we must be saved” (4.12). This courage though was first born out of failure. Read the gospels. Be very careful no to mistake zeal with courage. The most striking thing, though, about these verses is that the rulers noticed a strange incongruity in their interactions with the apostles, “When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and took note that these men had been with Jesus” (4.13). Jesus’s courage had finally rubbed of on these men, and though they had deserted him prior, now they were ready to swallow threats. We might say that Jesus had healed them.

There’s much more to say here about these things, including the clear relationship between the apostle’s assurance of God’s Sovereignty and their steadfast willingness nonetheless to pray for something which God seemed to have already given them, in this case courage.

I think that if we want to become prayer warriors in the mold of these disciples, we need to spend as much time with Jesus as possible, studying the portraits we have of him in the gospels, including him in our daily patterns of thought, and joining him in the places were he works in the world (often marked by darkness and injustice). When we do we will find that he is always giving one eye to establishing his kingdom and the other to healing us and teaching us to be brave.  Want to pray more?  Spend some time reflecting on and even journaling about how God has been healing you and working on your courage.  Though this type of spirituality takes patience and endurance (why wouldn’t it), we shouldn’t be surprised when we wake up one day and find ourselves strong and well enough to spend more of our time in prayer and less in anxious ministry.

Walking by the Spirit

For the New Testament writers, especially for Paul, conversion means God giving a completely new lifestyle to a person who is remade in their entirety. Mind, Will, Heart, Body, and Relationships all get an extreme home makeover.

For Paul, especially in Romans 8 and Galatians 5, he speaks of this total-lifestyle conversion as moving from flesh to spirit. Paul is very careful though to spell this out for his readers, which he will do, because by talking about flesh he does not mean skin, organs, and bones but old patterns of thinking and living. He even gives us lists of how flesh and spirit are different in order to point us in the right direction.

In the old way our minds dwelt on death and the things of death (R8.5-6). In the Spirit, our minds dwell on life and peace (R8.6). Take stock of your mind; where does it spend its time? Also, in the old way, our hearts were racked with fear (R8.15) and conceit (G5.26). Do you ever have the confusing experience of being both deeply in love with yourself and a yet afraid all at once? This could be called narcissism or paranoia. This is walking by the flesh. Walking by the Spirit is confidence and warmth in our heart. When was the last time you experienced a warm heart?

Walking by the old way also includes a change of will and willfulness. You found yourself doing things that you didn’t want to do, and not doing things you wanted to do (G5.17). Walking by the spirit involves learning to control your desires. Paul calls this crucifying our passions (G5.24). Without the Spirit, suggests Paul, you cannot control you desires; it will be impossible.

How about relationships, with people and with God? What does conversion mean for these? Walking by the flesh means biting at one another, devouring one another with our words, provoking one another and envying one another (G5.15). Do these things dominate your relationships? Are you constantly comparing yourself with others? Are you constantly getting in petty fights with family or coworkers? You are walking by the flesh. Period. Walking by the Spirit means loving and serving one another. If you find yourself consumed with bickering, uncontrolled desires, paranoia, constant thoughts about death, Paul says that this reflects a hatred of God, unwillingness to be subjected to God, and ultimately, you become unable to please God. This is harsh but true; you need a conversion.

Walking by the Spirit joins a person with God and is possible in an intensified way in Christ, but it is not inevitable. Old habits and patterns are lurking, because our old self is still being remade. The relationship between God’s healing role in our lives and our willingness is a mystery, but Paul is helpful in giving us a checklist for us to know if we are on the right path, he calls this the fruit of the spirit. Are you growing in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self control, or are you gorged on the fruit of the flesh: sexual immorality, uncleanliness, sensuality, idol worship, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousness, anger, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things (G5.19-23).

While walking by the spirit means that God destroys the old house, he saves the very best of what has been undone. All of our dreams that were lost to us under our old rundown life are now gathered and remade; this is the promise of living in the Spirit. Just as in the cross, in God’s economy, our dreams are put to death and resurrected anew. Language about “walking in the flesh vs. walking by the spirit plugs right into this framework of conversion. Paul asks us to crucify the flesh and its passions and desires. This is not to say that God wants us to be passionless and empty; rather he wants to resurrect our passions and desires to give us a life that actually fills our earth-bound selves and lifts us into the kingdom of God. The only way to get there is by walking by the spirit.  What would it take in your life to move Walking by the Spirit more and more to the center of your attention?