If you came to my house, you'd sit on the pink couch, have a cup of tea, talk about what's going on with you, and have to listen to me go on about my latest favorite book. This is the next best thing - without the tea.
People who are able to make sense of their difficult or traumatic experiences are more resilient, more able to have secure attachments than those who haven’t. A child who has one person in their life who is present to them, who sees them, who is able to help them make sense of their experiences will survive even traumatic experiences more readily than one who doesn’t. (It has to do with the connections between the left brain and its rationality to the right brain and its bodily and emotional responses. For those who know about neuroscience, please forgive my limited understanding and explanations!)
When we read Scripture, we enter into the story of history and find our own place in it. I read the prophets and discover that the pattern of God’s work is the pattern of death and resurrection, not “progress”. I remember that God is a God who brings life out of death. I identify with the lamentations of Jeremiah and remember that in spite of how things looked at the time, God did fulfill his promises to his people. When I participate in communion I remember and reenact God bringing life out of death. My brain is making sense of my own experiences – making a narrative, putting it into context. I am entering into and finding my place in the story.
Reading the Bible ... participating in communion ... changes your brain.
From today's Daily Strength for Daily Needs:
"Be not troubled; for if troubles abound, and there be tossing, and storms and tempests, and no peace, nor anything visible left to support; yet lie still, and sink beneath, till a secret hope stir, which will stay the heart in the midst of all these; until the Lord administer comfort, who knows how and what relief to give the weary traveller, that knows not where it is, nor the way to look, nor where to expect a path."
I have been going to Paul, my physical therapist for a problem that started a month ago. Paul is a great physical therapist. "Exercise is medicine:" he says. "If you don't do the exercises, I can't help you."
Yesterday I discovered that I have been sitting down wrong. Standing up too. You would think that I know how to sit down and stand up - but one develops these bad habits, sometimes the result of an injury, and ones whole body begins to adapt to it. It throws things off, and causes weaknesses and pain in unexpected places. Everything shifts a little, until doing it wrong feels right - and doing it right feels wrong.
You see where I am headed with this, right?
The only way to change this is 1) to have someone point it out to you, someone who knows how your body ought to be working, and show you how to do it differently, and 2) decide that you are going to change the pattern, and then practice, practice, practice. At first it feels wierd, and you have to concentrate. (I am doing 3 sets of 10 - sit down, stand up, sit down, stand up. Watch in the mirror .. are my knees straight? are my feet straight ahead? Where is my weight? ) Over time the new habit becomes more natural and the pains and disability the old habit caused begin to go away. (I know this because Paul has helped me change other bad body mechanics habits.)
#1 above is the equivalent of spiritual direction. You rarely can recognize these patterns yourself - you just know that you have weakness and pain somewhere and don't generally know why. A spiritual director is one who has learned to recogize the workings of the soul and has learned some exercises for it.
#2 above is the equivalent of repentance (change your mind and your direction) and spiritual discipline.
Now I know I sit down and stand up wrong. Just knowing that doesn't change it. I need to exercise. So here I go - another set of 10. So simple... but gets the job done.
One reason we don’t understand spiritual practices very well is that we often think of human beings as bodies who have a soul ... that is, the real me is somehow inside this body, not integrally connected with it. This is dualist Greek philosophy, not Hebrew thought! The Biblical view is that human beings are embodied spirits. God, who created the natural world and was Himself incarnated in Jesus - works in real stuff – blood and hormones and neurons, not in some magical, disembodied way.
Because we are human – embodied spirits - our training takes place through practice. We are creatures of habit, and our brains, our emotions, our impulses, our responses are conditioned. That is the process by which we are transformed.
It’s a long process, and I really don’t think there are shortcuts.
In recent years, neuroscience has demonstrated why spiritual practices work. (Note: I like to refer to "spiritual practices" rather than "spiritual disciplines. Anyone can practice! Discipline sounds like ... pushups. I really hate pushups.)
As Daniel Siegel, author of Emotional Intelligence wrote in his book Mindsight: "How we focus our attention shapes the structure of our brain." Think about that one for a while. The practices you engage in every day change the physical structure of your brain.
I recently went to the Harvard Medical School Coaching conference, thanks to my generous friend Patty. (I now have a certificate with the Harvard crest on it...).
Here is what I discovered ... much of what is current in coaching circles are things that we followers of Jesus should already know. Meditation ... gratitude...mindfulness ... positivity... having a mission bigger than yourself ... community... all these are practices that the Christian community has known for centuries. I came away feeling that while Christians have been chasing management and programs, business has been discovering the value of investing in human beings.
So I am going to be posting a series of reflections on the practices of our life with God ... by which I mean a life that is truly and fully human. More about that later!
Barton provides an accessible introduction to essential spiritual practices and how to develop a “rule of life.” At under 200 pages, this is an easy read.
Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart
Many of the books we read are compilations and summaries. Nouwen is an “original source” who fundamentally influenced the discussion of spiritual transformation in our generation. In this small volume, he draws on the Desert Fathers in inviting us to the practices of Solitude, Silence, and Prayer.
James C. Wilhoit Spiritual Formation as if the Church Mattered: Growing in Christ through Community.
This excellent book is a corrective to some of the more individualized views of spiritual transformation. This is a more substantive book proposing a “curriculum for Christlikeness, grounded in the gospel and the grace that makes it available.”
Dallas Willard: The Spirit of the Disciplines: Understanding How God Changes Lives
This book is sure to become a classic for the Christian life. Indispensible introduction to the place of spiritual disciplines in the Christian life. This is a book you should have in your library and reread periodically.
N.T. Wright, After You Believe: Why Christian Character Matters.
If you are looking for a solid theological perspective, read this!! Few books expound the “telos” , the goal of our transformation and why it matters to God and to the world. (“We are designed to be, in the end, fully renewed, image-bearing human beings.”) Wright is one of the few leading theologians who can write for the general public in an engaging way. It will challenge you!
We love our Lyme doc. We just got back from the quarterly trip to see him. It’s a crazy place ... small, modest quarters, full of people ... Ron and Jim the nurses, Kathy the receptionist, Misha and Yvonne the other docs, ... and lots of really really sick people.
But not as sick as they were. In the waiting room are people from Canada, Chicago, Montana, Washington ... some of them had moved there in order to be treated by this doctor. I asked one young woman, who had moved there from Chicago, “Are you getting better?” “5 months ago I couldn’t have carried on a conversation with you” she said.
Then there is Steve, the Lyme doctor. “Kathy!!” he says: “Bring me more sick people!!.” He examines L., asks questions, listens and looks. He revises the treatment plan and looks her in the eye: “You can get better,” he says firmly. “I know you’re not diggin it now ...you have a ways to go, but you will get better.”
We believe him. Please, God, we believe him.
Someday, these people – Steve and Ron and Jim and Misha and Yvonne – will be recognized as the pioneers they are, tenaciously treating a pernicious, misunderstood disease, dismissed and even persecuted by the larger medical community – and literally giving people back their lives. In the meantime, we are grateful.
This morning my prayers included this:
"Thou that knowest our thoughts, make Thyself known to our hearts."
A month ago, a kind stranger gave my daughter this dog to be her friend
and companion. His official name is "Legacy Custom Made". She called him "Gabriel". He is perfect for her - sits on her lap, sleeps on her bed, keeps her company.
Yesterday he had to have some dental work done. The bill came to $780. Yes.
Today a couple from church called and asked if we would let them cover Gabe's vet bills. (And didn't retract the offer when they heard how much it was yesterday!) God sent the dog. And then He sent the money to keep him.
I know that the way God has finally made Himself known to us was on the cross, which event we remenber today. But, strangely enough, today it was through a little doggy, and the generosity of others, that He made Himself known to my heart.
I got a little birthday gift yesterday. My friend Shana called to say that she and Tyler are engaged. I love Shana. She is a treasured friend – I love her enthusiasm, and her ideas, and her clarity of thought. It pleases me more than I can say to think of Tyler seeing her and loving her.
The call came at a particularly despairing moment. I was realizing how thin my devotion to Jesus really is. At this point, I can’t honestly say I want transformation, or glory, or the kingdom. I just want this present circumstance to be over. That is all I want right now. Relief.
But with Shana’s call, I was reminded that she loves me for myself, as I do her . She is in my heart, as I am in hers. Her happiness is mine. And I was reminded of this quote by Bernard of Clairveaux ( a great lover of God): “Brethren, let us take heart again! Even if we are nothing in our own hearts, perchance something of us is hidden in the heart of God.”
In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us...
Anticipating that some might quarrel with the use of the word friendship in the last post ... let me elaborate.
When Laurie was in the process of leaving this life, friends were gathered around her bed for days (and nights.) She could no longer speak or move, and she didn’t look too good. But each time one of us came into or left the room, we went to her and kissed her, patted her hand, rubbed her feet, spoke to her. We remembered her, saw her, recognized her – not for anything external – but for who she is as a person. We treasured her, in our minds and conversation. We looked at Laurie, and we saw her.
None of us thought she was somehow perfect. But she was herself, unique. And we each had a unique relationship with her. There were many others who knew her, and some who were much closer to her (pause, as I refrain from saying uncharitable things ...) who never really saw her.
What was so evident in that hospital room was love/friendship. To be known in this way, I think was Laurie’s deepest desire. That was how she saw people. The reason her little gifts and jokes were so treasured is that they were so individualized – so personal – coming out of her knowledge of us. (When she gave me a t-shirt that said “Not My Problem”, she knew exactly why I needed that t-shirt!!)
That is what God is after too. He is a person (not The Force!) and his intention is for friendship – with us, and for us with one another. Mutual recognition ... enjoyment ... treasuring ... and maybe even private jokes and secret gifts. Yes .... I am sure of it.
Contemplation is not just thinking. It comes from the Latin root con (with) and temple (a place set apart for observation). It is to consider, observe, ponder.
I find that our normal mode is to envision or anticipate what we think ought to be. We have in our minds a narrative of what would be good, or right, or happy. I had a narrative about Laurie – what I wanted to happen. That’s not what happened. Instead, I am seeing a different narrative unfold.
God never – yes, I think that is not too strong to say – never operates on the basis of the narrative we have constructed. Instead He acts – and our part is to consider, to contemplate – those actions. He is not an idol, fashioned by us to do what we want. (see Isaiah 40)
One reason for that, I suspect is that we are after different things. We want to “fix” people. God, on the other hand is after love, or since that is an overused word – friendship.
Sometimes we try and force the facts to fit our narrative. But, as Laurie said, “Beauty lies in the true story.” I want to contemplate the true story. As I do, I am seeing something richer, deeper, more profound than the story I had in mind.
"Christian contemplation only starts when the deep heavenly gold begins to glint through the turbulent surface of earthly affairs."
Laurie was my Every Day friend... the one who knew what kind of a day I was having and what I needed from the store. For the last few years we have accompanied each other through hard things and wrestled with the hard questions together, like 2 wobbly skaters who hold each other up. She always made me laugh - in the midst of the most difficult situations, she had something funny to say. She had so many losses in the last 3 years - her beautiful curly red hair, 4 inches of height, her beloved horse, and even her husbands presence - but she was so courageous and resilient.
Over the past 2 days, I got to sit at her bedside with other friends. We all had heard of one another ... but we were from different eras, different contexts of Laurie's life. We laughed and told Laurie stories and cried and rubbed her feet and kissed her and told her how we loved her. It was a sacred time, full of "sharp sorrow and great wonder" as my friend Gwen described such a time. I hope that when I die, I can be accompanied to the threshold by my women friends as Laurie was.