Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Invisible Growth

The Academy for Spiritual Formation taught me many things, but fundamental to all of it was the definition of spiritual formation itself: the process of being conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others. It was emphasized to us that “for the sake of others” could not happen without “the process of being conformed to the image of Christ.” There is an interior process that must be attended to in order for the outward work to be effective.

The focus on interior work was not one that had been obvious to me in my experience as a lifelong church member. I wonder sometimes if our religious communities do an adequate job of emphasizing the importance of interior work. I’m afraid our criteria for measuring one’s faithfulness is overly focused on external acts of service.

I’m not implying that outward acts are not important. We live in a world where people are hungry, homeless and hurting. But outward acts done without inward growth can lead to frustration and burnout. Thomas Merton puts it this way: The mere fact of becoming a well working cog in an efficient religious machine will never make anyone into a saint if he does not seek God interiorly in the sanctuary of his own soul.

I know that in the past I did quite a bit of “church work” that I hesitate to call “service” because I did not perform it with a servant’s spirit. Maybe I thought I did starting out, but over time I wore down and the “work” became drudgery. I believe it is because I focused more on being a “cog” in the “religious machine” rather than on growing in intimacy with God.

Indicators of being a cog might include criticalness of the ones you serve. For example, several months ago I was part of a discussion about the Sermon on the Plain, found in Luke 6. The specific verse that seemed to trigger the harshest discussion was Luke 6:30: Give to everyone who asks and don’t demand your things back from those who take them. A couple of folks were outspoken about who was “worthy” of their generosity and who was not worthy. We would all do well to pay attention to the attitudes that surround our service. It may be that we need to step back from our outward service to focus on inward growth so that our service is done with love and generosity.

In a culture that believes “what you can measure you can manage” a focus on inward growth seems to hold little value. Merton observes: One has very little evidence of progress or perfection in this interior sphere—while in the exterior, progress can be more easily measured and results can be seen. They can also be shown to others for their approval and admiration. The most important, the most real, and lasting work of the Christian is accomplished in the depths of his own soul. It cannot be seen by anyone, even by himself. It is known only to God.”

It is this uncertainty of our “progress” that leads us away from the pride of outward accomplishment to humble trust that our desire for intimacy with God is actually leading us closer to the heart of God. It is an invisible, unheralded journey, yet it is the journey that really matters.

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Moments of Joy

I recently traveled to Chicago with my husband for a conference he had there. Jim had meetings from breakfast until suppertime. We had events in the evenings, so I pretty much had the whole day to myself.

I went with little agenda, but a commitment to pace myself.  I had been to Chicago on vacation with our family back when our sons were in middle and high school, so I had some familiarity with the city and thus, did not have a list of places to see or things to do. I challenged myself to travel with a greater awareness of place, to be fully present to the people I encountered and the places I saw.

Each day, I made a list of moments of joy I experienced that day. Here are some of those:

o   The quiet of St. James Cathedral prior to worship
o   The sleepy smiles I received from a just-awake toddler in a cafĂ© at lunchtime
o   Smiles returned as I walked along busy Michigan Avenue
o   Witnessing a young couple holding hands as he walked and she guided her motorized wheelchair along the sidewalk
o   A dog at the kayak rental shop along the Riverwalk, who wanted everyone to throw his ball for him to fetch
o   The young man at the restaurant who made my lunch with joy
o   The unexpected sound of raindrops on Lake Michigan in a moment when the din of morning traffic broke
o   A pigeon at a pub, its eye on a crumb just inside the open door, sizing up whether to come inside and snag the morsel

Such moments are all around us, every day. Maybe you want to challenge yourself to be more aware of where you are as you go through your day. You don’t need to leave town to do this. You don’t even have to leave your house! All it requires is that you pay attention and be fully present in the present moment.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

The Subversiveness of Sacrifice

We live in a society that elevates the individual. We have a tendency in America to see ourselves as the center of the universe. Statements such as “I don’t like what the government is doing with my tax dollars,” or “I don’t like what my church is doing so I’m not giving my money to it” show our self-focus. We don’t seem to realize that we are part of a larger community.

Mother Teresa said “If we have no peace, it is because we have forgotten that we belong to each other.” It’s pretty hard to have peace when one’s chief aim in life is self-preservation. Dying to self and to self-interest is fundamental to being a follower of Jesus. We have to have a broader view of life than just what benefits us if we are to be light and salt for the world.

Sacrifice is integral to discipleship. Consider this quote from Thomas Merton: The sacrifice of our own will is necessary and pleasing to God whenever there is question of renouncing our individual, private good for a higher and more common good that will work both for our own salvation and the salvation of others. What matters then is not precisely what the sacrifice costs us, but what it will contribute to the good of others and of the Church. The norm of sacrifice is not the amount of pain it inflicts, but its power to break down walls of division, to heal wounds, to restore order and unity in the Body of Christ.

I wonder how Christianity would be perceived by observers if we who claim to be Christian were more focused on the common good, on breaking down walls of division, healing wounds and being bringers of real salvation—not just asking “are you saved?” but actually saving others by feeding, companioning, and loving them? Maybe if we were genuinely interested in the welfare of all with whom we share this planet, others would know who we follow without us having to tell them.

Such sacrifice, as Merton notes, does not have to be painful. Sacrifice is simply putting the interest of another ahead of my own self-interest. It is most often done in small, unobtrusive ways. It can begin by thinking communally rather than individually. If our decisions and choices are driven not by “me” and “mine” but by “your” and “our” that alone will change how we live as residents of this world.

Imagine how the world might be different if we widened our view and opened our hearts, minds and resources for the sake of others.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Reflection on Psalm 23

Here's my reflection on Psalm 23 written for the Mulberry Methodist newsletter as part of our summer sermon series on Psalms.

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Reflection on Psalm 121

Here's the link to the reflection I wrote for the Mulberry Methodist newsletter on Psalm 121.