Downward Mobility and the “Full Gospel”

People often say, “Everything old is new again.”, and today some prescribe ancient spiritual practices as a positive way to impact the deepest needs of modern people. Much of what I hear being said sounds like the “full gospel” more than anything else I’ve ever heard. By that I mean that I’m hearing “good news” for me as an individual (I can know God more deeply and increase the possibility of being changed by him.) and “good news” for others (since God can use me in the lives of those in my circles of influence to profoundly affect them in their relationship with God.) In other words, I can become a better human being, and God can use me to help others also “morph” in this way. These others would include my spouse, my children, my siblings, my parents, my friends, my neighbors, the poor, and other disenfranchised people that I seek out as I become a neighbor to them. (These notes reflect a logical approach, not a chronological one, meaning that they attempt to answer these kinds of questions: “If I’m hoping and praying for God’s kingdom to come into my life and circles of influence, how should I go about that? Logically, where do I begin? What are the priorities? What things depend on other prior things?”, etc.)

What follows is an outline of what I’m hearing, the full explanation of which would be a book.

1. You can’t control others or your own circumstances, so don’t waste important energy trying.

2. You are not responsible for the reactions and behavior of others. That’s their business. They have to attend to that.

3. Focus on yourself. That’s where you have some control. You are by far the biggest problem you have. Expending energy on this makes sense. Each of us must invariably start here.

4. When you change yourself, that affects all your “systems.” (marriage, family, work, church, neighborhood, etc.) You’re not giving up on change in the lives of others you love, you’re simply approaching it in a way that makes that change more likely – you’re addressing the need for person change. As you change, others will change.

5. The most important thing you can do is to change yourself, and changing yourself is the only hope you have of changing others or your circumstances. (Obviously, points #1 through #5 all go together.) This statement summarizes the first four points, but also holds out personal change as the most critical, wisest, most strategic commitment you can make.

6. None of these will be enough to change you: more information, more motivation, more accountability, or more serious effort. This may sound like bad news, but it’s really actually good news, as we see in the points that follow.

7. The possibility of change increases with new perspectives – a) when I see myself as loved and valued by God, b) when I see others as loved and valued by God, c) when I see exactly where I need to be changed or transformed (my ego, temperament, ingrained habits, signature sins, thought patterns, etc.), and d) when I see that God is bigger than my problems.

8. The possibility of change increases with the learning of new skills entailed in attending to God, for instance in learning a) to sit in God’s presence, b) to wait, c) to listen, d) to let go, e) to be mindful, f) to do without, g) to meditate (lectio divina), h) and to practice solitude and silence. (Practicing these things is the key to the new perspectives of #7 above.)

9. The possibility of change increases with the learning of new rhythms in attending to God, for instance in practicing a) the daily office, b) an examen, c) unceasing prayer, and d) keeping Sabbath. (These will be aids in building the new skills of #8 above into our daily lives.)

10. The possibility of change increases as I bring new attitudes and practices to my relationships – a) speaking truth in love, b) practicing loyalty and kindness (embracing managed conflict rather than running from it), and c) looking for and capitalizing on transformational moments in each day (Nouwen’s “full moments.”)

11. The possibility of change increases as I adopt new priorities – a) living out the great commandment, b) involving myself in the great commission, and c) seeking justice for the poor and disenfranchised. (These will be the measures of success of this “project” at all times.) If you’re not growing in a life of love for God and others, and if you’re not practicing justice, something is amiss. These are the Biblical measures of progress.

12) The possibility of change increases as I embrace a new kind of patience – applying grace to myself and others, and embracing the unique journey that God has for me and them – remembering that personal transformation is the work of a lifetime and cannot be forced in my life or the life of others.

In the end, I am powerless over my sin and when it comes to truly changing myself. Only God can change me. My job is hospitality toward him – welcoming him and creating space for him to continue the work that he has begun in me, no matter how daunting that may be. Seeking God’s kingdom first (his glory, his agenda) will be the only appropriate and most effective way of entering into personal transformation. Seeking after the good things he has for me must take a secondary place to these priorities of his. The foundation of all that I do in this regard will be my refusal to insist on my rights before God, and with others. (Phil. 2) The commitment to do this a central and intrinsic part everything above. (#1-12)

I don’t know if this sounds new to you, but much of it is revolutionary for me. It’s a lot of familiar ideas, but the words are all arranged in new ways. I hope you find this provocative and helpful, and as always, I welcome your reflections and contributions. In the end, it’s all about our greatest happiness, and God’s greatest glory (but not in that order).

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Modern Times Call for Ancient Virtues

When I look back at my journal from 2001, I find this entry:

“(1) I will not hurry through the day so as to leave no spaces to hear from God. (2) I will not measure the day only by how much I accomplish. (3) I will not attempt to live the Christian life or minister for Jesus Christ in the power of the flesh or for my own praise.”

In the next few years, my life would be in ruins, and these goals would be the last thing on my radar. Now, after another ten years, I’m back to where I started, and I confess I still wrestle with these same three faults (“hurry sickness”, a “to do list” approach to life, and a desire to be noticed and admired.) I don’t even know if I’ve made any real progress.

But when I have found help, and I’m finding it again recently, it’s been in some ancient approaches that were unfamiliar to me most of my Christian life and during many of my years in ministry. It’s a counter intuitive approach where what was seen as bad (disappointing, distracting, painful, and shameful) can now be embraced as good (useful, revelatory, transformative, and redemptive). What previously was to be avoided with a vengeance, was now to be embraced. Henri Nouwen has famously dubbed this necessarily painful approach “downward mobility.” The theologian Jurgen Moltmann’s comments relate:

“… what are virtues for the mystic are torment and sickness for the modern man or woman: estrangement, loneliness, silence, solitude, inner emptiness, deprivation, poverty, not-knowing, and so forth …. What the monks sought for in order to find God, modern men and women fly from as if it were the devil.” (Experiences of God)

We do fly from these things. If they don’t terrify us (and mostly they do), they certainly make us uncomfortable. Moderns value being loved and included. We like to be confident of own adequacy and understanding, and most of us long for the respect of others and for a life of prosperity, or at least comfort. We love to surround ourselves with our music, and keep ourselves busy. Why would we want it otherwise?

The truth is that what is comfortable, easy, familiar and may seem to us what God clearly wants for us (health, happiness, satisfaction, knowledge), often instead prove to be distractions, detours or dead ends. If we’re lucky, we may finally become so desperate that we’re willing to try any approach – even if it’s one that turns our familiar approach on its head.

At the heart of this is what I recently started thinking of as “transformational moments.” When the Psalmist tells us to “quiet our souls“, when Henry Nouwen tells us that loneliness can be transformed into productive solitude, when Dallas Willard tells us to “ruthlessly eliminate hurry” if we want to grow, when Eugene Peterson tells us we must carve out a time for God if we are to “interrupt our preoccupation with ourselves”, when Nouwen (again) refers to the effect of the noise around us as “psychic numbing”, when C. S. Lewis says that “every single act and feeling, every experience, whether pleasant or unpleasant, must be referred to God”, when Philip Yancey recommends a kind of prayer as that which will help us overcome our “obsession with ourselves”, when Peter Scazzero continually teaches on the necessity of the “Daily Office” – they’re all talking about different parts of the same thing.

I think Jesus was also speaking of it when he told Mary, the sister of Lazarus, that she “had chosen the better part” – a notably surprising analysis.

So, here’s the thing. I’m writing this for me. I’m mapping out where I’m going in the months ahead – not so much with the blog as with my life. I’m mapping out what I want to think about – what I want to practice – what I believe really works. (In the past I’ve tried what is more commonly recommended, and that wasn’t enough.)

Let me end with a short illustration. Suppose I have a big fight with another family member, and I’m overwhelmed with anger. The traditional advice is to forgive before the sun goes down, to be slow to anger (next time), to imitate the Apostle Paul, or Jesus, and perhaps to ask some trusted friends to pray for me and hold me accountable. This is all well and good as far as it goes, but I don’t think it goes far enough, or starts at the right place.

Instead, the ancient virtues would dictate that I carve out some times to sit before God in silence, where I would ask him to show me what is likely the deeper cause of my anger. I might then decide to find some of the “angry” psalms to pray (There are many.), and to schedule several times a day to recalibrate my heart (centering myself at mid-day, for instance, on the God whom I may have forgotten since I did the same upon rising). I might also make a plan to end the day with an “examen” – reviewing the events of the day, and especially how anger played a part in it. I might “refer to God” my anger problem, deliberately trust him to change me from within, and seek to know what way my angry moments might be “transformational” or “redemptive” for me. I might end by confessing that I might be an overly angry person for a long time yet, that I know he can use me in the meantime, and that I understand that he will probably not simply remove my anger from me with a wave of his divine hand – and that his yet unfilled purpose in me is fulfilled in that. (As I think about these two approaches, I’m inclined to see the first one as comprising the “ends”, and this one as the “means” to those ends.)

Something like that. I don’t know. I’m embarrassingly new at this, but I’ve done each of these things enough to consider this a productive approach. I bet that some of you will relate, and perhaps have further suggestions. Perhaps others of you will think that I’ve become a new age mystic or even a heretic. I’m willing to hear from you as well.

In the meantime, I know I can’t go wrong with this example of the Psalmist, which I’ll be following. He says, “I have stilled and quieted my soul; like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me.” (Psalm 131:2) I think just this in itself, a very ancient practice indeed, will not fail to be transformational.