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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Henri Nouwen – Waiting on God as a Lifestyle

“Slow down, baby you’re going too fast
You got you hands in the air
With you feet on the gas”   India Arie, “Slow Down”

Waiting is unpopular, and usually considered a waste of time. “For many people, waiting is an awful desert between where they are and where they want to go.” (Henri Nouwen)  Nouwen paints a picture where some well-meaning soul is trying to quietly wait on God, and where bystanders are complaining, “Get going! Show you are able to make a difference! Don’t just sit there…!” We live in a culture whose not-so-subtle assumption is that if you’re not producing – if you’re not doing something – that you’re useless. The corelary is that those who accomplish the most are the best and most valuable among us. It seems fairly obvious.

But from a Christian point of view, it’s messed up. In fact, Simone Weil makes waiting patiently in expectation  “… the foundation of the spiritual life.” And many others agree with her.

So what would it mean to “wait patiently”, or in the words of the Psalmist, to “wait quietly before God?” In his article A Spirituality of Waiting*, Henri Nouwen answers this question by speaking about “patient waiting” as an approach to each day – waiting as a lifestyle:

Waiting means living as though the moment is full, not empty.

Nouwen challenges us “to be present fully to the moment” – the moment we’re in right now. We do this rather than dismissing it as insignificant or “empty.” It’s our nature to think God will do “the real thing” somewhere else, at some other time, or for someone else. In “active waiting” I trust that my moment is pregnant with possibility because God is ever at work. I stay where I am “… and live the situation out to the full in the belief that something hidden there will manifest itself….” The focus is on the present. Believing something can happen there – and looking for that – waiting for that.

This is more than “mindfulness.” It’s trusting that God is still at work creating, redeeming, sanctifying and revealing himself. It’s me learning to regularly ask myself, “What might God want to do right here, right now? The moment as I see it might be boring, frightening, confusing or just tediously routine – but what might God want to do in it anyway? Let me be open to that.

Waiting means giving up all my [necessarily futile] attempts to control my world.

In waiting we give up all our attempts to control our future. Instead of trying to manage everything so that (for instance) “This day will go as it should.”, we release everything to him, knowing that he has something better for us. (It’s not that we can control anything anyway, but that doesn’t keep us from trying, and we need to stop that.) As we wait this way, we take our rightful place as creatures, and as God’s children (loved and privileged but not his adviser). We leave what’s happening now, and what will happen later, to him – the one who loves us and works in all things for our good. Whatever he wants. We wait on him in the moment. He acts in the moment. We accept what he does and embrace it. Isn’t this what the psalmist means when he says, “This is the day that he Lord has made, we will rejoice and be glad in it.”? Suddenly instead of being the inspiration for a Vacation Bible School ditty, the verse reflects a “very radical stance toward life in a world preoccupied with control.” Our days and our moments are full with possibility, because God is in control. Rather than fighting him for control, we can “be glad” and wait to see what things he will do – things which are “infinitely more than we might ask or think.”

Waiting means practicing hope and letting go of wishes.

If “waiting” is the foundation of the spiritual life (Weil), then hope is the foundation of waiting. Waiting rests upon hope. This is evident, for example, in Psalm 62:5, “Let all that I am wait quietly before God, for my hope is in him.” After 166 pages of a study on waiting, Ben Patterson concludes, “More basic than patience or perseverance are humility and hope.” In this regard, Nouwen warns against wishing. We wish for better weather, that our pain would stop, etc. We wish and wait because “We want the future to go in a very specific direction….”. Instead, Nouwen commends Zechariah, Elizabeth and Mary to us as examples of how we must hope and not merely wish. “Hope is trusting that something will be fulfilled, but fulfilled according to the promises and not just according to our wishes.” Immediately after this, Nouwen says, “I have found it very important in my own life, to let go of my wishes and start hoping.” The statement almost seems comical, like an ironic Facebook post by a Christian hipster. But it’s not. It’s neither comical nor ironic. What Nouwen speaks of is very difficult, and very important.

The moment is full with possibility. We refuse to think that it’s best if we can control it. We let God do what he will do – avoiding any drama we might otherwise create, while we rest upon what is certain, true, and wonderful. In all this – in our difficult, counter intuitive, radical “waiting project”, we experience more rather than less of what God has for us as we cast aside our useless wishes, and hope in his promises.

Jesus suggested that each day we pray “Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Why then, shouldn’t we expect kingdom power to enter the moments and circumstances of our “common” days “on earth?” Why wouldn’t the moments be full, when we know that God is answering this and innumerable other prayers of his people? Why wouldn’t the moments be full when his work of redeeming this planet of ours – and it’s people – continues? The Kingdom Of Promise is yet to come, but at the same time continues to arrive “in our midst” – on this day, in this place – where I am. And so I wait.

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*All quotes are from Henri Nouwen, “A Spirituality of Waiting” unless otherwise noted.

Postscript: I’ve tried to develop a “next steps” approach to supplement Nouwen’s more conceptual (and brilliant) approach. My goal is to create an action plan where circumstances of the day function as “triggers” to bring me back to a place of waiting when I begin to drift. Here is a link to that.

The Examen of an “Overachiever”

Years ago someone called me an overachiever. I suppose it’s true in the sense that I have distinguished myself at times in spite of my limited gifts and natural abilities. Early in life I learned that I could compensate for a lack of natural talent by hard work. I ran cross country in high school rather than being a sprinter – and I set a new school record. In Seminary I wrote a thesis that was more than twice as long as necessary (Have I mentioned about my OCD tendencies?) – and I won an award. As a pastor, when I became convinced of the importance of prayer, I preached several series on it – one must have been 16 weeks long, and started praying with people from the church for hours and hours each week. For me, success has always meant working harder than the other guy. More was always better. Faster was better too. There was definitely no time to waste. “Daylight”, as they say, was “burnin’.”

I’ve been in recovery now for some time, but it’s tough going. I recently wrote out a prayer for use as an “examen.”* I need to pray this like I do the Lord’s Prayer – “daily”, and I find it helpful when I do. If you can find something useful in it, that’s great too. Here it is:

“In the morning O Lord, you hear my voice; in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation. Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.” (Ps. 5:3,2)

Today I leave to you …
what I do or don’t accomplish
what others think of me
my comfort and my pleasure
my health and my happiness
my sense of satisfaction and my success
my impact and my importance.

Today I will hallow your name by  …
leaving enough silent spaces to hear from you
living in calmness of spirit, not in haste
looking for transformational moments in the events of the day
waiting for my turn to speak
talking less and listening more
acting and speaking only out of love
remembering the poor and marginalized
depending on you rather than myself for success, and working to further your agenda and enhance your reputation, not my own.

May I do this by your grace and Spirit, desiring to experience and increase your kingdom rule. May I persist in all my weakness, and in spite of all my failures, as I depend on your unfailing love to see me through. Amen.

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* “The Daily Examen is a technique of prayerful reflection on the events of the day in order to detect God’s presence and discern his direction for us. The Examen is an ancient practice in the Church that can help us see God’s hand at work in our whole experience.” My version involves using this morning prayer at the start of the day, and then returning to it at the end of the day for the “prayerful reflection on the events of the day” that is the essence of the examen.

I have posted other resources on the interface between overachieving and the examen elsewhere for those who are looking for more help.