Spiritual Direction

Spiritual Gifts, the Holy Spirit and our Abilities

For Pentecost I preached this sermon.  The sermon emphasizes a certain aspect of Spiritual gifts: namely that they aren’t equivalent to things we do well or like to do.  For instance you don’t have the Spiritual gift of Hospitality because you like to and are good at throwing parties.  To put it another way, having a spiritual gift isn’t the same as being ‘gifted’, as in having a native talent or ability to do X above and beyond other human beings general ability to do X.  What I preached is that Spiritual gifts are about receiving something that isn’t part of one’s native ability or natural inclinations.   The gifting of the Holy Spirit gives us that which take us beyond ourselves.

I have a problem with my sermon: What is summarized above is only part of the story.  Since I was trying to get people to connect with the divine presence in themselves, that stream of water spoken of by Jesus in The Gospel of John, I didn’t explore the connection between our native abilities and gifts and the abilities and gifts received from the divine presence in us, the Holy Spirit.  The only hint I gave that I believed there was some connection between our personal abilities and gifts and the gifts of the Spirit was to emphasize a couple of times that according to Paul gifts were given to each individually.

In my sermon I was seeking  a corrective:  we at times too easily equate a desire or propensity towards something to be our Spiritual gift. Yet,  if take seriously the account of Pentecost in Acts and Paul’s argument in Corinthians the point of being gifted by the Spirit isn’t an aspect of our own effort or ability.  In a sense speaking in tongues and gifts of healing are obvious and thus quintessential Spiritual gifts.  Other Spiritual gifts like hospitality or even discernment could also simply be natural ability or bent, though Paul also speaks of  these as Spiritual gifts.

I didn’t bring it up in my sermon (sermons are limited like that) that I do believe there is a needed discernment of the connection between what has been gifted to us from the Spirit, our personhood and our native abilities and inclinations as persons.

What might be the nature of this discernment?  There are a few things I’d suggest we need to keep in mind and pray about when we have the question of what gifts we have received.

1) As the baptized we have been given the Holy Spirit, in meditation and prayer seeking that flow of life in us is a place to begin.  In this discerning meditation and prayer where in your life, in interactions with others, do you see life springing up both in yourself and in others.  The metaphor of streams of living water for the presence and gifting of the Spirit is to direct our attention to the unexpected places we find life springing up like well watered plants.

2) The Holy Spirit chooses, the Apostle tells us, but also that the Holy Spirit gives to each individually.  While the focus of our gifts isn’t on our native abilities, that the Holy Spirit is God in us and the one who can articulate our deepest longings and desires before God in prayer (Romans 8:26) means that our personality and talents aren’t ignored in the giving of gifts by the Spirit.  I suggest that in discerning one’s gifting one is looking in that space between who you are and the edge of your abilities and inclinations.  This could mean that a gifting of the Spirit takes a natural ability and takes it beyond what one is able to do, or it may offer a means to do something consistent with ones personality but to do something that doesn’t come easy. For instance praying in tongues can be for an extrovert that way to be silent before God and wordless prayer with words, that is a means to meditate for someone who may find regular wordless prayer temperamentally challenging.

3) Paul does connect desire and receiving of gifts.  When in prayer and meditation seeking to know one’s gifting is to seek those places of ones desire.  What do we long for?  Paul seems to even show that in seeking to know the gift one has received that we are to desire certain gifts.  We may find that we aren’t given what we initially desire, again Spiritual gifts do take us beyond ourselves.  Yet, in allowing ourselves to desire good things, which all spiritual gifts are, is key to becoming aware of the gift we have been given by the Spirit.

4) This will require discernment, and talking it out with others whom one trusts.  Spiritual gifts aren’t for our private and personal enrichment, they are how we are to Spiritually relate to other members of the Body of Christ, and the way in which God seeks to bring life to the World.  Therefore the feed back of those close to one: Spiritual counselors and friends are key in discerning what gift one has received.  Again those who are close to us are part of who we are as persons and individuals, they will be able to tell you how they see you fitting together in the Body of Christ.

As I grew in the faith and found my way into the ordered ministry, much of the above discernment happened for me informally and implicitly. Though ordered ministry and office is a different but related thing to the Spiritual gifts, gifting and office also aren’t completely separate.  But that is another post, and a topic that I’m still unclear on myself.  My point though is that this discernment will take time, it also may not always be obvious, or in the moment of a specific conversation where one asks another for feedback on Spiritual gifts.  This process can be those small bits of affirmation, someone  pointing out something one did that one wasn’t even aware one was doing.  There is something organic and fluid to this process, not mechanical or procedural.  And this shouldn’t be surprising because it is about receiving and being the conduit of abundant life, those streams of living water.

 

 

Why Fast?

Lent is a time of fasting.  The patterns of fasting for most Christians in the united States today aren’t about complete abstinence from food, at least not in Lent.  Thus, “giving something up for Lent.”

I confess that I’m not good at fasting.  The spiritual disciplines I gravitate towards are meditation, solitude, Lectio Divina (alone and in groups), and retreats.  Some of these practices are suited and come easy for an introvert, for instance solitude, and spiritual retreats.  Fasting is just difficult, especially a complete fast from any food. I don’t feel I fast well.  I often just am aware of what I’m not eating. It’s difficult to get to the spiritual benefit of fasting.

Fasting might be that for most people.  This is probably why we seek to fast by refraining from only certain foods or even apply this to refraining from certain activities in Lent.  One can quibble with me about whether giving things up for Lent should be properly understood as fasting, but I would still argue the practice is rooted in seeing Lent as a time for fasting.

But why fast at all?  What are we doing when we abstain from some or all foods or certain activities for a period of time?  

Part of the reason we fast is that orthodox and catholic Christian spirituality is an embodied spirituality.  We fast because we are embodied and our bodies matter for our spirituality.

But one may wonder at this: How is it that refraining from food something we need as bodies, an affirmation of our being bodies?  This touches upon this sermon on desire and temptation.  We can have un-reflective or possibly unhelpful relationship towards what we need to live.  Jesus responds to the temptation to turn rocks into bread with “People don’t live by bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.” (Matt. 4:4b TNIV)  This isn’t a denial of the need for food, but an affirmation of where our sustenance and life truly comes from, God.  Fasting through limiting or abstaining from food altogether is a way to affirm a trust in God, who is the source of all life.

The spiritual discipline of fasting has analogous end to what someone is seeking to do in a vegetable juice fast.  In a vegetable juice fast you are seeking to reboot your body and it’s desire for certain foods and to clean out one’s system.  The idea is that, especially in our context of highly processed foods and high dependence on animal products, dairy, and meat for our sustenance, our desire for certain foods is out of whack and that especially due to processed foods we need to detox ourselves.  For some this is the first step towards a vegan diet for others a means to re-calibrate and detox.  In both cases it is to reorient ones desires towards a more healthy pattern of eating and retrain your body to desire truly health giving foods.  This happens both physically and spiritually when we orient a fast towards our relationship with God.

This can also be the spiritual result of fasting.  Through fasting we become aware of our desires, possibly how they may be misguided, and we can through this bodily discipline let God reorient our desires, taking our hunger or our cravings for certain foods as an opportunity to examine what we desire and why before God.  

Personally, I also find that my compassion for those who may have little to eat around the world and in our midst can increase in  fasting.  When fasting I find myself being keenly aware of all the restaurants and convenience stores, and snack shops that are all around. Things, I often pass by without notice.  Fasting then can lead to a compassionate engagement with food, abundance, and hunger.  Through fasting we can allow our chosen hunger to orient our awareness of hunger in the world.

I know of some who fast who will take the money they did not spend on a particular meal, or on food they would have otherwise purchased and donate the money to a food pantry in their area or to an organization working on addressing hunger and starvation around the world. 

These are just some beginning thoughts on why we fast.  Thoughts from one who is a novice at fasting.

What are your experiences with fasting? Why do you fast?  How have you met God in fasting?  is fasting a spiritual discipline you are drawn towards?

The place of intimacy with God in life and worship

Donald Miller, author of Blue Like Jazz  has recently made a stir admitting he rarely attends church and when he does he doesn’t really get much out of it.

Miller says he can worship God in other ways, and other means of intimacy with God suit him better than the corporate worship of a local congregation on a Sunday (morning).    He assumes a few things about worship:  any form of worship serves the same purpose as any other form of worship. Therefore, as long as you have something in your life you can call worship you are in a spiritually good place.  He assumes worship is about learning about God. He assumes that worship is about intimacy with God.  There are a few of problems with these assumptions.

There is a deficient ecclesiology that underlies these assumptions, which isn’t the focus of this post but will eventually post something here.

 Another problem is that “worship” is a catch-all term for anything that brings you close to God, or provides you with an intimacy with God.  A view of worship that focuses on  intimacy with God, does not jive easily with images of heavenly worship of God found in Isaiah and Apocalypse/Revelation of St John, nor does it easily jive with Ezekiel’s Vision of God on the move with the four living creatures.  These biblical descriptions of worshipful meeting God aren’t intimate affairs.   To be fair, the worship that Donald miller is talking about hardly if at all reflects these biblical accounts of heavenly worship at the throne. I dare say few if any in these churches think that in their worship they are before God at the Throne with the twenty-four Elder’s and the four living creatures, and the seraphim and cherubim, but maybe they should.

I don’t mean to say that intimacy with God is unimportant or that all “worship” must be earthshaking, psyche rending, overwhelming with mind bending beauty and awe described by Isaiah, Ezekiel and Saint John the Apostle (though we probably need more of that kind of worship than current American Christianity offers).   There are ways to develop intimacy with God, I just am not convinced the worship of the gathered people of God is the best place to foster that intimacy.

I believe we should cultivate intimacy with God and I agree with Donald Miller that the corporate worship of the church isn’t the place to do it, though we may experience intimacy with God in “church”.  I would argue a more proper place for fostering intimacy with God is in the work of the Church known as the cure of souls, or in more contemporary parlance – in spiritual direction and the spiritual disciplines.

When Miller talks about worshiping God in his work, I say well yes I’m glad you are preaching what Benedictine Monasticism has known for centuries and what a particular monk, Brother Lawrence, taught in a collection of sayings The Practice of  the Presence of God.  And there is also the Apostle Paul as well saying do your work as unto the Lord.  But strictly speaking having a worshipful and prayerful attitude in ones work is a spiritual discipline of  a member of Christ’s body the Church, who is also to have the spiritual discipline of gathering with other members of that body.  So, yes we find God in our work and find it to be worshipful (even if our work isn’t as fulfilling as Donald Miller’s work is, though I’m sure there is drudgery in what he does as well.).  Finding God in our work doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t seek to find God in the gathered people of God.  The practicing the presence of God in all things and in all times is a key and important discipline for maintaining and developing intimacy with God, but it doesn’t replace being the ecclesia.

 If  I say I find God in the world it doesn’t mean I won’t find God in Christ’s body the Church. (I seem unable to avoid ecclesiology).

There are many ways through which one can develop intimacy with God: Spiritual journaling, painting icons,  centering prayer, etc.  What does or doesn’t foster intimacy with God will (as Miller points out) vary from person to person.  You should work with a spiritual companion or spiritual mother or father (that is a spiritual director) and work out what will foster such intimate worship and relationship.  Such practices and awareness should eventually permeate your life (though it probably will take your entire life time).

If you think that  going to church once a week will bring you closer to God, well…, you are fooling yourself.  What happens on the day members of the Body of Christ gather together to worship God should certainly permeate one’s life, and one should find ways to carry that corporate encounter with God and God’s saving work and intention for the world into ones daily life.  Yet, that hour on a Sunday morning isn’t going to (on it’s own) provide you with intimacy with God, or really much of anything else.  It’s just an hour, maybe an hour and a half at most, out of all the many hours in a week with which we occupy ourselves in other myriad of things.

Certainly there are intimate moments in a worship service, when one receives the bread and wine, or when one is anointed with oil, or when hands laid upon.  There is an intimacy in a number of liturgical, symbolic and ritual acts in worship, but that intimacy might be missed if one isn’t’ practicing the presence of God in one’s daily life.

All in all the point of corporate worship isn’t intimacy.  Corporate worship with God is perhaps actually distancing, and this is as good and true as good and true as the experience of intimacy.  God is after all totally other than we are and is incomprehensible, unknown, and unknowable.  We come together and we are to realize that God isn’t like us at all, and we are reminded that we’ve done somethings were not proud of during the week.  God is confounding, refuses to be controlled by us, and that’s kind of off-putting, even scary.    Being in relationship with God is at times raw and unnerving and a disintegrating encounter with that which is other than we are.   This, perhaps is what corporate worship  is about, and it is out of that experience that we can have true intimacy with God.

Encountering Myself as Wounded Healer

Although I appreciate the work of both Carl Jung and Henri Nouwen, I have been hesitant to embrace the archetype of the wounded healer.  In part because I have seen it used to allow clergy and other spiritual leaders to bleed all over those under their spiritual care.   I’ve seen it allow some leaders to more identify with their being “wounded” then with their being “healers”. I know that’s not the point of the archetype , nor what Nouwen was getting at, but it still has seemed that the archetype isn’t always very helpful.

Also, it has been clear to me both in Spiritual Direction and as a pastor that due to family and life circumstance, my spiritual and metaphorical woundedness parallels the amount of  physical woundedness I’ve experienced over my life time of 40 plus years:  a broken bone, and one fairly serious illness, but mostly just scrapes and bruises and the common cold and occasional flu.  That to say in comparison to most of the people I minister with and to, to identify as wounded would be like my attempting to sympathise with an amputee by talking about my many scraped knees over my lifetime mostly incurred as a child attempting to jump bikes, and pointing to the barely noticeable scars from those long healed minor wounds. In other words entirely and completely inappropriate!

By the grace of God and by circumstance, I’ve experienced my amount scrapes and a serious illness but most of it is in the past, and has healed well. I’m not wounded.

Or so I thought.

Over the past several months three members of Church of  Jesus Christ, Reconciler have lost parents.  Since their parents were not part of our worshiping community we did not hold the funeral services.   As I reflected on this with my co-pastor I felt that we should offer a worship service where their parents could be remembered and in which we could grieve with them.  When I first had the idea it just made sense to offer them the opportunity to have their loved ones remembered in a worship service in their primary spiritual community.

As I have sat with this, and as the day of the Requiem Service approached I found myself in a fit of melancholy, sad and restless.   Finally it came to the surface, over 20 years ago I lost my older half-brother in a freak boating accident, he was 30, I was in my early 20’s.  He lived in New Orléans I lived with my parents in Los Angeles.  The last time I had seen him was not long after my 12th birthday.   It has been my brother’s life time since I last saw him, and I was still just a boy.  A great deal of loss, that simply will never be regained.  Add to this that due to a number of things school, finances and timing I was unable to attend my brothers funeral.  Not only was I unable to ritually remember my brother in my faith community, but I didn’t get a chance to do so with my family and those who gathered at his funeral in New Orléans.   Over the years since, I have done a great deal of grief work around his passing and my grief and loss including missing out on the funeral- written poems, created a whole series of paintings on loss and grief including this significant event.  Told the story in various settings, and cried again and again.  Mostly, have found healing.  Except in this one way, I have never remembered my brother and ritually lifted him up to God .   The Requiem service is as much for myself as for those in my congregation who are grieving.

Here was I think the archetype of the Wounded Healer working itself out in me and my ministry.   My loss and lack, my wound (mostly healed, but in need of some further healing), met up with the woundedness of those with whom I’m ministering. I’m not sure holding a requiem service would have occurred to me if I hadn’t had this lack, this wound around my brother’s death.  My own need actually allowed me to effectively minister to my congregation, and in the process I’m finding healing and resolution, of something I’ve long carried with me, and thought could never be healed.

This is how the wounded healer should work, or so it seems to me, from within the space of healing.  From the space of already having begun to heal.  In that space one then can find resources to help others heal, and in that same moment find further healing for oneself as the wounded healer.