My experience of faith, my spiritual emotions if you will, have changed over the years.
I’ve never a person who experienced extremes of emotion, but over time my experience of God was growing quieter. My life of faith was less exciting.
For a long time I worried that this meant I was losing my faith. I was afraid that when I met Jesus face to face, he would spit me out for being lukewarm. (Revelation 3.16)
Whether it was intended or not, the message I received from many of the churches I attended, many of the youth conferences I enjoyed, was that if I didn’t feel moved during worship, something was wrong. Wrong with me. Wrong with my worship. Wrong with my relationship with God.
Frederica Mathewes-Green writes that “where worship is relatively spontaneous, … people powered by religious emotion simply do run out of steam.” By “spontaneous,” she is referring to worship that doesn’t come from centuries of liturgy. Not that modern evangelical churches are all shallow institutions, but that liturgies have the advantage of being a steadily flowing river you can slip into and allow the prayers and Scriptures to shape you rather than attempting to rely on yourself to dredge up the necessary emotions.
What I discovered after much time in prayer and reading is that rather than cooling off, my relationship with God had simply changed. It moved deeper. Silence and attentiveness are now greatly necessary to me. My faith has moved deep inside, “glowing there like a little oil lamp.”
Many of our Church Mothers and Fathers have written about why it is good to move beyond the emotions of experiencing God.
St. John of the Cross speaks of sensory benefits as the least of God’s gifts to us, a gift that he often withdraws in order to convince us to turn our eyes of faith on the Father rather than on what he is giving to us. St. John calls the desire to feel something in our time with God a “negative judgement” on God. It is a lack of trust in God doing in us what he promised to do.
In much more modern times, Richard Foster writes that “The Bible shows us that God works through long periods of our lives in which — apparently — nothing much seems to happen.”
Mathewes-Green describes this deepening of faith, this moving away from the passions and emotions into the realm of silence and attentiveness, as something that is natural and necessary in our relationship with God, just as it does between two people who are in love. I think I will end with this quote from her:
At the beginning, the heart pounds just to see the beloved’s handwriting on an envelope; at the end, two sit side by side before a fire and don’t need to speak at all. When (churches) urge their (congregations) not to let the joy fade, they may be calling them to fight a fruitless battle against moving to the next stage of spiritual communion, the one where God moves deep inside. When years shape us to be like him, his presence is less electric and strange; yet as we draw nearer, deeper faith yields deeper awe.
May God continue to shape you to be more like him, leading you into deeper faith and deeper awe as you sit in silence with him.
There is something troublesome that comes across in many modern, Western churches, something that offers up Jesus as a commodity that will solve all of your troubles, heal all of your woes, and make you happy.
Pastors exalt the benefits of following Jesus, telling tales of miracles and answered prayers, with little to no talk of the cost of discipleship.
Much of our Western church downplays the theology of suffering and the brokenness of our world and chooses instead to emphasize the “benefits” of Christianity. While most churches wouldn’t say outright that they follow a prosperity-gospel sort of theology, many of them teach as though they deeply believe a version of it.
Even the songs we sing in church or on Christian radio can lean hard into the happy feelings rather than lamenting the pain that we all experience in this broken world of ours.
Compare, for example, the lyrics of some modern praise songs:
You’re a good, good Father
It’s who You are
You’ve never failed me yet
to an old hymn, Faith of Our Fathers:
Faith of our fathers, living still,
In spite of dungeon, fire, and sword;
Oh, how our hearts beat high with joy
Whene’er we hear that glorious word.
Faith of our fathers, holy faith,
We will be true to Thee till death!
Yes, I deliberately chose a few extreme examples, but when was the last time you heard anything in church, from a pastor or a song, encouraging you to remain true to God through all things, even death? When was the last time you heard about the discipline of lament, or the idea that some things in this world will never be okay until you see Jesus face to face and He is with you through it all.
Too many people have heard this “Jesus will solve your problems and make you happy” rhetoric and given a predictable “What kind of fool do you take me for?” answer.
Part of the trouble, of course, part of the reason why this notion has taken hold in so many churches is that it is true.
Not the fixing – all – your – problems part, but the way in which his presence takes root and spreads, producing peace and joy no matter what life’s circumstances. ~ Frederica Mathewes – Green in At the Corner of East and Now
There’s no great way of saying that, though. Life is full of pain. How can we say that Jesus makes everything fine without sounding schmaltzy or foolish?
It’s not something that we can really explain in words. It’s something that people must see for themselves. You have to give it a try for a while before you understand, because the pain doesn’t always go away. The cancer doesn’t always get healed, the loneliness doesn’t always vanish, the marriage doesn’t always get saved.
It doesn’t mean that you get everything you want; rather, that gradually you get to want only Jesus. ‘He will give you the desires of your heart.’ (Ps. 37.4) turns out to mean that God gives the desires themselves; our impulsive and conflicting hungers are transformed, tuned, and ordered to receive what God intends to give. ~ Mathewes-Green
In the end, we are given Jesus himself, and it turns out that Jesus is what we really wanted all along.
While many theologians over the centuries have written about this notion, mostly recently I have been reading about it in Evelyn Underhill’s Concerning the Inner Life, a book I would highly recommend.
Underhill wrote of the Lord’s Prayer as an example of one way to move in your prayers from one floor to the other and weld the whole thing together as a whole and complete house. This particular prayer “witnesses with a wonderful beauty and completeness to this two-story character of the soul’s house.” It is such a lovely and helpful way to think about this concept, so I thought I would share it with you here today.
We begin at the top of the house with the one relationship that rules all the rest:
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be Thy name.
“Whatever the downstairs muddle and tension we have to deal with … all this rich and testing experience is enfolded and transfused by the cherishing, over-ruling life and power of God.”
Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
The prayer then brings us gradually downstairs allowing the sacred to fill every space, cleansing and sanctifying it all. Thy Kingdom come – hope and expectation. Thy will be done – the loving union of our will with His.
Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us. Lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
Give us the “food from beyond ourselves which nourishes and sustains our life. Forgive all our little failures and excesses, neutralize the corroding power of our conflicts … we can’t deal with them alone … Lead us not into situations where we are tried beyond our strength; … and protect the weakness of the adolescent spirit against the downward pull of the inhabitants of the lower floor.”
And then? The reason for all of this.
For Thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever.
“… bringing together, in one supreme declaration of joy and confidence, the soul’s sense of that supporting, holy, and eternal Reality who is the Ruler and the Light … of every room in every little house.”
There is so much confusion in our current place and time when it comes to our selves and what we consist of.
Some tell us that we are purely physical and have no need to consider any spiritual aspect.
Others tell us that the most important piece of us is the spiritual piece and we should disregard the physical altogether.
I confess that I tend to lean toward the latter. Most days I’d prefer to ignore my physical body completely and only tend to my spiritual life. There are probably many of you who lean the other way.
Both of these either/or views, however, don’t accurately depict the way God created humans.
God created man to be unique among all created beings. He created us to be the link between natural life and spiritual life, called to manifest his glory in both.
truly created a little lower than the angels, yet truly crowned with glory and worship, because in this unperfected human nature the Absolute Life itself has deigned to dwell. ~ Evelyn Underhill
We are the only beings created to be both physical and spiritual. We stand in the gap between heaven and earth, bringing God’s kingdom rule here on earth and reflecting the praises of creation back to God.
Rulers and priests.
Physical and spiritual.
It has helped me when thinking through this idea to think of the self as a house. Many theologians over the centuries have written of the self in this way.
St. Teresa of Avila, a Christian mystic in the 16th century, wrote a book called The Interior Castle in which she describes the movement between the lower floors of the castle (the physical self) and the upper floors (the spiritual self) as prayer.
Evelyn Underhill, a theologian from the early 1900’s, wrote of the self as a home with an upstairs (again, the spiritual self) and a downstairs (the physical body).
Both floors of the home are necessary. Taking care of both is essential to being a whole person in the way God intended for us to be.
Therefore a full and wholesome spiritual life can never consist of living upstairs, and forgetting to consider the ground floor and its homely uses and needs; thus ignoring the humbling fact that those upper rooms are entirely supported by it. ~ Underhill
I feel as though those words were written directly to me.
I not only tend to forget the “humbling fact that those upper rooms are entirely supported by” the ground floor, I sin against my Creator when I disparage my physical body as unimportant or less than.
Back to the singularness of human beings, the strength of our “house” consists in that “intimate welding together of the divine and the human.” (Underhill)
That intimate welding together found its perfection in the humanity and deity of Christ.
That intimate welding together is what you and I must aim toward if we are to become like Jesus, become the kind of human we were created to be.
We were created to be a whole house, with the lower and upper floors intimately welded together for the glory of God.
Our lives are “extroverted to excess. Our attention is incessantly called outwards toward the multitude of details and demands …” Evelyn Underhill, 1926
Culture has been heading this direction for a long time. Perhaps this world has always been so, developing in us a call to focus outward, a pride in busyness, a tendency to give undue importance to external details.
Many of our churches follow in the same direction, calling their people towards service and events far more than prayer, contemplation, and spiritual formation. We are asked to always be ready to give and serve yet are not told how to be filled up with anything to give.
It becomes clear, when we look at the life of Jesus, that we should live a mixed life, not a single-focused life. We should live a life of prayer and service, a life of looking and working, a life of being filled up with God and spilling that life out for others.
To deepen our own spiritual lives to meet the demands of others, we must first spend time gazing at God. We need a vision, a conception, as clear and deep and lovely as we are able, of the splendor and beauty of God.
That enrichment of the sense of God is surely the crying need of our current Christianity. A shallow religiousness, the tendency to be content with a bright ethical piety wrongly called practical Christianity … seems to me to be one of the ruling defects of institutional religion at the present time.
We have not changed directions since Evelyn Underhill wrote this in 1926. We have only moved further down that path.
Stressing service rather than awe simply does not wear well. In those moments when the pain and mystery of life are deeply felt, in the moments when we fall into a dangerous spiritual exhaustion in the name of meetings the needs of others, this “shallow religiousness” falls flat.
St. Ignatius of Loyola said that “Man was created for this end – to praise, reverence, and serve the Lord his God.” Notice that two of the three things for which our souls were made are our relationship with God: adoration and awe. Unless these two pieces are in their correct place, the last of the triad, service, will not be right.
Again, it is in looking to Jesus and the pattern of his own life that we see the way in which we should walk. This mixed life of prayer and service
unites the will, the imagination, and the heart; concentrates them on one single aim. In the recollected hours of prayer and meditation you do the looking; in the active and expansive hours you do the working. (Underhill)
Our secret life of prayer, the steady orientation of our hearts to the reality of God, is what leads to the desire and ability to be Jesus’s hands and feet to those around us. Ruysbroeck, a contemplative in the Middle Ages, said that the result of a perfected life of prayer was “a widespreading love to all in common.”
It is, for certain, a grace from God to have a sense of wonder and delight in him. Like all graces, however, our ability to receive it depends mostly on the exercise of our will and desire, on our openness and giving of our time to receive it. It will not be forced upon us.
Our churches are not wrong in teaching that a life of service is good and necessary, yet service should not, cannot, come first. We must first “deepen (our) own lives, that (we) are capable of deepening the lives of others.” (Underhill)
Christ set us an example in all things, and so it is a mixed life that we are called to live, a life of prayer and service, of looking and working. We must first take the time to be filled up with a deep and clear vision of the splendor of God; only then will we have the ability to spill out our lives in love for others.
I recently read an article in the Wall Street Journal about making and sustaining friendships in middle age.
The article included advice such as just ask, create a routine, schedule time, and even try a friendship matchmaking site.
It made me think of my own friendships, the new ones and the old ones, the ones were good for a season but then faded away and the ones that have lasted over many seasons of life.
Jesus called us friends. Did you know that? I had been a Jesus follower for an embarrassingly long time before I knew that.
No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.
Friendship with God, however, does not mean comfort and ease. True friendship, even earthly friendship, does not mean that you indulge your friend or always give him or her what they want. A true friend will sometimes tell you things you don’t want to hear, will do things that seem painful to you because they want to help you be the best you you can be.
When I look in Scripture at those who have been called a friend of God, this is the kind of friendship I see.
Who in Scripture has been called a friend of God?
Abraham and Moses.
What do we see when we look at the lives of both Abraham and Moses?
Definitely not comfort and ease.
I see uncertainty, hardship, loss, sacrifice …
God didn’t call Abraham to go lie in a hammock under a palm tree but to leave his home on an uncertain, dangerous journey towards an already occupied land.
God didn’t call Moses to continue living a life of ease in the palace, secure in his position of power, but to challenge that power and then leave on an uncertain, dangerous journey (while leading a gaggle of cranky, complaining people) towards an already occupied land.
God demands a lot of his friends.
In the verse before the one where Jesus calls us friends instead of servants, he says that we are his friends if we do what he commands us.
Expectations color our experience, and we need to know what to expect as friends of God.
Jesus warned us to expect trouble in this world, and we need to be careful not to expect things of God that he has not promised.
Scripture is so important. We must know what God means when he says that we are his friend.
It is a dangerous thing to be a friend of God.
And at the same time, even while God demands everything of us, he also has given us everything.
The verse before Jesus instructs us to obey his commands?
Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends.
Before he demanded anything of us, before we were friends of God, while we were still set against him,
Christ died for us.
What do I see when I look at the lives of Abraham and Moses?
I see intimacy, companionship, purpose, hope, …
And that is what the friendship of God and Abraham is all about. Abraham was in touch with the God who was in touch with him. He accepted God’s concern for him as the reality of his life, and he returned it by making God the center of his life. (maybe end quote there or maybe this bit too:) He obeyed, he journeyed, he prayed, he believed, and he built altars. He did none of this perfectly. But perfect is not a word we use to describe friendship relationships. Perfect is a word that refers to inanimate things – a perfect circle, say, or a perfectly straight line. With persons we talk of response, growth, listening, and acting. Abraham did all of that in relation with God, whom he was convinced was determined to be a good friend to him.”~ Eugene Peterson in As Kingfishers Catch Fire
It is a glorious and beautiful thing to be a friend of God.
When we are hurting, when we are grieving, when we are stumbling in the dark, God doesn’t usually come down in a blaze of holy fire.
He doesn’t usually appear with trumpets blaring to take away what hurts us.
We can feel as though he is silent, feel as though we are thoroughly abandoned by our Maker. Yet I have discovered that God does answer us in the darkness.
He answers us, as Sarah Clarkson puts it, in the language of presence.
Our Father comes to us in our world through his Son, he is closer than our breath through his Spirit,
and also he comes to us through beauty.
Sometimes it is the way the light falls across a fragile petal.
Sometimes it is a bar of intricate music.
Sometimes it is a stroke of color in a painting.
This beauty catches my breath, it startles up tears, it pulls an ache and a longing up from the depths of my heart. It is God himself, “clothed in countless tangible moments of beauty.”
What beauty reveals is the intimacy of the divine in our grief. God gives us beauty … as his offering — a gift that immerses us in something that allows us to touch hope, to taste healing, to tangibly encounter something opposite to disintegration and destruction. ~ Sarah Clarkson
Beauty reminds us of what we hope for.
Beauty reminds us that even though we still walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even though we live in a fallen world and reside in frail bodies, we have not yet arrived at the end of the story.
Beauty reminds us of what we hope for and beauty tells us about this God who made us.
Beauty teaches us not just that God exists but that he is lovely and good. Beauty tells us that we were created for joy and summoned to healing. ~ Hans Urs von Balthasar
When we experience moments of beauty in our darkness, we are experiencing a reality that is deeper and truer than our darkness.
In those moments of beauty we experience the nature of God’s created reality, and it is oh so lovely.
So very often I am unable to imagine any way out of my darkness other than God swooping down in his mighty power.
What I need in these times is for God to heal my imagination.
I need is God to heal my imagination so that I can picture a slow and quiet, but no less mighty, power, a power that does not discard the brokenness but makes of it something beautiful and new.
What we need is the healed capacity to imagine and believe the profound goodness of the future, to stand in the light of a happy ending whose power reaches into our present and draws us forward in hope. ~ Sarah Clarkson
God promises in Scripture that the struggles of this life will somehow be redeemed, that the ugliness in our world will be molded by the hands of a loving, powerful God into a thing of beauty.
In the face of the horrors this world can hold, this promise is hard to trust. It is difficult to imagine or even hope that it might possibly be true.
Like Abraham, we are asked to keep trusting in the face of apparent impossibility. Trusting that what God said to Abraham is truth for all: “is anything too hard for the Lord?”
One of the ways I learn how to trust is gazing at the way God fulfilled this redemption promise once before in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
Practicing the story of Lent leading into Easter is one way to do this. Practicing the story is a way to catch a glimmer of how this promise could be true. Lent fills us with the sorrow of this broken world and leads us in a physical way through the story of that sorrow into the story of the glory of resurrection, of new creation.
God created us as physical beings and he knows how much we need physical rhythms and habits to ground us in what is true. The Old Testament is full of feasts and festivals, sacrifices and rituals, to keep reminding Israel of who she was and who God is. There is an embodiment to the Lenten practices that has done much to steep my heart in the theological truth of God’s promise to restore our locust-eaten years.
One of the habits that has pulled me into God’s story is fasting.
I know it is popular lately to fast from any number of things — social media, sugar, screens — but there is something deeply good about embracing our given physicality and fasting from food.
The practice of fasting from a substance you truly need for life roots your entire being down into the reality of brokenness, both the brokenness of our world and the brokenness of our own selves. It tugs me back into the reality of my utter dependence on God, reminds me that the control I think I have over my life is really just an illusion.
Fasting reminds me that God is the only one who truly controls anything.
Fasting reminds me that I am safe in his hands.
Another reason for fasting is to practice Christ’s command to deny ourselves, to die to ourselves. It is a way to build up our spiritual muscle in a small thing so that when the more consequential temptations come we are strong enough to resist.
… misuse of food is an equal-opportunity temptation available three times a day to everyone from nine to ninety. Those who overcome this most basic temptation gain spiritual strength to battle all the rest. Of course, almost no one does. Frederica Mathewes-Green in At the Corner of East and Now
Of all the spiritual disciplines, fasting is probably one of the least talked about these days. It didn’t used to be so. There were regular times of fasting in the Old Testament, times when fasting was commanded and times when it was voluntary. In the New Testament, when Jesus spoke of fasting he didn’t say if you fast but when you fast.
Normally fasting is a private discipline, one you don’t go around talking about. When Jesus taught about fasting, he specifically told his followers not to go around with ashes on their heads and mournful looks on their faces but to live their outward lives as normally as possible.
As I have thought about the way fasting has faded into the background these days, however, I have felt the Holy Spirit nudging me to fast in community during Lent this year. If you would like to join me, we can humble ourselves together before God, encouraging each other and allowing the Spirit to teach us how to use this discipline to grow in our dependence on him.
Here is what I will do: I have committed to fasting for a 24 hour period each week during Lent, from Thursday after supper to Friday supper. I will set up a Facebook group for anyone who would like to be in that kind of community while practicing your fast. If you would like to join, just send me an email at email@example.com, telling me so.
You could also just join on your own, knowing that there is a community who is fasting with you. There is strength in that kind of knowing. You can send me an email, letting me know that you are joining us. Or you can not.
Whether or not you join me in this specific fast, I hope you will spend time praying about and studying fasting. Tell God what you wonder about fasting. Ask him what he wants to say to you about fasting.
“Even now,” declares the LORD, “return to me with all your heart, with fasting and weeping and mourning.” Rend your heart and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in love, and he relents from sending calamity. Joel 2.12-13
Every once in a great while he comes in the earthquake, the fire, the lightning flash of glory.
Which is, is it not, the way we most often pray for him to show up? We pray for him to reveal his presence in a miraculous, unmistakable way.
We plead for the glory of a healing, not the glory of a sunrise.
The miraculous presence is not usually what any of us receive, and when he does not show up in the way we hope desperately for, we feel abandoned.
Sarah Clarkson writes of this feeling of abandonment in her struggles with mental illness:
But he never arrived in the shattering display of strength that I thought was the only way he could answer my prayer. So I felt betrayed. … I assumed God was absent because he didn’t come in the way I thought he would. I didn’t yet have an imagination that was healed enough to picture a power that could cherish and heal me as I was — not discarding what was broken in me, but making of it something precious and new.
Jesus is God enfleshed, the perfect image of the invisible God, and when I read the stories of Jesus after the resurrection to find out how God comes to us, I most often see him coming into life in its real and inescapably common places.
I see Mary at the empty tomb desperately pleading with a gardener.
I see two men meeting a stranger while walking down the road.
I see Jesus making breakfast on the shore after a night of fruitless fishing.
Jesus doesn’t approach from on high, but always in the midst of people, of real life. He approaches in the midst of the questions that come out of real life.
The sacred moments, the moments that pull back the veil and reveal God with us, are often the everyday moments.
God most often comes to us not on high, but in the fragile and often hidden beauty of our everyday moments.
It is these very everyday moments which,
if we do not look with more than our eyes or listen with more than our ears, reveal only … the gardener, a stranger coming down the road behind us, a meal like any other meal. But if we look with our hearts, if we listen with all of our being and our imagination — if we live our lives not from vacation to vacation, from escape to escape, but from the miracle of one instant of our precious lives to the miracle of the next — what we may see is Jesus himself. ~ Frederick Buechner
This is my prayer for you as you read this: that in the glimpses of beauty that come to you in your darkness, you will be able to see the kindness of God who does not often zap away the bad pieces of your life but who instead died to bind them all up in his love.