Suffocating the seed: Reflections on the Parable of the Sower.

Let me begin by saying that I am not a gardener. While I enjoy gardens, I am completely unfamiliar with any of the technical specifications that go into developing and sustaining one. I have, however, quite enjoyed researching what may obstruct the health and vitality of the plants you may wish to grow.

See, recently I have been reflecting on the Parable of The Sower, found in Matthew 13. In this parable, Jesus puts forward 4 different types of soils: the pathway, the rocky ground, the thorns, and the good soil. All have the seed sprinkled upon it, yet only two soils receive the seed. I find it intriguing that both the rocky soil and the good soil receive the word of the kingdom with joy. Both soils receive the Word and begin to live anew in God’s Kingdom. The only difference appears to be that the good soil takes the seed deeply into itself, allowing the seed to take root. As Jesus explains, it is because the rocky soil has no roots that life in the Kingdom is abandoned at the first sign of problem or difficulty. Roots sustain life.

What stops a seed from establishing roots? Arguably, this question is outside the scope of the parable itself. Still, the question intrigued me. As it turns out there are a myriad of answers. Yet topping the list perhaps is the problem of overwatering. Overwatering is one the biggest no-no’s you can do to a plant.

Rather than drowning a plant, overwatering limits the amount of oxygen available for the roots. Like all living things, plants need oxygen to survive. This oxygen is stored in small, microscopic pockets throughout the soil. The roots extract this oxygen from the soil and use it to promote the plant’s health and vitality. Overwatering fills these air-pockets with water, effectively cutting off the supply of oxygen to the plant. If you overwater a seed, roots will never be established as there is no oxygen to support root-growth. Without any air to breathe into itself the plant suffocates.

Just as our physical bodies need to breath in oxygen to survive, our spiritual lives run on the same principle. God’s indwelling Spirit animates our spiritual lives. Without the Spirit within we cannot expect our life of faith to be vibrant, healthy, or growing. Breathing in the Spirit allows the reality of God’s kingdom to establish roots in our lives.

Scripture employs a beautiful play on words when it describes God’s act of breathing the Spirit. In both the Hebrew and Greek language, the word for breath is the same word for spirit (which is the same word for wind). A great example of this is Jesus’ conversation with Nicodemus in John 3. In this conversation, Jesus describes how flesh gives birth to flesh, but Pneumatos (Spirit) gives birth to Pneuma” (John 3:6). When Nicodemus scratches his head, Jesus extends this play on words and begins to discuss the attributes of “wind.” “The wind blows wherever it pleases, you hear it sound, but cannot tell where it comes from or where it is going” (John 3:8).  Jesus seemingly leaves his discussion of the Spirit behind to describe the activity of the wind. This may seem like a non-sequitur until you remember the play on words going on in this text. Jesus literally says “The “pneuma” where it wishes breathes (pnei).”  He then he describes how we hear the wind/Spirit’s “phonon”- meaning its cry, its language, or its voice.

Putting everything together, the connection becomes clear. Nicodemus comes to Jesus with a deep yearning in his heart. Despite his opening pleasantry, his visit with the Messiah is clear. Nicodemus is spiritually restless, discouraged. He longs to know how he can live a vibrant spiritual life, a life deep in the presence and activity of God. To this longing Jesus responds by describing Nicodemus’ need to breathe in God’s Spirit, and to listen to the Spirit’s voice.

If we wish the seed of the kingdom to extend its roots into our lives, then we need to provide the spaces wherein we can breathe in the Spirit. After all, the first thing the resurrected Lord does for the disciples is to breathe on them. “Receive the Holy Spirit,” he says (John 20:22). The Spirit is necessary for our life of faith.

Breathing in the Holy Spirit is never a one-time thing. It is not something to which we can point to a specific date or location. To Nicodemus, and to us all, Jesus describes an ongoing, interactive, spiritual reality. Like a plant’s own need for oxygen, our spiritual lives need to be animated by the Spirit of God. If we allow the spaces of our lives to be filled up with other things, then we cut off the flow of the Spirit within.

Is this one of the things that distinguished the rocky ground from the good soil? Did the rocky ground receive the seed with joy but then subsequently cease all interaction with it? Did the rocky ground fill the air-pocket spaces with other things beside that which it needed to breathe deeply?

The good soil, however, continued to breath in the Spirit into itself. It established a dependance, not just on the seed, but on the inbreathing Spirit. The good soil relied on an active interchange between itself, the word of the kingdom, and the Spirit of life. Thus, it withstood the taunts of weeds and thorns, magpies, and harsh conditions. And it grew; its life flourished, thirty-fold, sixty-fold, and one hundred-fold.

What gets in the way of you breathing in the Holy Spirit? Is there something in your life that dampens flow of the Spirit? Are you like Nicodemus, feeling a deep desire for more in your spiritual life, but unsure exactly how to cultivate it? The good news is that the Sower has already planted the word within you, and if you allow him, he will breathe upon that seed and allow it to stretch its roots. We simply need to allow enough spaces in our lives for the Spirit to work.

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Are you feeling spiritually discouraged? Do you feel like you would like a fuller, deeper, richer spiritual life, but don’t know where to start. Do you find yourself echoing the deep cry of Nicodemus? Sign up to receive my monthly encouragements and you will receive “9 Questions to ask when you are feeling Spiritually Discouraged.”

Lessons in Prayer 2: The invitation to be dissatisfied

Have you ever felt dissatisfied with your prayers? Have you felt that despite your best efforts you have never plumbed the depths of everything that prayer can offer you?  Have you looked longingly to the saints before you, wishing to uncover a fraction of the prayerful intimacy they seemed to enjoy? I know I have.

For many years, I condemned myself for these feelings.  Although I loved prayer, would speak of prayer, and preached on it often, internally I felt I was describing something of which I only scratched the surface.  My dissatisfaction with prayer even, at times, drove me away from prayer. I believed my dissatisfaction was indicative of my failings in prayer.

Dissatisfaction with our prayer life is a sign of deepening faith, not the absence of it. This shift in understanding is vitally important. We can spend an exorbitant amount of time condemning ourselves for our own frustrations, instead of recognizing that the frustration is Christ’s invitation to journey deeper. Deeper prayer begins with a sense of restlessness, a desire for more. Satisfaction in our prayer life is indicative of a stalled prayer life.

The saints before us, to whom we often turn when looking for inspiring instruction in prayer, knew this reality well.  Their lessons on prayer did not come from a point of mastery, but from the heart of desire. They desired more in prayer. This realization gives us the right to own our frustrations in prayer; to articulate them and act upon them.  It is as we rest in our prayerful dissatisfaction that we actively trust that God works within us to move us to deeper prayer experiences.

I have a sneaking suspicion that many today are like me. I would not be surprised to learn that many within the church have never received a lesson on prayer. It is assumed that all the talk, reading, and preaching about prayer will suffice in developing active and ongoing prayer in our lives. In my own liturgical context (Anglicanism), it can be easy to leave our lessons about prayer to the specific liturgies printed in our liturgical texts. I am guilty of doing this in my own ministry. It is assumed that those who spend their time diligently mastering the “what” and “where” of a particular prayer book will naturally develop a rich prayer life. This is not a criticism of The Book of Common Prayer, or any specific liturgical text. Prayer books have a strong place in Christian history. Indeed, periods of deepening in my own prayer life have often coincided with a more frequent use of liturgy. Since shunning Morning and Evening prayer in seminary, I have discovered the value of these rites for our spiritual lives. In fact, I would now make the case that an inner familiarity with the “what” and the “where” of the prayer book does develop a rich prayer life within us. Yet our prayers must progress past rote reading. If the use of the prayer book is the only thing that defines our prayer-lives, then surely something is missing.

Prayer must move past simply reading words on a page. If it is true that many in our churches have never been taught the way of inner prayer, then I fear the church may have slowly drifted into a casual prayerlessness – an inability to engage in the activity of prayer from deep within our hearts. Our prayers can far too easily become reduced to nothing more than the internal recitation of memorized words with very little contemplation or concern. In this case our hearts remain disengaged. When this happens in our churches, and in our Christian lives, prayer becomes so routinized that the internal force of prayer has been lost. Prayer becomes reduced to words that are spoken, either in the silence of our minds or in response to the instruction from the liturgical leader.

Have you been feeling that your censer has been running on fumes?  Do you lack the intensity of prayer, both in power and desire, which marked the saints of old? In my pastoral ministry I have come across countless lifelong, faithful Christians who harbor an inward guilt because this is what they are feeling. They look upon their internal feelings of dissatisfaction and believe that it equates to failing in prayer. Yet prayer is a journey, and we in the church need to recapture the radical notion that our dissatisfaction is but an invitation. This is the way of Christian prayer. None of us ever rise to the top; it is not a skill we master.  Prayer, for the follower of Jesus is a way of being, an internal movement of heart and spirit through which we respond to the Lord’s presence in us, and in the world. Prayer is not simply something that we add onto our lives, it is the very ground out of which our life grows. Without prayer we simply cannot, we do not, live the Christian life.

Listening to Dietrich

In the opening days of the pandemic, when everything came to a grinding halt and people everywhere were looking for a way to fill the time, I decided to read through Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Letters and Papers from Prison. My rational was simple: Bonhoeffer’s experience of being away from his family and friends during the high celebrations of Good Friday or Easter, might prove helpful to me in my own sojourn away from the community of faith. Indeed, this proved to be true. Bonhoeffer’s words provided me both clarity and perspective. I found myself moved by his words. His reflection on the being able to hear the church bells from inside his prison cell, and how that lifted his reflection to the unceasing presence of the Church was particularly relevant for me at the time.

I have always loved Dietrich Bonhoeffer. His work Life Together has become the top book in my library (besides the Bible of course!). I used many of Bonhoeffer’s insights in my doctoral study on Christian community. In fact, I joked with many of my fellow students that my thesis really ought to be three words: “Read Life Together.” During my studies, I moved from Life Together, to Bonhoeffers own doctoral thesis “Sanctorum Communio.” A thicker read, a harder read, but worth it, nonetheless. The two sing texts together splendidly. In many respects Sanctorum Communio is the theological basis upon which Life Together is founded.

Thus, following my walk through his Letters and Papers, I decided to tackle some of Bonhoeffer’s other writings. I jumped to Discipleship, which I had read before yet forgotten just how profound this work is. What was particularly moving for me as I re-read this work was the decision remain cognizant of the Nazi regime continually playing in the background. After all, this was the very context in which Bonhoeffer was writing, and the very world he was addressing. Aided by the excellent editorial notes, Bonhoeffer’s profoundly prophetic teaching reverberated with new clarity. I began to see the depth of his faith, his passion, and his bravery.

Since then, I have continually had Bonhoeffer by my side. I re-read Life Together and then moved to Creation and Fall. I even began listening to a podcast through The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, hosted by Pastor Robert Schenck. Recently, my wife gave me the devotional “A Year with Bonhoeffer,” and I have just begun tackling Bonhoeffer’s Ethics – A series of writings he worked on between the years of 1940 and 1945. After all, as Schenck says frequently in the podcast, “if you want to understand Bonhoeffer, you have read Ethics.”

Throughout this time, Bonhoeffer’s voice has continually risen out of the pages of history. I find his words to possess an uncanny clarity and relevance for our lives today, particularly considering the many social, political, theological, and ethical questions we are facing. When I spend time with Dietrich, I often forget that I am reading a theologian of the past. His voice is pre-eminently current.

Case in point:  On the very day when supporters of President Trump, on his strong insistence, stormed the Capital Building in the United States, in direct defiance of law, order, and the democracy they hold to so dearly, I read these words from Bonhoeffers Ethics:

For the tyrannical despiser of men popularity is the token of the highest love of mankind. His secret profound mistrust for all human beings he conceals behind words stolen from a true community. In the presence of the crowd he professes to be one of their number, and at the same time he sings his own praises with the most revolting vanity and scorns the rights of every individual. He thinks people stupid, and they become stupid. He thinks them weak, and they become weak. He thinks them criminal, and they become criminals. His most sacred earnestness is a frivolous game. His hearty and worthy solicitude is the most impudent cynicism. In his profound contempt for his fellow-men he seeks the favor of those whom he despises, and the more he does so the more certainly he promotes the deification of his own person by the mob.

Beside these words I wrote “This is scary.” The obvious similarity between the despiser of humanity in Bonhoeffer’s day, and that which is occurring south of the border is frightening to say the least. I cannot read these words and not hear Bonhoeffer speak directly to our world, and our time.

It is not simply the similarity between the two individuals that is frightening. Underneath it all is the church’s continual vacillation to governmental power. Bonhoeffer constantly spoke against the state church of the day, and their complicity in the Nazi program. With full knowledge of the horrors of the holocaust the church bowed its head and abandoned its theological and moral principles. Sadly, in some cases, the church acted in full support. Well known, and well-regarded, theologian of the day, Paul Althous referred to Adolf Hitler as “a gift and miracle for God.” To be clear, this was not said by some unknown theologian on the fringes. At the time of this statement, Althous was a professor at the University of Erlangen and had long established himself as one among the most prominent of Lutheran theologians. Preeminent Bonhoeffer Scholar, Victoria Barnett, writes “[I]t has become abundantly clear that [the Churches’] failure to respond to the horrid events…was not due to ignorance; they knew what was happening. Ultimately, the Churches’ lapses during the Nazi era were lapses of vision and determination.” (The Role of Churches in Nazi Germany | ADL)

This makes my heart hurt, but honestly, so does the capitulation of the Evangelical Church in the States to the modern day “despiser of humankind.” After all, it is probably not too much of a stretch to assume that many of the individuals marching on the Capital probably self-confess to be pious and devout Christians. But even if this is not been the case, the church today has been silent amid all the dehumanizing activity of the sitting president. While we may be uncomfortable drawing a direct comparison between Donald and Adolf, we should not ignore the fact that silence of the church in our day is eerily similar to the silence of the church in the 1930’s and 40s.

Given this, Bonhoeffer’s voice sounds louder and louder in my mind and heart. His witness is frighteningly prophetic. And yet, therein lies some hope. For if Bonhoeffer was a pastor who could fearlessly speak against the horrors of his day, then this opens the door for us all. We can speak out. The church can have a voice. What is more, in the witness of his words, and his martyrdom, the church does have a voice. So, let us rise and listen to Dietrich. Let us hear the faithful call to dismantle all the lies and falsehoods of today. More importantly, with Bonhoeffer’s insistence and example, let’s hear the call to be a better Church, and better Christians.

Are Disciplines Necessary?

This post is based on a presentation made at the ACW Regional Retreat in September 2020.

Are Spiritual Disciplines really that important?

Why are Spiritual Disciplines important?    Is not believing in Jesus enough? Are disciplines just a form of works righteousness, some mistaken attempt to earn our salvation?  Do we really need to worry about things like church attendance, prayer, or reading the Bible?   

Have you ever asked yourself these questions?

Some may see an emphasis on spiritual disciplines as just a fad.  After all, the language of spiritual formation, and spiritual disciplines, emerged popularly in 1978 with the publication of Richard Foster’s Celebration of Discipline.  Since then, other works began to surface – and today, there is quite a lot in this field.  Thus, some may say that this whole emphasis on disciplines and formation is just a flash in the pan.   Yet this is not only to misunderstand what Foster speaks of in his book, it is to misunderstand what it means to be a member of Christ’s church. 

God’s people have always sought out ways to live out their faith. Spiritual practices do not stem from some individual simply thinking up some creative or interesting things to do (and then saying to everyone that they need to do it too).  Rather, spiritual practices – that which we call disciplines – are based on how Christian people have continuously expressed their faith in Jesus.  The disciplines are nothing new.  Sure each new book may have a different ordering of disciplines, a way in which the author thinks of them or characterises them, yet the disciplines themselves have journeyed with the people of faith, ever since there was a people of faith.

Understanding the historicity of spiritual disciplines, however, only takes us so far.  Disciplines are important in our spiritual lives for a myriad of other reasons.  Below is an exploration of three of those reasons.

  1. Discipline are how we live like Jesus.

What is the purpose of Christianity? To what does it aim to, or pursue?  Growing up, I, like so many people, believed that I knew the answer. Christian faith is about going to heaven. After all, that’s where we end up.  

It can be easy to think that Christian faith is mostly about what happens to you when you die -about getting to our eternal destination.  Have you ever heard people refer to the Bible as “Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth?” Such a slogan assumes that leaving the earth is that to which the faith ultimately aims.  If we believe in Jesus and accept the truth of what he did on the cross, then we will have obtained the minimal entrance requirement to get past St. Peter at the pearly gates.  “For God so loved the world that those who believe in Jesus will get into heave when the die.”  At least, that is how that verse can be easily understood.

But if faith is only concerned about what happens to us at death, then we are saying that our faith has nothing to do with how we live our lives.  Forgiveness is not about freeing ourselves, or others, from spiritual baggage, it is about managing our sins so that they do not mess up our chance for a heavenly mansion!  Faith is merely about passing God’s final exam.  But if we think that faith has nothing to do with how we live our lives here, then we will miss about 90% of what Jesus was on about.  After all, why did Jesus talk about forgiving our enemies, loving our neighbours, or tackling anger and prejudice in our hearts, if, in the end, none of that matters?

Disciplines help us answer the question “how do I live my life the way that Jesus lived his?’  If we understand that Jesus was perfect in faithfulness, then would not his life be one we would want to emulate? Reflecting on Christ’s life naturally leads us into certain habits and practices.  Jesus prayed.  Jesus served others.  Jesus engaged in times of silence and solitude.  Jesu was knowledgeable of the scriptures. If we want our lives to reflect the presence of Jesus, then these practices help us do just that.  

2. Spiritual disciplines help our faith grow.

You cannot grow in any area of life without diligent discipline. If one wants to be good at piano, one must put in the time necessary to cultivate a habit of piano playing. This is discipline, the willing acceptance of activity toward growth in a particular area.   Athlete’s discipline themselves to perform certain activities at certain times. A quarterback, for example, trains his muscles so that when he needs to make that game-winning pass, he can do so.  A figure skater trains relentlessly so their bodies know how to execute a triple axle. The point of the discipline is to make the activity an engrained part of lif, so that the individual can perform that action without conscious effort or thought.

The biblical writers often take up the image of athlete to describe the spiritual lives. In the same manner as we talk of the training of athletes, Paul exhorts us to “train yourself to be godly.” We need to create the necessary habits which will produce the life we want to grow into.  If we have a vision of what Christian life is about, and the intention to pursue that life, then we must cultivate the means of achieving that growth. 

This is a far cry away from works-righteousness.  Works righteousness amounts to an attempt to earn our salvation, to merit our way into the kingdom of God.  Spiritual disciplines vehemently reject any notion that we earn grace.  Still, this does not mean we are to be passive.  To rework one of Dallas Willard’s phrases, spiritual disciplines are opposed to earning, not effort.  Disciplines help us grow in our faith precisely because they call us to intentionally engage, and embody, our faith.  Disciplines focus us.

After all, we live in a world of competing voices, competing intensions, and constant distractions.  It can difficulty to turning our attention fully to spiritual matters.  In this way, living the Christian life, is not always easy.  Therefore, it takes dedication, devotion, and discipline.  In the same way that a person who has never played the piano will never waken to miraculously find themselves able to play Rachmaninoff, it is a safe bet that we never simply stumble into spiritual maturity.  A healthy spiritual life takes effort.  We grow into it.

3. Spiritual disciplines occur in cooperation with the Holy Spirit

We are not merely talking about disciplines of activity merely for the sake of activity.  Spiritual disciplines are not the same as an exercise regime.  We are speaking of spiritual disciplines. Spiritual disciplines are activities engaged in cooperatively with the Holy Spirit.  For most people, on any given day, our questions of faith are not the grand theological questions of doctoral dissertations.  Rather, our questions or concerns, or the wrestling in our faith, are about how we experience the dynamic of God’s presence in our lives. They are the boots on the ground kind of questions: “Why don’t I feel God with me all the time?”  “How do I develop a deeper prayer life?”  “Can I recognise God’s voice?”  Disciplines help us work through these questions, and in doing so, recognise the presence of the Holy Spirit in our lives.

When we deny the role of the Holy Spirit in our Christian life, we too often attempt to tackle our questions with the unhelpful word of just “try harder.” Struggling with Bible reading? Well just grit your teeth, pour a double shot of espresso, and dive into 2nd Chronicles!  If your mind wanders in prayer – well concentrate harder.  When we do this, we often find that the efforts of our will only get us so far. Richard Foster says this

God has given us the Disciplines of the spiritual life as a means of receiving his grace.  The disciplines allow us to place ourselves before God, so that He can transform us. The Apostle Paul said “He who sows to his own flesh will from the flesh reap corruption; but he who sows to the spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life.”…That is the way with the Spiritual Disciplines; they are a way of sowing to the Spirit. (6)

Spiritual disciplines are not how we try harder, they are how we open ourselves to the activity of God.  In this way, spiritual disciplines are actions we do in our own power, to open ourselves to that which is beyond our own power.  We move with the Spirit in our disciplined activity, and in doing so, experience the empowerment of the Spirit.

Beloved but Messy: A Review of Megan Hill’s “A Place to Belong.”

I never believed I would be someone who would enjoy reading books on ecclesiology.  Reading about the nature of the church never once appealed to me as a viable good time option.  Yet here I am, reading books on the nature of the church, and loving it!  The latest addition to my reading was Megan Hill’s “A Place to Belong: Learning to Love the Local Church.”  I received a complimentary copy as part of Crossway Publishers Blog Review Program; it as a part of that program that I offer this review. 

Hill’s book is refreshingly approachable.  Although Hill has clearly done her reading, and has earned her theological chops, A Place to Belong is rooted in a real-world expression of the local church.  By that I mean, Hill writes about the church as we experience it, speaking of such things as “peppermints” and church-ladies”, “church dinners”, and “favourite pews.” These references are not simply quaint stories or humours anecdotes, however.  For Hill, these references are the church.  A congregation made up of individuals who have previously determined their favourite place to sit is not a lesser image of the church… It is the church.  In this way, the reader is able to recognise one’s own local congregation as he/she make their way through the chapters.

While Hill writes theologically, her theological vision of the church is not divorced from the messy realities of life. Thus, as Hill points out, the local church “doesn’t always seem gorgeous.” (12)  I find this quite a profound realization, and one that can so easily be overlooked.  The church is a messy reality.  It is that way because we are that way.  With fresh honesty, Hill offers a vision of the church which includes the truth that “I have sometimes been hurt by people in the church – ignored and misunderstood and intentionally deceived.  I know I have hurt a few people myself” (12).  Hill offers no rose-coloured treatment of the church.  This will undoubtedly speak to those who have struggled with the church.  With Hill they will find a sympathetic voice.  It is simply true that ‘belonging to the church doesn’t always seem like much of a glorious privilege” (13).  This acknowledgement is refreshing, and should be recognised as an essential part of our ecclesiology. 

The messiness, or brokenness, of the church, however, is not the end of the story, for ultimately, as Hill points out, this is the church that Christ loves.  Upon this reality hangs Hill’s entire treatment of the church, and it is precisely why we are called to love the local church.  The church is not a platonic ideal that exists only in abstractions.  Jesus loves the local church, in all its messy expressions.  Hill reminds the reader that the New Testament frequently addresses the local church, filled with its conflict, fighting, and imperfections, as “Beloved.”  Thus, as God loves the local church, so ought we. 

When we approach our conception of the local church from this footing, we are grounded in the biblical vision of the church – and our own call to be a part of it.  This speaks loudly within a culture where church attendance has been continually in the decline.  The popularity of ‘spiritual but not religious’, and the too-often toted mantra of “I can worship God anywhere’ has helped contribute to the slow ebbing away of the Church’s vibrancy.  Yet it is not simply because of its structure that we are called to be a part of the local church.  Nor are we to belong to the church simply because it is always pleasant for us.   We are called to the church because the gathering of the local community is a gathering God loves.  God delights in the local church, and works through it.  Thus, our involvement in the local church is an expression of, and a participation in, the delight of the Lord.  Hill’s emphasis on God’s love for the church being the basis for our love for the church is a needed reminder for us.

All this being said, there was one element of Hill’s book I did not appreciate.  Hill is clear that her vision of the church contains only male leadership.  In the fourth chapter Hill tackles the biblical concept of Shepherds, suggesting that the leaders of the local church – elders/pastors/priests – are raised up by God and offer a needed ministry.  Despite the potential to drift into clericalism, Hill has some good things to say about this.  Yet it seems that Hill almost goes out of her way to attribute such leadership positions to men alone.  She writes about the how the service of ordination is a response to the church having been “encouraged to identify men who are gifted for leadership” (65).  Similarly, in the final chapter, she highlights church administration being structured around inter-church elders meetings; meetings “where the gathered men discuss common concerns and make decisions that promote the good of the local church” (137).  Frankly, this seems ripped out of a manual from the 1940s. There is no recognition that such a framework is simply not how other local churches function.

I found this element of the book disheartening, and ultimately disappointing.  Up to this point, Hill diligently sought to present a vision of the local church that was approachable and relevant across any denominational context.  Furthermore, as has been mentioned, her vision of the local church is rooted in a deep recognition of the fragility of the human gathering.  Yet when approaching church leadership, there was none of this sensitivity.  Chapter 4, and her discussion of male elders, is presented in a way that would make one think this is a doctrinal necessity.  There seems to be no recognition that other denominations may involve non-male leadership, or employ alternate forms of church governance.  More to the point, there seems to be no recognition that several streams of her own denomination (Presbyterian) actively ordains women!   Unfortunately, Hill missed a profound opportunity to lend her voice to ecumenical unity. Hill could have put forward an ecclesiological vision that included a shared participation in the one story of Christian ministry, despite different understandings of who gets to be ordained.  Instead, however, she turned inward and puts forward a vision of church leadership that is set firmly within a very narrow, and I would argue antiquated, understanding of ordination and leadership.

Did I enjoy reading Hill’s A Place to Belong?  That’s hard to say.  I enjoyed the reflections that reading the book prompted within me.  Yet I can’t get passed her fourth chapter and I find that it, unfortunately, sullies the rest of the work.  In the end, I do believe Hill has an important offering for how we understand the local church, and our call to be a part of it.  I am sure her book will be one that I reference in my own teaching, preaching, and writing about the church.  Unfortunately, because of what I see as a glaring blunder regarding her picture of church leadership, I may be hesitant in recommending this book to others.

The Way of Discernment

This post first appeared in “Ministry Matters” under the title: “Discernment: it’s not just pointing at random verses” on Medium.com

Whenever we aspire to live the Christian life with any intentionality, an inevitable question arises. How do I know what God wants me to do? How do I know I am making the right decisions? How do I perceive or recognize the specific parameters of how God wants me to live my life? The answer to all these questions is the same: discernment. Discernment is the spiritual discipline through which we listen for, and respond to, directions God’s voice. Simply put, discernment is the process of recognizing God’s will for our lives.

It is important to recognize that discernment is not a routine set of steps. It is not a codified system of checks and balances by which we can streamline our decision-making. Nor are there any shortcuts. One can’t, for example, simply close their eyes and point to random verses, expecting to uncover the fine nuances of God’s plan for their life. That’s not discernment; that’s biblical roulette, and it can be devastating to someone’s faith. It is best to think of discernment as a way of prayerfully relying on God. It is a function of an active relationship with the Lord, one that establishes a certain kind of life. Thus, before we even think about how we discern God’s will for our lives, we should endeavour to cultivate the type of life in which recognizing God’s direction is conducive.

There are three foundations upon which this type of life rests. Firstly, you need to cultivate a sincere desire to live in God’s will. If you are not actually concerned with living the life that God desires you to live, there is no point in trying to discern God’s voice. It’s as simple as that. Or, if you think that God will simply rubber stamp any decision you make, discernment is simply a façade. In order to rightly discern God’s direction for you, you must first desire God’s will above and before all things. “Seek ye first the kingdom of God,” Jesus says. Similarly, in the Lord’s prayer, we are instructed to pray for God’s kingdom and will to be established before we pray to receive our daily wants or needs. We need to root ourselves in the primary longing for God’s ways to be revealed in and through our lives. This is what Ignatian spirituality calls “indifference” — wanting God’s will to be established, whatever that may entail, instead of my own interests, desires or plans.

Secondly, we need to cultivate an active engagement with Scripture. God has given us Scripture as the primary way that we become familiar with God’s voice. Now this doesn’t mean that every answer is written in the pages of the Bible — again we aren’t talking about biblical roulette here. However, by immersing ourselves in the Bible (the whole Bible — not just our favourite verses), we continually grow in our familiarity with the weight and the tone of God’s voice. The continuous engagement with Scripture also aids us in becoming attuned with the kind of things that the Lord may say to us.

Lastly, in order to rightly discern God’s will for our lives, we must establish an ongoing conversation with God, in prayer. We need to learn how to listen to God’s voice — and you only do that by establishing a conversational relationship with the Lord. In prayer, we bring God the matters of our day, the desires of our hearts, and we cultivate a habit of listening through the practices of silence or solitude. An active prayer life helps us identify those thoughts or impressions that are indicative of divine nudging. In prayer we learn to highlight such things and say “there’s a different quality to this”, or “there’s something about this feeling, thought, word, impression that is not just a function of my own pondering.” Jesus indicated that his followers, like sheep before a shepherd, are able to recognize and know His own voice. We become familiar with this voice through the sustained habit of prayer.

If you are in the midst of trying to discern something but have yet to establish this way of life, this is where you start. But let’s say you have cultivated this life of active reliance upon Jesus… what now? What does discernment actually entail?

Keeping in mind that there is no one surefire process of discernment, there are three components of God’s guidance that can be mentioned. In his classic book, The Secret of Guidance,F.B. Meyer refers to these components as the “three witnesses” of discernment. He writes: “The circumstances of our daily life are to us an infallible indication of God’s will when they concur with the inward promptings of the Spirit and with the Word of God.” Circumstances; the inward promptings of the Spirit; and Scripture are the three areas we look to when attempting to discern God’s direction for our lives.

First, circumstances are the particulars of whatever situation you are in right now. Is there anything about the contours of your life, the decision you are trying to make, that speaks to where God is working? Discernment is never done in a vacuum. God is at work in your life. God does speak. In discernment, we want to look at the specifics of our life situation. Meyer also mentions that it is good to pray that God close the avenues or opportunities that are not conducive to God’s way. Ultimately, discernment isn’t like receiving a divine memo. It is about looking for the signs of God’s leading in our the everyday tapestry of our lives.

Second, the Lord often guides us by prompting our inward selves through the power of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit will often begin to work with our inner dispositions, we will feel “drawn” in a particular direction. This is why an established lifestyle of reliance upon, and interaction with, the Spirit of God is so important. In discernment we ask our selves questions like: “What is Jesus doing within me?”, “What does my heart say?” and “Where do I feel Jesus drawing me closer to Him? Conversely, is there an option or way that seems to lead me away from God?” Ignatius terms these inward dispositions consolations and desolations, and they provide good insight into how God is leading us. Importantly, you might not be able to fully articulate these internal sensations. However, if inwardly you are feeling one way as opposed to another — and that feeling just wont go away — this can be an indication of divine guidance.

Lastly, we turn to Scripture for guidance. Does the Bible say anything — or give any principles applicable to our situation? Again, this isn’t about finding a certain answer — or pointing to random verses — this is about recognizing that God has provided for us a written voice. And while we may not be able to turn to a specific verse for “the answer”, God does us the scriptural word to speak to us. Thus, the more we are familiar with Scripture, the more we will find it has the uncanny ability to speak into our lives.

Meyer’s emphasis in highlighting these three witnesses is that, in proper discernment, these three components converge. Scripture reinforces our inward dispositions, which help us to recognize God’s movement in the present circumstances of our lives. One always points to the other.

Of course, discernment can be a trying process. There may be a lot of emotion surrounding that our discernment. Also our discernment may impact others. Because of this, discernment can seen as a highly stressful endeavour. To combat this, it is best to keep in mind three remembrances:

  1. Discernment takes time. We live in a world of instant gratification, and so often we want direction at the drop of hat. We turn to God and expect to get the answer within a heartbeat of a moment. Discernment, however, is a way of wrestling with something, and sometimes this takes a while. It may be God wants us to sit with a decision for a time, or possibly God wants other things to be revealed or shown before we get the final direction. Meyer points out that discernment is always about the next step — never the full picture. We are to enter our times of discernment slowly, being willing to receive what God offers, in whatever time-frame that occurs.
  2. Like so many other disciplines, we are to involve others. As you enter discernment, seek the counsel and partnership of a trusted friend or guide — a spiritual director or perhaps your parish priest. If you have come to a conclusion, ask for a sense of confirmation. Although Meyer doesn’t list the community as a particular component of discernment, the voice of the community has an important role in confirming the guidance we have received. Do not be afraid to ask others to help you with this discipline.
  3. Claim grace. Discernment is not only different for each person, it is different in each circumstance. Do not get discouraged if discernment does not appear “easy.” We can, at times, feel an undue sense of responsibility to perfect this practice. Thus, we mistakenly believe that our sense of wrestling with a decision indicates a failure to adequately listen to God. On top of this, one may mistakenly believe that choosing the “wrong” path means will be cast out of God’s good graces for ever. This is simply not true. We trust in grace. We trust that God will work with our frailties. Furthermore, in discernment, as in all of our Christian life, we can trust that God’s love and grace for us prevails over all things.

If we take the time and effort to establish the certain way of life in which discernment is conducive, then I believe we can have confidence in discerning God’s will for our lives. We can have this confidence because, ultimately, discernment is rooted in the fundamental truth that God speaks. Not only does God speak, God speaks to us. We can hear God’s voice. We can know God’s will. May each of us uncover the particular nuances of God’s direction and will for our lives. Amen.

A Rule of Life: A Happy-Plan for Christian Living

In December of 2019, the Seattle Times noted that sales of daily planners and organizers rose to a whopping revenue of $386 million.  And this was just for the planners themselves – the books of blank pages and organizational spaces.  Sales of planner accessories is a whole other matter.  The stickers, the insets, the bookmarks – the tools necessary for the avid planner today – rang in a total of $3.9 million.  Clearly, “Planning” is big business.

While it may be tempting to see this as nothing more than a modern fad, I choose to see this differently.  At a basic level, the quick rise of the daily planner undoubtedly points to a deeply-felt desire to be internally ordered.  After all, given the constant flux and ever-changing nature of the world in which we live, is there any shock that there is an expressed desire to find a  touch-stone upon which one can order one’s life?  Planning is not simply about jotting down the tasks of the day – it is about expressing a view-point, an attitude, a spiritual disposition with which one chooses to approach the day’s tasks and demands.  Furthermore, the focus  on goal-setting serves to beckon the individual planner toward that pearl of great worth of which they seek. 

While the rise of planner-based businesses may be a recent phenomena, the attitude (dare I say spirituality) that lurks behind the adoption of these daily planners is quite  old. For example, were you aware that the Book of Common Prayer actually suggests that all Christians develop a detailed plan for Christian living?  It’s called a Rule of Life.  Not only do we find this in the BCP, but beginning with the Desert Fathers and Mothers, Christian people of all sorts and stripes have found value in crafting a deep and holy order to their lives.  The rule, whether it be an individual creation or one governed by a monastic community, presents a way of intentionality – a routine of personal rhythms and guidelines that give shape to one’s life of faith. 

Importantly, the rule of life is not merely a thought about one’s life.  “A Rule of Life” specifically refers to a written record or one’s faith-intensions.   Thus when the Cranmer instructs “Every Christian man or woman should from time to time frame for himself [sic] a Rule of Life” (BCP, 555), he instructs Christians to physically write down how he or she will intentionally live out their faith.  Here is another crossover with the art of the planner.  Studies have shown that the physical act of writing one’s goals positively impacts one’s ability to achieve said goals.  Proponents of planning would undoubtedly agree.  The placing of stickers and motivational sayings across one’s agenda is not merely for the purpose of beautification.  It provides a written record of the life  one is aspiring to live, thereby increasing the likelihood that such aspirations will be met. Writing a Rule of Life actually increases one’s ability to live out the intentional way of faith.

This means that a Rule of life, while being a document to challenge and stretch us, needs to be workable.  For example, it will do no good for a parent of small children to write a Rule that says that he or she will spend 9 hours a day in silent meditation.  Anyone with small children knows this would be impossible. One’s rule needs to fit into the messy tapestry of life as we experience it.  Just like a financial budget needs to begin with the actually dollars and cents available to the person, a rule of life must refer to the life we actually live in the hear and now.  Only then can we begin to see the places where God may want us to shift our perceptions or habits to more fully engage in his presence.  It is also best to think of a Rule of life as a fluid document.  Like moving around stickers on a planner, a Rule of Life is always changing, and naturally includes a certain amount of flexibility.   

The Rule of Life, therefore, sits in this precarious place of fitting seamlessly into life as we experience it, while also challenging us to make changes to our spiritual life.  The best Rule is one we do not feel we need to worry over, while at the same time, being one that calls us to concentration, reflection, and prayer.  Arguably there is a messiness here.  Just as the best planner-pages are the ones that call the individual to strive to live the best life, so too our Rule of Life should hold out to us the life of faith we aspire to live.  And live we must.  We cannot remain eternally with intensions and desire.  Eventually Jesus calls us to live our lives.  Thus, a  Rule of Life cannot simply be about wishes and dreams; it must include actions and practices through which we will govern our spiritual life with God.  Adele Calhoun notes “Live-giving rules are a brief and realistic scaffold of disciplines that support your heart’s desire to grow in loving God and others.” (38)  While not detailing every moment of life, the Rule gives a framework in which we live our Christian lives.

In this regard, the Book of Common Prayer offers good guidelines for the different aspects we may reflect on in our Rule.  The BCP records that the rule of life should consider: The regularity of attendance at public worship, the practice of private prayer, bible reading, self discipline, bringing the teachings of Jesus into every day life, personal service, and the offering of money to support the work of the church.  These create the scaffold upon which an authentic, intentional Christian life is built.

Perhaps this is a challenge that the Rule of Life can place on planners.  Planning, if it is to be a spiritual habit and not just a creative one, must push past the desire to merely fill up one’s pages with generalities.   For example, does one use a planner to highlight the spiritual practices one is called to engage in?  It is all well and good to plunk in a sticker that says ‘Be prayerful!”, but how does one actually plan for dedicated time of prayer, or public worship? Does one plan out just how one will live out the teachings of Jesus in regular life?  These are questions a Rule of Life sits with, and to which today’s daily planners could aid in drawing people into deeper reflection.  To use the planner in this way would be to create an ongoing record of one’s life with God.  Whether you call this your Happy Planner, or your Rule of life, having such record can only be beneficial for one’s walk with the Lord.

Sources:

 Seattle Times:  https://www.seattletimes.com/explore/shop-northwest/which-planner-will-make-your-2019-perfectly-organized/

Calhoun, Adele Ahlberg; 2015. Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press.

Take up and Read: Exploring Spiritual Reading

A few months ago, I wrote a blog entitled “When Words Speak”, which detailed five books that helped inform my faith. It was a pleasure to go through my library and note the books to which I continually return. The spiritual lessons I gleaned from their pages have largely shaped the outward expression of my Christian faith. Since then, I have thought a lot about the habit of reading. Given that we are currently going through a season wherein we are able to spend a lot of time reading, can we view reading as a spiritual discipline? Am I only passing the time when I read a book, even if it is spiritually focused?

The act of reading a book is rarely included in a list of spiritual practices. While we may speak of spiritual walking (labyrinths) or spiritual conversations we rarely speak of spiritual reading. Immersing one’s self in faithful literature as a discipline of Christian formation seems reserved for scripture alone — but then we call it “Study” or “Biblical Meditation.” Of course, I am not denying the fundamental importance of soaking our lives in scripture. All practices need to be rooted in the Biblical faith, and lead us to a deeper dependence and love of God’s holy word.

Yet there is precedence to seeing reading as a spiritual practice. One can turn to Christian literature for the sole purpose of growing our inner Christlikeness, and in fact, many of the classic texts of spiritual formation took this form. That is to say, St. Francis deSales, for example, wrote spiritual lessons for his student — lessons he expected her to read and be formed by. In this way, spiritual reading is different than reading for information, or even enjoyment, although both may occur. Spiritual reading is inherently formational; We actively open ourselves to Christian teaching in order to be formed by it.

Like all spiritual disciplines, spiritual reading takes a certain amount of intentionality and humility. Volume, or expediency, is not the goal, nor is simply blasting through the latest book on our shelf. Rather, spiritual reading is rooted in a desire to grow closer to Christ. We approach our reading humbly, and with an attitude of teachability. We recognise that we never master the Christian life, and thus we are continually called to search out teachers and guides. If we assume that God has nothing new to teach us, or nowhere new to lead us, then we have cut ourselves off from the Spirit. Thus, in our reading, we open ourselves to the voice of the Spirit, mediated through the book in our hands.

We might say that Spiritual reading is a type of spiritual direction. Through our reading, we allow another set of eyes, ears, and experiences to help us interpret our faith life. Through the words of another, we learn how to attune ourselves to God’s activity in our lives. Given the busyness and frenzy of modern life at times, it can be easy to grow deaf to God’s voice. In spiritual reading, we cultivate the inner slowness necessary to hear a divine voice calling us to return. We may be prompted to ask ourselves questions not considered previously, or view matters of faith from a different angle; we may be challenged by a word or concept to which we must prayerfully wrestle. In the same way that a spiritual director does not tell us what to think, how to feel, or what to experience, spiritual reading merely opens the door to different ways of engaging with our faith. Good spiritual reading, like good spiritual direction, is a mixture of comfort, challenge and encouragement.

Furthermore, spiritual reading aids in forming our faith by providing the very language needed to describe our own inner movements. Using finite words to describe infinite spiritual realities, is difficult in the best of times, and we may find ourselves struggling with the limitation of our language. Listening to how others describe the spiritual life may help us in our own articulations. Personally, I know there have been times where I have read something and thought to myself: “That is exactly how I feel, I just didn’t know how to describe it!” This is particularly important as we recognise that our spiritual lives are part of a larger story. Our faith is never lived in isolation, but is, in fact, simply the next (local) chapter in God’s redemptive narrative. Because of this inherent connection with God’s movement prior to our individual journey, we can turn to the saints before us, to learn from their lives, teachings, successes, and failures. There is a wealth of spiritual knowledge out there, by men and women who have lived lives of profound connection and intimacy with God. It may just be that the answers we search for in our own struggles or hardships have been addressed by the spiritual fathers and mothers that have gone before us. Hearing their voice, written in pages of spiritual books, links us to the arc of God’s grand narrative, but also informs how we may be called to “further the story” as themes, disciplines, and experiences are now carried through in our lives.

Of course, there is a wide array of literature out there. How do we know what would be best for our spiritual reading? It is hard to develop some type of criteria by which we can judge all manners of Christian literature. I would, however, make two suggestions. Firstly, think old instead of new. As I mentioned, there is a wealth of knowledge, experience, and expertise that have gone before us. The saints of the past have wrestled with the very dynamics with which we often struggle. Take up the classic texts of spiritual formation. Texts like Introduction to the Holy Life, or Experiencing the Depths of Jesus Christ, or Practicing the Presence of God, have proven to be beneficial to people’s spiritual growth for centuries. Secondly, consult a spiritual friend, mentor, or priest. If there is someone whose depth of faith you admire, ask what spiritual books they have learned from. Who are the authors they enjoy? What texts have proven formational for them?

The time in which we live is perfect for developing a habit of spiritual reading. This discipline is perfect for people who like reading, yet more importantly, it can be a great challenge for those who do not. In such a case, spiritual reading may so force us outside of comforts that we may find ourselves experiencing God’s present in dramatic fashion.

Away and Towards: Cultivating Solitude in a time of Isolation

The Desert Fathers and Mothers have been a continuous wealth of spiritual knowledge and insight, their teachings passed down in various volumes and compendiums.  One lesson has been particularly popularized.  As the story goes; a monastic brother went to Abba Moses and asked for a word of advice regarding the cultivation of a robust spiritual life.  Abba Moses responded famously: “Go sit in your cell and your cell will teach you everything.” The encouragement to “sit in your cell” points the spiritual seeker to the necessity of solitude in the spiritual life.  One must step away from all that obstructs progress in the spiritual life. Make no mistake, this advice is not to be confused with an urge to passivity.  Solitude isn’t the same as aloneness.  Sitting in one’s cell, for the desert monastics, took an active form. The cell was a place of struggle, even battle.  As much as solitude involved a retreat from the frenzied distractions of the city, the desert fathers and mothers saw solitude as a way to grasp the presence of Jesus more intently.  Solitude was about creating the internal space needed to step toward the Lord, and embrace the Spirit’s movement in their lives.

 Solitude doesn’t merely have a strong place in desert ascetical tradition.  Like all legitimate disciplines of the Christian life we see this discipline modeled in the life of Jesus. The opening pages of Mark’s gospel contains a humorous scene wherein the disciples waken to find that Jesus has wondered off to a solitary place for prayer (Mark 1:35). Similarly, after the feeding of the five-thousand, Jesus dismisses both the crowds and the disciples in order to spend some time in solitude (Mark 6:46). It seems that Jesus frequently cultivated times in which he physically removed himself from the pressing demands of crowded life.

This discipline, however, is not merely one that Jesus cultivated for himself. He instructed his disciples to engage in solitude as well. In one instructive periscope, the disciples return from their missionary journey filled with zeal and excitement.  They long to tell Jesus all they had experienced.  This desire is thwarted by crowds of people who descend upon the scene. As Mark records it, the picture is so chaotic that the disciples do not even have time to eat.  Then, from somewhere within this frenzy, Jesus turns to his disciples and instructs: “Come away with me by yourself to a quiet place” (Mark 6:31).  Herein is the definition of Solitude.  Solitude is a stepping away from the frenzied chaos of life, with its noise and clamour, in order to step towards the abiding and life-giving embrace of Jesus.

This dual stepping of solitude, stepping away in order to step towards, mirrors the external and internal nature of the discipline.   Externally, solitude calls us to strip away that which blocks the flow of the Spirit in our lives.  Christian literature often pairs solitude with the disciplines of simplicity and silence for this reason.  Necessary to the cultivation of solitude is the need to physically remove one’s self from the noisy distractions of our lives.  As much as we are capable, we intentionally, and possibly forcefully, separate ourselves from all that might distract our time with the Lord.  We silence the radio. We turn off the TV.  We step away from the computer. We physically remove ourselves from others.

Of course, we never live our lives in a vacuum.  It is impossible to fully remove the noise of life from our lives, or the existence of other people for that matter.   Furthermore, in this time of isolation, it may be hard to step away from people in your own home.  Importantly, spiritual disciplines are meant to be lived out in the cluttered tapestry of our lives, whatever that might look like.  God’s grace is sufficient for our labours.  We should not make the mistake of believing that experiencing solitude, or any discipline for that matter, is contingent upon a perfect environment.  We engage the spiritual discipline in whatever manner it is best cultivated.

They to the external reality of solitude is to match, as best we can, our external environment to the inner solitude we are attempting to enter. Externally we cultivate an environment of quietness or stillness so that we might realize an internal stillness.  Solitude is more of an internal work than an external work.  We do a disservice to this discipline if it we believe it is just about stepping away.  We must step towards.  In solitude we humbly lay our lives before Christ.  Like two lovers who wish to steal away together, in a solitude we give the lover our souls our undivided attention.  Internally, we provide space for the Spirit to do a transforming work within us.  Solitude is about resting in our soul’s longing for Jesus and reaching out towards him.

So how might we experiment with solitude?  Ruth Haley Barton provides a simple and easy practice in her book Invitation to Silence and Solitude.   Barton reflects on Elijah’s experience at Horeb wherein God approaches Elijah, not in grand chaotic activity, but in stillness and quiet.  In this moment, Elijah is approached with a penetrating question: “What are you doing here Elijah.”  This question serves as an invitation for Elijah to disclose his inward self, and the chaos he carries within.  Similarly, Barton suggests, we may, in solitude, answer this same question.  As we sit in our time of external quietness and stillness, we may imagine the Lord asking us: “What are you doing here James?”, “What are you doing here Lisa?” As we sit with this question, never forcing a resolution, we may find that an answer begins to emerge from deep within.  Like Elijah, in solitude we may then disclose to this internal reality to the Lord, who longs to hear from us.

Whereas solitude is not the same as isolation, we may, if we be so bold, turn periods of isolation into a times of solitude. It need not take much time.  Like training for a marathon, we don’t launch into Olympic endeavors.  We simply start with where we are; five minutes here, five minutes there.  It may not be long, however, before we begin to see that these simple moments of solitude begin to remain with us throughout the day.  Richard Foster observes that there is a ‘solitude of the heart that can be maintained in any circumstance” (Foster: Celebration of Discipline).  Solitude can be a powerful practice because it stands against the whirlwind of activity that defines most of our lives.  With the current pandemic, much of life’s activity has come to a fast and violent halt.  For this reason solitude may be the very discipline wherein we may hear the Lord speak powerful to our souls.

Lamentations: Recovering a forgotten discipline.

This article first appeared as an article for The Anglican Church of Canada at https://medium.com/ministrymatters/discovering-lament-why-crying-out-to-god-may-be-good-for-our-souls-23cf60ccfe3a.

While out for a walk with my family the other day, we came across another family, also out for a stroll. Mom and Dad were following their two small daughters, each on bright pink bikes with streamers. As we approached each other, without saying a word, each family adjusted course appropriately. My family moved off the sidewalk and onto the grass. The other family stepped off the sidewalk and onto the curbside, their bike-riding daughters pulling to the far side of the sidewalk. We passed each, smiling of course, with a good four or six feet between us.

There is a sadness in the fact that such physical distancing has become so normalized that it occurs without speech. Life has changed. We have grown comfortable with words such as “self-isolation” or “physical distancing.” Such concepts have become the necessary boundaries through which we navigate our lives. As we grow more and more comfortable with this new reality, we cannot deny that there has been a tragic loss. With startling quickness, our lives became turned upside down. Plans were instantaneously changed or cancelled outright. That long-awaited summer trips have been indefinitely postponed. Jobs have been lost. Doors have been closed. Perhaps we, or those we love, now face a time of illness in isolation.

How do we respond to this situation faithfully? What practices or disciplines may help us navigate this new normal, and give voice to the strangeness of life as we experience it currently? I suggest that the discipline of lament might be exactly what is need in this time.

We often fail to think of lament as a spiritual discipline to be cultivated. Literature detailing essential habits of the Christian life rarely speak of this practice. A read through Scripture, however, clearly displays this spiritual practice. This goes far beyond the specifically classified “Lament Psalms.” Old Testament books such as Job or Jeremiah are filled with laments, and of course we can’t forget the biblical book which bears the name “Lamentation.” More profoundly, however, we see prayers of lament modeled by Jesus himself. In Gethsemane, for instance, Christ throws himself down to the ground and cries out “Father, if possible, take this cup away from me.” This is a lament, a prayer disclosing the deep burden of his soul. Furthermore, on the cross, Jesus quotes Psalm 22 (a psalm of lament): “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” If we are to pattern our lives after Jesus, adopting the spiritual practices evidenced in Christ’s life and teaching, then engaging in prayers of lament is one of the ways we can do that.

Lament, simply described, is an unburdening of the soul. We may think of this as a type of grieving. We grieve the loss of your summer plans — or the inability to gather with family. I know several people who have had to cancel long-awaited trips overseas and they are grieving the loss of that which they so eagerly looked forward to. Alternatively, we might think of lament as a sense of soul-heaviness we carry within, because of our concerns or anxieties. Questions such as “what’s next?”, or “how long”, or “where are you?” often dominate a prayer of lament. In lament, we pour out how we are feeling at the deepest core of ourselves. They are prayers that give words to our thoughts and feelings around the difficulties or struggles we may be experiencing.

Lament, as uncomfortable as it may seem, is rooted in two important realities. Firstly, Christ is Present. Christ is not absent from us. In fact, Christ has promised never to leave or forsake us. This may not be what we feel in the moment. Our laments may take the form of asking God to act or questioning why God seems absent. Yet the simple act of crying out to God is one of boldly acknowledging that we are not alone in our struggles. Thus, laments are an acknowledgement of our confidence in Christ’s unyielding presence. Secondly, Christ lovingly invites us to lament. Christ invites us to bear our soul before him. He does not shy away from laments, or from our bold complaints or questions. If we think our own liturgy of corporate confession, we see a fabulous invitation: “Dear Friends in Christ, God is steadfast in love, and infinite in mercy….” This reality is also expressed in our prayers of lament. In Christ’s love, we are invited to disclose our hearts in all its raw messiness.

These two realities are important for they ensure that our prayers are laments and not curses. We never curse God. For all the stark honesty of their lamentations, neither Job, nor Jeremiah, nor David ever curse God. As much as we may describe how much we may be angry at God, or feeling abandoned by God, laments hold true to the claim that God is present in love. Cursing amounts to pushing God away. In lament, we grab God close.

With these realities in mind, how might we make our lament? The Psalms particularly can be a great guide for us. You may consider using one of the lament psalms as a pattern for your own. Psalms 6, 13, or 77 would work wonderfully in this regard. In general, there are three guiding steps to making our lament, and most psalms of lament follow this three-fold pattern (there are exceptions — consider Psalm 88).

Firstly, be honestPretending does not help our prayer-life, or our spiritual growth. In lament there is little room for being appropriately Anglican, reserved and stoic. Similarly, pretending that we are not affected by a situation, or not struggling in faith, hampers our spiritual lives. God wants to hear from us in prayer. As we keep the two aforementioned realities in mind, careful to not curse God, we disclose our hearts in all raw and unhindered honesty.

Secondly, we cry for help or assistance: Fundamentally, laments are a reaching out to God. Thus, ask Jesus to respond to your situation, to your feelings, or to your experience. This is what prayer is. Sadly, many have been taught that it is selfish to ask God to respond to our personal situation, that it amounts to using God. Yet scripture is awash with instances of people asking, or begging, God to respond. Again, consider Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemane: “Father, if possible, take this cup away from me.” As you make your Lament, ask for divine help, whether that be help in healing, in understanding, or in perseverance.

Lastly, end with a statement of trust: Most psalms of lament conclude by affirming the two realities spoken of previously. The lament ends by be grounding the individual in the truth that God is present and loving. In this way, we can think of our lament as a prayer that moves from complaint to confidence, or from trouble to trust. Thus, end your lament by acknowledging the blessing you have previously received, or a statement regarding your faith that God will be with you. Again, Psalms 6 and 13 are a good examples of this.

It may seem strange to say that offering a lament can be beneficial to our spiritual growth and formation. Laments, after all, seem so negative. In this time, however, where our lives have been turned around so dramatically, giving voice to our unsettledness may just be the discipline we need.