What Do You Do When There’s Nothing to Do?

Dallas Willard’s words (above) are testimony to the fact that the Christian life is, first and last (and everywhere in-between), a matter of Grace.  

It’s a good and needful word in this day and age – when so many seek to navigate the spiritual life by their own strength and wisdom and control.  In the landmark study, for example,  Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers (2005), “Moralistic Therapeutic Deism” – an amalgam of several religious expressions and sentiments – is set forth as the major belief system of American youth today.  (It has a whiff of Christianity about it but, as one draws closer, one can understand why Kenda Creasy Dean of Princeton Seminary labels it as she does in the title of one of her books, “Almost Christian.”)  Smith and Denton, the authors of the study, tell us that they chose the word, “moralistic,” for the ways it “inculcates a moralistic approach to life. It teaches that central to living a good and happy life is being a good, moral person.” (Smith & Denton 2005, p.163)

To be sure, the Christian life and spiritual formation have some relationship to morals and morality.  But, these are secondary.  They are more outcomes or ends of the Faith than they are means.  A Christian can and does have (or develops) morals.  In my mind, though, a moralistic Christian is working overtime at acting right and proving wrong.  By their mindset and their actions, moralistic Christians defy the notion that the Christian life is foremostly a matter of faith in Grace.  They defy the notion (ala Willard) there’s nothing we can do in the Christian life.

Unfortunately, their numbers abound – and not just among post-Millennials.

So what is the Christian life – or, we might ask, what is Christian spiritual formation – if it’s all that we do on the other side of realizing we can do nothing?  What’s left?  Here, I might tender a few disciplines or dispositions which are growing in my thoughts, vocabulary, and practice:

  • there’s being still and becoming more aware of the God-richness of each and every moment
  • in the words of the Serenity Prayer, there’s “taking this sinful world [as Jesus did] as it is and not as I would have it”
  • there’s being grateful (I love the connection in so many languages, like Spanish, between the word Grace and saying thanks!)
  • there’s trusting (that, in spite of all we see and oftentimes feel, life is good…)  that the power and presence and love of the Divine are aligned towards better things for us and all of Creation

I will be building the list further – in my heart and in my days… and probably through this blog.

At this point, the question is worth asking.  Can you begin to see it?  (Or, am I just kidding myself?)  That each of these and other disciplines of the faith are simply the fallout of faith in Grace: that there’s really nothing to do in the Christian life and our spiritual formation… but approach them with opens hands and hearts and minds and souls.

Prayer of an “Already-and-Yet-Still-Incomplete” Saint

Among the times God has “called” me was a memorable experience
I had as a student attending A&M United Methodist Church.
It came to me as I sat in the pews, even before the formal service had begun—a reminder through the years to not take myself too seriously as I preached.

It—this “call”—came not as an audible voice or a command.  No, it was more of a question that welled up from within.  Having studied the lives of various saints (Peter, Paul, St. Francis, Ignatius, Wesley, Schweitzer,…), I found myself prayerfully pondering what it would mean—what it would look like—to be a “saint” (i.e., one totally and radically set apart for Christ) in this day.

To be sure, it isn’t the only time God has called me. To be sure, it certainly is a call to which I have yet to fully respond.  Still, it nags my soul and “calls” me forward in faith: in many ways, my ongoing life and ministry in Christ has been an attempt to answer this haunting question.

I came across a prayer (from Joyce Rupp’s Fresh Bread) the other day – during some Spiritual Direction coursework — that seems to embody the yearning and hopes at the core of this quest(ion), this journey.  It’s been called “The Prayer of a Disciple.”  I find myself embracing it as the prayer of an “already-and-yet-still-incomplete” saint:

Loving God,
that you would think my heart capable of belonging to you!
You have filled my life with your goodness in so many ways.
I hear the call to give myself to your love
in an ever deeper and more complete way.
I long to follow you so totally
that you are evident
in every fiber of my life.

I pray for faith,
that long-lasting, true sense of you
that weathers all storms,
that comes across the waters bravely when you ask for me,
that sinks into your love and lets go of anxieties and worries,
that looks long into the eyes of others’ sufferings,
that takes care to be gentle with sinners
and those whose lives are never free
from intense pain of body or spirit.

I pray for love,
that great and generous-enough love
that looks compassionately upon all,
that love which accepts others
with their mystery, doubt, hesitation,
that love which reaches out
even though there is no response in return,
that love which is patient and kind,
that kind of love, which is your love,
never jealous, boastful or conceited,
that love which is never rude or selfish
but rather, always ready to excuse, to trust,
to hope and to endure whatever comes.

I yearn for you to be the intimate Master,
the one at whose feet I can sit and ponder the message,
the one whose hand I can hold and walk with when I am afraid,
the one at whose side I can sit as we taste the meal,
the one whose robe I can touch, even in the crowd.

I will follow.
I will rejoice in loving you and being loved by you.
I need to hear your voice over and over and over again.
I need to keep reclaiming all the intimacy you hold out to me.
I need to let go of all the selfishness that binds me.
I need to believe that you want to win over my heart completely.

O Jesus,
master, shepherd, lover, leader!
Here I am again.
Please claim me as your own.


“Be Careful Little Mouths What You Say”

baldwinI came across a most interesting article on “How Complaining Rewires Your Brain for Negativity.”  Essentially, it is a [not so surprising] corollary to the power of gratitude—underscored in a post from November, 2018 on “Count Your Blessings!” 

In a nutshell, the article speaks of the brain’s desire or inclination to create shortcuts… and how the creation of some shortcuts (like complaining) can be unhealthy (no matter how “natural” it is or has become):

Repeated complaining rewires your brain to make future complaining more likely. Over time, you find it’s easier to be negative than to be positive, regardless of what’s happening around you. Complaining becomes your default behavior, which changes how people perceive you.

And here’s the kicker: complaining damages other areas of your brain as well. Research from Stanford University has shown that complaining shrinks the hippocampus — an area of the brain that’s critical to problem solving and intelligent thought…

While it’s not an exaggeration to say that complaining leads to brain damage, it doesn’t stop there. When you complain, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol shifts you into fight-or-flight mode, directing oxygen, blood and energy away from everything but the systems that are essential to immediate survival. One effect of cortisol, for example, is to raise your blood pressure and blood sugar so that you’ll be prepared to either escape or defend yourself.

All the extra cortisol released by frequent complaining impairs your immune system and makes you more susceptible to high cholesterol, diabetes, heart disease and obesity. It even makes the brain more vulnerable to strokes.

Interesting (but, again, not surprising to me) is the way that the complaining of others around us can accrue in our souls and poison:

Since human beings are inherently social, our brains naturally and unconsciously mimic the moods of those around us, particularly people we spend a great deal of time with. This process is called neuronal mirroring, and it’s the basis for our ability to feel empathy. The flip side, however, is that it makes complaining a lot like smoking — you don’t have to do it yourself to suffer the ill effects. You need to be cautious about spending time with people who complain about everything. Complainers want people to join their pity party so that they can feel better about themselves. Think of it this way: If a person were smoking, would you sit there all afternoon inhaling the second-hand smoke? You’d distance yourself, and you should do the same with complainers.

Fortunately, the article posits a few solutions. First, there’s the invitation to make your complaining productive.   I mean, if you’re going to go there, at least do so with constructive ends and means in mind and heart. “When you have something that is truly worth complaining about… engage in solution-oriented complaining. Think of it as complaining with a purpose.” It’s a variation of Paul’s telling us to speak the truth in love.

eckhart thank youAs powerful (and most relevant to spiritual formation) is our cultivating an attitude of gratitude. I say powerful because 1) it has proven impacts on health (cf, articles like “7 Scientifically Proven Benefits of Gratitude” from Psychology Today) and because 2) the majority of my complaints and complaining are so trivial in nature.

Altogether, it has me wanting
to give new life and intention
to the often neglected disciplines
of gratitude and keeping a joy journal…
and praying for the graces that I’d be aware of my complaining
and more automatically look for the things for which to be thankful!

So how’s this for starters? 
“Lord, thank you for air conditioning!” 
(Okay, okay… It’s a start!)

Inner Joy Beyond Outer Circumstance

[Prefacing Note: This post represents a fourth (and final) installment on Joy as it is characterized in Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians [what some have called the “epistle of joy”… for all the ways the word appears throughout its four chapters]. Taking rich and meaningful words/concepts (like Joy) and distinguishing them from their secular-cultural counterparts (like “happiness” and “feeling good”) is a crucial task of spiritual formation.]

Having established the basis of peace with God in chapter 3 of Philippians (Letting Go… and Letting God), Paul advances to the close of his epistle with some sense of the outer peace that such a relationship brings:
• Individuals being reconciled (vs 2-3)
• Letting go of anxiety
• Being content in all circumstances

peace paintingAnd all this, again, as he writes in chains, behind bars!

It brings to mind an image of my mom in her final days.
Cancer and treatments had ravaged her body.
Outwardly, she was a shell of her former self.

“I’m sorry I am not more classy,” she feebly said at one point—referring, I suspect, to the ways her hair was not as kept as she would have preferred… and all the other indignities that death and dying can thrust on any soul with any amount of esteem.

It broke my heart to hear her speak that way.

I found a voice deep down in my crying,
“No Mom!
Class is not a matter of outer circumstance.
Class is a matter of inner character.
And you are one classy lady!”

It approaches, I believe,
the spirit of Paul’s closing words
about peace and joy in Philippians 4:

Life can ravage the body
and assault the heart–
tempting us to believe we’ve lost our way and class
But Deep calls to deep–
where eternal joy and peace abide,
inviting us to sing—even in the chains,
“It is well. It is well with my soul.”

Faith: The Joy of Letting Go and Letting God!

[Prefacing Note: This post represents a third installment (of four) on Joy as it is characterized in Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians [what some have called the “epistle of joy”… for all the ways the word appears throughout its four chapters].   Taking rich and meaningful words/concepts (like Joy) and distinguishing them from their secular-cultural counterparts (like “happiness” and “feeling good”) is a crucial task of spiritual formation.]

William Barclay speaks of the burden that religion had become (and was still becoming) in the time of Jesus and Paul.  So important to the Jews was the keeping of the law that each commandment (they counted 613 total in the Torah) was broken down into deeper and fuller specifics.  As one example, Barclay narrows in on just one kind of work forbidden on the sabbath: carrying a burden.

The Law lays it down that the Sabbath Day is to be kept holy,
and that on it no work is to be done.
That is a great principle.

But Jewish legalists had a passion for definition.
So they asked: What is work?
All kinds of things were classified as work.
For instance, to carry a burden on the Sabbath Day is to work.

 But next a burden has to be defined.
So the Scribal Law lays it down that a burden is…
food equal in weight to a dried fig,
enough wine for mixing in a goblet,
milk enough for one swallow,
honey enough to put upon a wound,
oil enough to anoint a small member,
water enough to moisten an eye-salve,
paper enough to write a customs house notice upon,
ink enough to write two letters of the alphabet,
reed enough to make a pen’—
and so on endlessly.

So they spent endless hours arguing
whether a man could or could not lift a lamp
from one place to another on the Sabbath,
whether a tailor committed a sin if he went out with a needle in his robe,
whether a woman might wear a brooch or false hair,
even if a man might go out on the Sabbath with artificial teeth or an artificial limb,
if a man might lift his child on the Sabbath Day, [and on and on].

These things to them were the essence of religion.
Their religion was a legalism of petty rules and regulations.
                                                –William Barclay, The Gospel of Matthew (Vol 1), p. 124-125

We can imagine, then, the complete Joy —
when standing with God was not a matter of such complex rule-keeping
but a matter of simply accepting a relationship freely offered.
Even so, Paul writes–
in the wake of letting go of all these former laws and rules
as the basis of his being right with God:

I didn’t receive God’s approval by obeying his laws. The opposite is true! I have God’s approval through faith in Christ. This is the approval that comes from God and is based on faith  10that knows Christ. 

 7The things that I once considered valuable, I now consider worthless for Christ. 8It’s far more than that! I consider everything else worthless because I’m much better off knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. It’s because of him that I think of everything as worthless. I threw it all away in order to gain Christ  9and to have a relationship with him.  (Philippians 3)

It brings to mind a story which Henri Nouwen shares in
Our Greatest Gift:
A Meditation On Dying And Caring
.  He recounts a time of following the Flying Roleighs, a German troupe for a few weeks… and a conversation with the leader of the troupe:

        One day, I was sitting with Rodleigh in his caravan, talking about flying. He said, “As a flyer, I must have complete trust in my catcher, The public might think tht I am the greatest star of the trapeze, but the real star is Joe, my catcher. He has to be there for me with split-second precision and grab me out of the air as I come to him in the long jump.”
        “How does it work?” I asked.
        “The secret,” Rodleigh said, “is that the flyer does nothing and the catcher does everything: when I fly to Joe, I have simply to stretch out my arms and hands and wait for him to catch me and pull me safely over the apron behind the catchbar.”
        “You do nothing!” I said, surprised.
        “Nothing,” Rodleigh repeated. “A flyer must fly, and a catcher must catch, and the flyer must trust, with outstretched arms, that his catcher will be there for him.”
        When Rodleigh said this with so much conviction, the words of Jesus flashed through my mind: “Father into your hands I commend my Spirit.” Dying is trusting in the catcher. To care for the dying is to say, “Don’t be afraid. Remember that you are the beloved child of God. He will be there when you make your long jump. Don’t try to grab him; he will grab you. Just stretch out your arms and hands and trust, trust, trust.”

Not to be lost in Nouwen’s meditation on death and dying
is the way that the metaphor services our reflections on joy and faith.
There’s joy (Divine pleasure and delight) in the sweet release which is faith – letting go of all that tempts us to be in control or think we are in control…
and trusting in God’s Grace to catch us and carry us to our completion.