New Year’s Opportunities

New Year’s Opportunities

As the calendar pages turn, thoughts turn to resolutions.  We catalog our intentions to do better, be better in the coming year.  We evaluate our past, we make plans for our future.

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Some of this is done with healthy intentionality and realistic expectation.  Some of it is grandiose, impulsive wishing with no real substance behind it.  Some people may enter into 2016 with goals met, but others will abandon their resolutions by the weekend.  Still others will adopt a fatalistic attitude that says, “Why bother even making a resolution.”  For most people, New Year’s Resolutions are less about grace and hope and fresh starts than they are about our own effort.  Trying harder. Doing better.  Doing more.

We often approach our Spiritual Life in the same manner than we approach our New Year’s Resolutions.  Some look to the past and feel shame for who they haven’t been and what they haven’t done.  Some look to the future and experience fear for who they don’t believe they can become or what they don’t believe they can do.  Some throw up their hands in frustration feeling trapped in this “less than it should be” place.  When we all take a good look at ourselves comparing who we are with who we’d like to be, it isn’t a pretty picture.

Take a deep breath.  There is good news.

The good news is that Spiritual Transformation is not about discipline.  It’s not about our own effort.  Discipline plays an important part in spiritual transformation, but it is NOT the core.  Growing in your walk with the Lord is not about doing more.   It’s not about trying harder.

Spiritual Transformation is about opportunities.  God gives us continual invitations into His presence.  We grow by making space to accept His invitations.  We do not grow by trying harder, but by entering in.  We join God.  We sit at His feet.  We walk with Him.  We work with Him.  We enter into unceasing prayer, the continual conversation of relationship.   Yes, it takes discipline to first hear and then choose His invitation above all the chaos and noise of this world.  But, the beauty of the process is that if we ask, He Himself gives this to us as well.

Thus discipline becomes a gift, a means, rather than the goal.  As we look toward our hopes and dreams for 2015 that is good news.

Below are several of quotes that have meant a lot to me this past year, putting the discipline of prayer (entering in) and of spiritual friendship (sharing the journey of entering in) into a good and healthy context…a context in which spiritual discipline is not about doing more or trying harder, but about preparing the way for the Lord.

Discipline is not

May these words encourage you as you walk into 2015.  May you find your own ways of preparing the way for the Lord that lead you into a deeper knowing of the incredible grace, joy and rest offered in Christ.  May you lay down your ambitions to do more and try harder and instead let Him birth in you the desire to create space.  May you know the delight of abiding in His life giving presence.  May you grow and flourish and blossom in deep and sustaining relationship with the Triune God.

Without discipline, unceasing prayer remains a vague ideal, something that has a certain romantic appeal but that is not very realistic in our contemporary world.  Discipline means that something very specific and concrete needs to be done to create the context in which a life of uninterrupted prayer can develop.  Unceasing prayer requires the discipline of prayer exercises.  Those who do not set aside a certain place and time each day to do nothing else but pray can never expect their unceasing thought to become unceasing prayer.

Why is this planned prayer practice so important?  It is important because through this practice God can become fully present to us as a real partner in our conversation…

It is of primary importance that we strive for prayer with the understanding that it is an explicit way of being with God.  We often say, “All of life should be lived in gratitude,” but this is possible only if at certain times we give thanks in a very concrete and visible way.  We often say, “All our days should be lived for the glory of God,” but this is possible only if a day is regularly set apart to give glory to God.  We often say, “We should love one another always,” but this is possible only if we regularly perform concrete and unambiguous acts of love.  Similarly, it is also true that we can say, “All our thoughts should be prayer,” only if there are times in which we make God our only thought….

Many people still have the impression that contemplative prayer is something very special, very “high,” or very difficult, and not really for ordinary people with ordinary jobs and ordinary problems.  This is unfortunate because the discipline of contemplative prayer is particularly valuable for those who have so much on their minds that they suffer from fragmentation.  If it is true that all Christians are called to bring their thoughts into an ongoing conversation with their Lord, then contemplative prayer can be a discipline that is especially important for those who are deeply involved in the many affairs of the world.

Although the discipline of solitude asks us to set aside time and space, what finally matters is that our hearts become like quiet cells where God can dwell, wherever we go and whatever we do.  The more we train ourselves to spend time with God and God alone, the more we will discover that God is with us at all times and in all places.  Then we will be able to recognize God even in the midst of a busy and active life.  Once the solitude of time and space has become a solitude of the heart, we will never have to leave that solitude.  We will be able to live the spiritual life in any place and any time.  Thus the discipline of solitude enables us to live active lives in the world, while always remaining in the presence of the living God.

Prayer as a discipline of patience is the human effort to allow the Holy Spirit to do its re-creating work in us….  The discipline of prayer makes us stop and listen, wait and look, taste and see, pay attention and be aware.  Although this may sound like advice to be passive, it actually demands much willpower and motivation.  We may consider the discipline of prayer a form of inner displacement.  The ordinary and proper response to our world is to turn on the radio, open the newspaper, go to another movie, talk to more people, or look impatiently for new attractions and distractions.  To listen patiently to the voice of the Spirit in prayer is a radical displacement which at first creates unusual discomfort.  We are so accustomed to our impatient way of life that we do not expect much from the moment.  Every attempt to “live it through” or “stay with it” is so contrary to our usual habits that all our impulses rise up in protest.  But when discipline keeps us faithful, we slowly begin to sense that something so deep, so mysterious, so creative is happening here and now that we are drawn to it – not by our impulses but by the Holy Spirit.  In our inner displacement, we experience the presence of the compassionate God.

Word and silence both need guidance.  How do we know that we are not deluding ourselves, that we are not selecting those words that best fit our passions, that we are not just listening to the voice of our own imagination?  Many have quoted the Scriptures and many have heard voices and seen visions in silence, but only a few have found their way to God.  Who can be the judge in his own case?  Who can determine if her feelings and insights are leading her in the right direction?  Our God is greater than any heart and mind, and too easily we are tempted to make our heart’s desires and our mind’s speculations into the will of God.  Therefore, we need a guide, a director, a counselor who helps us distinguish between the voice of God and all the other voices coming from our own confusion or from dark powers beyond our control.  We need someone who encourages us when we are tempted to give it all up, to forget it  all, to just walk away in despair.  We need someone who discourages us when we move too rashly in unclear directions or hurry proudly to a nebulous goal.

It is of great value to submit our prayer life from time to time to the supervision of a spiritual guide.  A spiritual director in this strict sense is not a counselor, a therapist, or an analyst, but a mature fellow Christian to whom we choose to be accountable for our spiritual life and from whom we can expect prayer guidance in our constant struggle to discern God’s active presence in our lives.  A spiritual director can be called “soul-friend” (Kenneth Leech) or a “spiritual friend” (Tilden Edwards).  It is important that he or she practices the disciplines of the Church and the Book and thus becomes familiar with the space in which we try to listen to God’s voice.

The way we relate to our spiritual director depends very much on our needs, our personalities, and our external circumstances.  Some people want to see their spiritual director bi-weekly or monthly; others will find it sufficient to be in touch only when the occasion asks for it.  Some people may feel the need for more extensive sharing with their spiritual director, while others will find seeing him or her once in a while for a few short moments to be sufficient.  It is essential that one Christian help another Christian to enter without fear into the presence of God and there to discern God’s call.

The Only Necessary Thing: Living a Prayerful Life