Posts Tagged ‘Ancient Christianity’
Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants
By Dennis Okholm — Brazos Press — ISBN: 9781587431852
Be warned; this is not one of my typical or normal book reviews. Feel free to skip the first two or three paragraphs if you desire to get to the meat of what concerns the book.
My spiritual formation journey began in earnest around five years ago. It was around that time that I was really introduced to the ancient paths and disciplines that assist us in the formation and transformation of our souls. My introduction began with some contemporary writings and teachers who “pointed” back to the early church fathers (first through third centuries) and moved forward from there. As my learning has progressed, certain points and common markers continue to rise to the top of my collective discipleship experience. One of the more prominent commonalties is monastic or communal living. There are so many misconceptions and errant stereotypes surrounding those words (monastic and communal), that I don’t want to get mired down in that discussion. Suffice it to say, you might be well served to do some investigation and self-education rather than trust the tired and mistaken beliefs. More particular and to the point of this review, one aspect of monastic living has surfaced repeatedly during the past five years of my journey; that is Benedictine Spirituality.
Almost a year and a half ago I attended the 2009 Renovare’ International Conference (see the archive for the posts) in San Antonio, TX. While at that conference I was able to participate in a break out session teaching us how to create a personal rule of life. This was based in large part on the Rule of St. Benedict. As I mentioned earlier, I had been exposed to Benedict of Nursia, but only in part. Creating my personal rule sparked more curiosity about Benedict. The creation of my rule included an exercise in learning more about the liturgical calendar, so I spent the next few months learning and preparing for Advent and then beyond for the coming Church year. Advent moved into Lent and Lent moved to Pentecost ultimately landing me into the Ordinary time of the Liturgical Year. By the time I landed, I was more curious than ever about monastic community and the disciplines thereof than I had been and decided to shift my study into that niche.
In the month of May of this year (2010) I entered into an immersion of Benedictine Spirituality. I ordered a host of books (some listed here in a past review) on the subject and a number of interactive devotional-discipline works to help me integrate The Rule into my own lifestyle. The more I read, studied, and incorporated… the more intrigued and drawn to this culture of community and Christ-like transformative instruction I became. During the last five months I’ve tried to explore and share my enthusiasm with others who are close to me and those peers within my religious tradition. Most often the responses are mixed with curiosity, confusion, misconceptions, rejection, questions, doubts, skepticism, dismissal, and a little honest interest. Mostly, this has been discouraging and disappointing to me, although it has not deterred my passion or pursuit in my learning and practice. It was my disappointment in sharing my discoveries with my peers that led me to Dennis Okholm’s book, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants.
“As a knowledgeable pastor and theologian, Dennis Okholm… offers a fresh perspective on what attracts Protestants to monasteries… This memoir, gentle in tone and often humorous, is nonetheless full of challenges to Protestant comfort zones.”–Kathleen Norris, author of The Cloister Walk (from the foreword)
Aside from the title of the book, what caught my attention was the background of the author. A little research into the summary of the book and author’s profile revealed to me that Okholm’s background had roots in Baptist, Pentecostal, and Presbyterian traditions. My background, while not as educated as Okholm, is similar in experience of multiple Protestant traditions (Baptist, Pentecostal, and Methodism); I was hooked.
I am recommending this book in the highest order to my friends and anyone else that is searching for whole life transformation into the image and person of Christ… That is, what and who we are called to be; Imago Dei. My earliest memories in the church span over forty years and I have experienced much. In almost every season and chapter of my Christian journey I have fallen short of or lacked fulfillment in my growth as a disciple of Jesus Christ. Perhaps I am in the minority with my experience, but statistics, surveys, and an open-eyed real-world view of the contemporary Protestant church may speak otherwise… maybe I’m not in the minority with my experience. I believe a change in the way we approach discipleship as a tradition might be in order if not on the horizon. Dietrich Bonhoeffer thought along similar lines according to this quote:
“…the restoration of the church will surely come only from a new type of monasticism which has nothing in common with the old but a complete lack of compromise in a life lived in accordance with the Sermon on the Mount in the discipleship of Christ. I think it is time to gather people together to do this…” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
This, I think, is at the heart of Monk Habits for Everyday People and Dr. Okholm begins to crunch away at the heart of the matter as early as chapter two with “Why Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants?”. The heart of Benedictine Spirituality is covered in the following seven chapters with brief overviews and conceptual explanations of The Rule for Listening, Poverty, Obedience, Humility, Hospitality, Stability, Balance. Don’t be fooled by my description of “brief overview” and assume that to mean shallow or cursory in attention to the subject. While this is a small book by comparison to some I have read on the subject, it is by no means shallow. There are deeply profound and thought-provoking words in this short work.
I have noticed in a growing number of people a hunger for something more authentic in their faith. I believe that many people do desire to be wholly transformed into the image of Christ. Many of these people have turned away from the church in their search… and this is sad. Much of our ill-informed Protestant family has little or no knowledge of the ancient paths of spiritual formation. Monk Habits serves as a wonderful gateway to the disciplines that help us to form our lives around the paths taught by Jesus.
The book includes a wonderful afterword thought which helps to shed some light on the Protestant opposition to monasticism. There is also a great suggested reading list included that completes the book.
My rating = 4 of 5 stars
I love you… Even if I don’t fully comprehend you, your holiness, or even what love means from your divine perspective… I still love you to the maximum of my ability to understand. O Lord, how I long to grow in knowledge of your ways and flourish in the beauty of your grace. I hunger for your wisdom and the exhibition of the fruits of your character, so the world might know that I am yours… a humble servant belonging to the Most High God. Lord Jesus, your teaching exceeds the capacity of my knowledge. I hear your words and I read your words; they stick in my memory, so I can recite them by day and night… recitation alone does not make those holy words a lifestyle of love. Help me then, O Majestic God of Mercy and Grace, to become a living book of life. Might my spirit not groan with the wearisome toil of this world, but instead might it be that beacon of hope… that city on a hill, pointing with hope and joy to the blessed hope that is you and you alone. O how I long to be in your Eternal Presence; help me O God, to live according to the richness of your kingdom here on earth as I patiently labor as your servant until I am delivered to your eternal courts. Amen –jeff borden
O Holy Spirit, love of God,…descend plentifully into my heart; enlighten the dark corners of this neglected dwelling, and scatter there thy cheerful beams! Dwell in the soul which longs to be thy temple; water that barren soil overrun with weeds and briars, and lost for want of cultivating, and make it fruitful with thy dew from heaven… Come, thou star and guide of them that sail in the tempestuous sea of the world; thou only haven of the tossed and shipwrecked. Come, thou glory and crown of the living, and only safeguard of the dying. Come, Holy Spirit, in much mercy, come, make me fit to receive thee. –Augustine of Hippo
Lord, teach us to seek you, and reveal yourself to us when we seek you. For we cannot seek you unless you first teach us or find you except you reveal yourself to us. Let us seek you in longing and long for you in seeking; let us find you in love and love you in finding, O Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen. –Ambrose
Psalm 119 – QOPH
145 I pray with all my heart; answer me, Lord!
I will obey your decrees.
146 I cry out to you; rescue me,
that I may obey your laws.
147 I rise early, before the sun is up;
I cry out for help and put my hope in your words.
148 I stay awake through the night,
thinking about your promise.
149 In your faithful love, O Lord, hear my cry;
let me be revived by following your regulations.
150 Lawless people are coming to attack me;
they live far from your instructions.
151 But you are near, O Lord,
and all your commands are true.
152 I have known from my earliest days
that your laws will last forever.
I posted a short video of Francis Chan yesterday speaking from Catalyst Conference a few weeks ago in Atlanta, Ga. I gotta say I love the heart of Francis Chan, maybe because mine beats to a similar cadence. I am certainly an “all in or nothing at all” type of believer. Of course, I think this is the way to believe from what I’ve read in the Bible…although there are some who would argue rather vehemently that point, but I digress.
So, I’ve been considering the video I posted yesterday and questioning what it means to live “normally” according to the actions and words of the first century church. As Francis pondered in the video, are our ways, words, and actions “weird” by the standards that are depicted in Scripture? Francis gave some great examples, so I won’t go into that detail here, but refer you to the video if you need context…but really, are we living in accordance with the expectations of God for His world or do we do everything in our power to excuse ourselves from wholeheartedly following His lead? Do I excuse myself from Acts of obedience because of culture or my own desires for comfort and/or fear of the unknown?
I’ve been reading from the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7) and being stirred by the commentary from Oswald Chambers’ Studies in the Sermon on the Mount. Additionally, I’ve been digging pretty deep into Scripture in general with supporting testimony from the Ancient Church Fathers’ commentaries spanning the past two millennia. I believe Jesus meant what He said in his teaching. I think that interpreting the teaching of the disciples and ancient church fathers with a literal bent opposed to cultural nuance would be (or is), our better bet. The way we live as Christians today is a far cry from what is depicted in the Bible (in my opinion). I don’t want anything to do with modernity or post-modernity’s answer to the gospel. I don’t want to live looking over my shoulder asking questions about “what if this?” or “what if that?” I want to live my life “fully in” with nothing held back from Jesus, all for the glory of His Marvelous Good News.
In my reading this morning, one of the passages I have been reading and reflecting upon is 1 Corinthians 16:10-24. In it Paul gives instructions and encouragement for/from several of the church leaders. What caught my attention were a couple of points he makes in the midst of these specific “people” instructions. He writes:
Gulp. “If anyone does not love the Lord, that person is cursed.” Pretty strong words if you ask me… Yeah, well… I’m not one waiting in line to be “cursed.” So, I think it stands to reason that understanding what it means to “love the Lord” would be rather important to me; that is, provided that I don’t want to be cursed. I get the feeling that Paul isn’t talking about being slandered or getting “sweared” at with this “cursing” either.
The first line I recall about “love” and “Lord” is that I should “love Him with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5 and Mark 12:29-30). For me, all is all and means all; nothing held back… everything is God’s. This means all my hopes, dreams, material possessions, finances, spouse, children, everything. Everything. So, if we can stomach this manner of thinking, let’s consider some other passages of Scripture. As I stated earlier, the Sermon on the Mount is a great starting place. This is what Jesus describes as the way people look, act, and speak who belong to (and in) the Kingdom of God. Let me encourage your reading some other passages of Scripture to stimulate your own heart examination… and, I’d love to hear your thoughts.
- Matthew 10:34-39
- John 14:15; 23-34
- John 13:13-17
- James 1:22
- 1 John 2:15-17
- Luke 16:13
- Matthew 12:30
- Matthew 7:21
Finally, a brief reminder of the question(s) posed in this posting. (1) What is weird or normal to the Christian life? (2) What does it really mean to love the Lord; is it more than a verbal confession? I’m sure we’d say yes to the last qualifying question, but do we really live like we mean that?
Make me afresh, O God… Renew me, O Lord, by the power and presence of Your Holy Spirit.
On this first day of the new month we look ahead, recalling the many opportunities God gives us to start afresh and begin new ventures in discipleship. We walk with the Living God… before us, behind us, and indwelling us. Amen.
Christ Jesus purchased our freedom, so we might be adopted as the very children of God. And because we are His children, God has sent the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, prompting us to call out, “Abba Father.” Now you are no longer a slave…neither to yourself or the things of this world, but you are free. You are now God’s own child, an heir of the Living God, the Uncreated One who Is, Was, and Always Will Be. (Galatians 4:6-7)
O good Jesus, Word of the Father, the brightness of the Father’s glory, whom angels desire to behold; teach us to do Your will, that guided by Your good Spirit, we may come to that blessed city where there is everlasting day and all are on spirit; where there is certain security and secure eternity and eternal tranquility and quiet felicity and happy sweetness and sweet pleasantness, where You, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, are alive and reign, One God forever and ever. Amen. Gregory the Great
Pathfinders & Pathlosers: Another Meditation from Galatians
“You are following a different way that pretends to be the good news but is not the good news at all…” Galatians 1:6-7 [NLT]
The Galatians had been introduced to the Gospel of Jesus Christ receiving salvation and reconciliation to God through the atoning work of Jesus as taught to them by the Apostle Paul. The Letter to Galatians finds them deserting the path of Jesus (and/or adding to it), and following the Law of Moses and the traditions of man. The tone of the apostle’s letter reveals this new direction of the Galatians is terribly wrong. Jesus had rebuked the scribes, Pharisees, and the teachers of the law while He walked among them for following a path that was not unto God. Paul himself had been converted from a path of false righteousness, and the writer of the Letter to Hebrews spends a large portion of his treatise arguing his case that only Christ’s way is the true path of salvation; a salvation promised from the beginning of time, and superior to any other way…this including the Law of Moses… Yet, the Galatians had been duped…, fooled…., deceived.
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ, and are turning to a different gospel—not that there is another gospel, but there are some who are confusing you, and want to pervert the gospel of Christ.” Galatians 1:6-7 [NRSV]
Sister Joan Chittister writes in her book, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages, the following:
“The seduction of embarking on a spiritual life is that people can be fooled into believing that wanting it is doing it. They begin to believe that by traveling they have arrived. Worse, perhaps, they begin to allow others to think that by traveling they have arrived. They mistake the idea for the thing and perpetuate the idea.”
The Galatians were choosing to follow another way. Although our circumstance and/or situation may be different from theirs in some capacity, how often are we also persuaded to follow an “idea” that is really not THE WAY? My experience has been a sad one. Many of the circles of “believers” I have been a part of have not been students (disciples) of Jesus. Many have professed to receive His grace, but do not follow His teaching… Many do not know His teaching well enough to know how to follow it. What does it take to know the teaching of Jesus? How can we guard against being deceived or persuaded to follow another (wrong) path?
Christine Sine begins to uncover the root of our problem with her insightful reflection on discipleship: “Salvation is free, discipleship is costly. Salvation is paid for through Christ’s death and resurrection. Discipleship is risky; it costs us brothers and sisters, possessions and livelihood. Discipleship means yielding; a call to count the cost to carry our own crosses and follow. Discipleship remakes us; building us afresh, remolding us into the image of God.” As Sister Chittister spoke; “people can be fooled into believing that wanting it is doing it…” Many professing Christians have not made the commitment to actually begin following the Ways of Jesus.
The way we avoid being fooled, duped, and/or misled is to be wholly in tune and completely connected to the Person, Spirit, and Working of God. Brother Lawrence called this “Practicing the Presence of God.” Len Sweet calls this Semiotics in his latest book, NUDGE: Awakening Each Other to the God Who’s Already There. He writes that semiotics is the art and science of paying attention… He also writes; “Our quest is to be so filled with the Spirit of God, and to be wearing interpretive Jesus goggles, that we not only notice, but are able to interpret and respond.” (Respond to where God is and already has been and respond to what He is doing and already has done). This is practicing the presence of God. When I consider these things, I remember words and sayings of Jesus when he prefaced his teaching with statements like, “Let him who has ears hear” and “my sheep know my voice and follow me.” Of course he used other words as well that reflected these sentiments, but I think the point is the same; Pay Attention. It is not easy. Once more let me share words from Len Sweet’s book NUDGE:
One of the earliest admonitions in life is this: “Pay attention.” One of the hardest things in the world to do it is this: “Pay attention.” Nobody attends to attention. People teach us how to think, but not how to pay attention. But paying attention changes your brain, your being, your future. According to some scholars, the root lig in the word religion means “to pay attention.” If so, from its very definition, religion helps us learn to pay attention to people and to life. (pp.50-51)
I believe (most) people (including myself), as broken and depraved as we may be…want to do right and good things although, as Joan Chittister writes, “wanting is not doing.” In order that we are not “duped” into following another path, we must be fully immersed and engulfed in the Light and Life of Jesus Christ. I cannot say with complete fact what was the weak point of the Galatians who were being led astray by the Judaizers, but it is clear that something was weakening their understanding. Later in the letter Paul begins writing in more detail about following the guidance and leading of the Holy Spirit and thus overcoming the dark desires of our heart. I believe, based on this detail, the Galatians were not wholly connected to the Person of God and not following the Spirit. How this connects and relates to us is as relevant today as it was two-thousand years ago. I don’t think the Galatians or any other Christian would willingly begin to follow a path that leads away from Jesus and toward destruction… no intelligent person would make that choice. The problem with my statement is that it did happen and it continues to happen even today. The truth is that we don’t know what we don’t know. Say again? We don’t know what we don’t know… and this is what gets us into the snares of the enemy.
I wish to share a few Scripture passages that I was reflecting on in conjunction with this passage.
John 8:12 Jesus spoke to the people once more and said, “I am the light of the world. If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.”
John 8:23-24 Jesus continued, “You are from below; I am from above. You belong to this world; I do not. That is why I said that you will die in your sins; for unless you believe that I Am who I claim to be, you will die in your sins.”
John 8:31-32 Jesus said to the people who believed in him, “You are truly my disciples if you remain faithful to my teachings. And you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
John 8:58 Jesus answered, “I tell you the truth, before Abraham was even born, I Am!”
It is in these passages that Jesus is announcing to his hearers and the world that He, the Presence of God (see Exodus 3:14), is in their midst…He is, here to lead them (you and me) in order that we will not be “lost to darkness” or duped into following another way. “If you follow me, you won’t have to walk in darkness, because you will have the light that leads to life.” (John 8:12) — I think what I get from this line of thinking is that we do not have to fear being duped. We do not have to be ever cautious or fearful that we would be led astray… as long as we are connected to the Presence and the Illuminating Guidance of our God in Christ. The Psalmist reports the same conclusion writing the following words of praise:
“You will show me the way of life, granting me the joy of your presence and the pleasures of living with you forever.” (Psalm 16:11)
The point of this reflection is my attempt to consider how someone (like the Galatians) who had tasted the sweet Presence and Infilling of God in their lives could so quickly desert that sweetness for something that ultimately resulted in bitterness and death. What I think happened (and happens to us) is that it is not a sudden and conscious act. We ever so slightly and subtly become unattached to the Presence and Leading God. We become more sensitive and easily manipulated by the things we are surrounded by and very gradually we are removed from the Light that once led us. Indeed, the Presence of God is still near us, but we are unable to see or respond to it. I would liken it to a trestle that a healthy grape-producing vine is attached to. The trestle has life all around it and sweet fruit surrounds it in all directions, but there is no life or fruit in the trestle at all. The trestle has no conscious awareness of the life that surrounds it because it has no life in it… it is not connected to the vine. Our lives can become very similar to that of the trestle. God’s Presence is everywhere. There is nothing that does not bear His “fingerprint.” Everything that exists was created for Him and by Him (Colossians 1:15-20). Even though this may be true, we can be seduced by the siren song of darkness… following the “dark” path draws our attention to exaltation of “self” or “some other gospel that is no gospel at all.”
Living in the Presence of God is more than a choice and more than a verbal affirmation. As I have written earlier, it is a deliberate and disciplined act that takes constant attention. I do believe that it becomes more of our nature with discipline and experience as God’s Spirit has more reign and influence in our lives, but I think that should never be taken for granted. We must be diligent in the way we pay attention (Luke 8:18 and Hebrews 2:1), so we are not distracted and fooled into following another path. Consider the fates of these “souls” written about by the teacher in Proverbs.
The way of the righteous is like the first gleam of dawn, which shines ever brighter until the full light of day. But the way of the wicked is like total darkness. They have no idea what they are stumbling over. Proverbs 4:18-19
We might not lump ourselves in with the “wicked” or want to consider ourselves as in the dark; however, if we are removed from the Light of God’s guiding truth, we are in darkness… and we have no idea what we may stumble over. Even worse, we may even emphatically think and swear we are believing and following truth… We can easily find ourselves in the dark… and have no idea what we are stumbling over. Just like the Galatians.
“What counts is whether we have been transformed into a new creation…” [Galatians 6:15]
I wonder why we so often push back against the Holy Spirit? Here we are, heirs and inheritors of all the promises of God, every one, and so many times we are want to push back against Him and follow our own inclinations and desires. This summer has been a roller coaster ride for me in every facet of my being; emotionally, physically, and spiritually… and while I continue to implement the tools God has given me through the gifts of spiritual discipline I continue to wrestle and war against the nature of self within me. The flesh of “me” pushes back against the “perfecting nature of God” within me. I despise that. I give thanks and glory to God that I can choose to submit to His Spirit, but I don’t like for one minute that I have to choose in the first place.
“…and God’s promise to Abraham belongs to you.” [Galatians 3:28] “And because we are His children, God sent the Spirit of His Son (Jesus) into our hearts, prompting us to call out ‘Abba, Father.’” [Galatians 4:6]
God has sent the Spirit of Jesus into our hearts… therefore; it would seem to me, that we can follow Him. We can truly, literally, and successfully live a life, walk a life, and exhibit the grace and presence of the life that Jesus lived [1 John 2:6]. So, back to my question, I wonder why such a battle rages within me. I wonder why I consider my wants first; I wonder why I filter things through my perspectives first? I wonder why I seek out my comforts first. I generally will choose to make these thoughts subservient to the concerns and needs of others, but I wonder why, so often, I have to make the choice to choose their needs and thoughts over mine in the first place. It would seem to me that my old nature has not been completely crucified. [sigh]
“I have been crucified. With Christ; and it is no longer I that live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now love in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me, and delivered himself up for me.” [Galatians 2:20].
And this is my cry… This is my prayer; that one day I will be able to say these words, as did the Apostle Paul, with conviction and authority. One day I will know that the war of my flesh and the raging “me” of self will be complete. I live by faith today that all the promises of God are yes and amen, but I live with hope looking forward to the culmination of all things Christ… including Him within me. May it be so, for the glory of You, Christ Jesus, my Savior. Amen.
I’m Special – You’re Special
I was not appointed by any group of people or any human authority, but by Jesus Christ himself and by God the Father who raised Jesus from the dead. [Galatians 1:1]
How freeing and affirming is the consolation that comes from this passage. While every child of God may not be “appointed” to do the work of a “Paul,” it does not diminish the reality that each child of God has been “appointed” or chosen specifically, individually, and particularly by the mind and hand of God. He chose us. He chose me. Jesus reached out for me from beyond eternity for His unique purposes and no “group of people” or “human authority” can alter that truth. This is a great reminder when life feels lonely or the pressures of our circumstance begin to rob us of our joy… Jesus chose me. Amen.
But even before I was born, God chose me and called me by His marvelous grace. Then it pleased Him to reveal His Son to me so that I would proclaim the good news about Jesus… [Galatians 1:15-16] …God shows no partiality. [Galatians 2:6]
Distraction or Incarnation …the choice is ours
For the majority of this month (August) I have been reading and meditating on the letter from Paul to the Galatians. As reflected in some of my other blog posts, one of the prominent thoughts I have had during this time of meditation has been the apostle’s concern for the Galatians and how easily they have been distracted from the path of Christ Jesus [Galatians 3:1]. In my opinion, we have not made much progress since the letter was written… We too are easily distracted, or “bewitched,” to borrow the word most commonly used and translated from Paul’s letter. Let me share with you a personal example…
Among other things, my new job has been weighing on me; there are several factors that contribute to this weight, but they are not really the point of this posting. What is important is that I recognize how easily I can be distracted if I allow myself to be “bewitched” by the weight of my job or any other of the myriad of things taking place in the machine works of my daily life. As I’ve paralleled this Letter to the Galatians alongside “my world” I’ve realized how quickly my love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control (Galatians 5:22-23) can be tested and jeopardized by my choice to remove my focus from the illuminated and guiding voice of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
This morning while on my way to work, with all of this weighing on me, I turned to my wife and said to her; “I don’t like being distracted… I don’t like being bewitched. I don’t want to have my focus removed from the Presence of God even for a minute. I don’t want to be lured into a chase that does not lead to embodiment of the fruit of God’s Spirit.” We continued our conversation during the short ride to my job and I resolved to be a living representation of Jesus to the people I encountered… it is, after all, what we are called to be, incarnations of the Christ. I am pretty sure that some people I spoke to may not have been aware that they encountered Jesus, but I know that they did. As I prayed before entering work and as I prayed again before speaking to my first customer, and as I prayed again before interacting with my fellow trainees and peers I asked God to help me live Him. It is my most humble and heartfelt prayer:
“Dear Jesus, through Your grace and by Your Spirit, help me to allow others to encounter You through me and likewise, help me to remain focused upon Your Presence that I do not miss You living through the life of others I encounter. May Your Presence be in me and in my view through every moment of every day. Amen.”
Agitated, Distracted, and Bewitched – Part 2
I extend apologies if my words that follow sound somewhat random in my opening remarks. I don’t know if you are following along or not, but you can catch up here if you’re interested in where this is coming from… I’m still following reflections on the Letter from Paul to the Galatians.
Regardless of our understanding with issues of spiritual depression or those “dark nights of the soul,” Jesus said He would never forsake us… “Lo, I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:20). So then, what happens when we feel removed from, or distant from, the Presence of God? Consider emotions like anxiety, stress, anxiousness, aggravation, and agitation (to name a few). Where do these feelings come from; how do those feelings invade our being when we may have been (just moments before) experiencing sweet peace and fellowship with God’s indwelling Holy Spirit?
I realize my commentary may seem to have deviated from the original intent of the Letter to Galatians, but I think my thoughts remain true to the uber-arche that is the human and “that” is part of the narrative that is this letter. The writer, Paul, asks his listeners what has “bewitched” them… what has distracted them to the point they would leave the greatest liberating force of their lives in order to follow a paradigm that is no force at all and whose destination is sure despair, destruction, and ultimate defeat.
16So I say, live by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the sinful nature. 17For the sinful nature desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the sinful nature. They are in conflict with each other, so that you do not do what you want. 18But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law.
19The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.
22But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. 24Those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the sinful nature with its passions and desires. 25Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. 26Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other. [Galatians 5:16-26]
The blessing of new creation (which is what we become) through the redeeming, reconciling, and restoring work of Jesus Christ provides believers the means and empowerment to live daily and always in the Presence of the Triune God. The formerly broken relationship between man and God is reconciled and restored… on this side of Eternity, in this present and physical world, we are permitted to walk in whole and holy relationship with the God of the universe. We are capable of and invited to experience the blessed guidance and counsel of the same Spirit of God that inhabited and empowered the risen Savior-God, Jesus Christ.
Personally, I can’t help but examine and ponder my own experience compared to the “new creation life” that I read about in the Bible (especially the New Testament). I fully believe the Bible and its entire claim to be true; otherwise I would not be striving to follow it. Therefore, I believe my experience should be more closely aligned with, and reflective of, the thoughts I share in the paradigm of the aforementioned paragraph. Is it? Is my experience fully submitted to the Spirit’s leading? Do I live in complete harmony with Jesus?
I want to answer yes, but find myself becoming distracted or “bewitched” by the smoke and mirror trickery of powers and principalities of this world. Don’t misunderstand my words; I do not believe there is demonic influence or oppression behind every distraction or trial of man. I do believe our present world is still in a fallen state and subject to that “fallenness.” However, as I have also expressed in other blog posts, I believe that we are in a state of redemption and being redeemed… meaning there is still yet to come a whole and ultimate redemption, but we are still permitted and invited into participation of redemption-reconciliation-restoration through the work of Jesus Christ today… now.
What about distractions and being “bewitched” though?
Ok. So, (1) we are permitted to live in reconciled relationship with God, (2) we are able to take control of oppressive thoughts and bring them into submission to the Lordship of Christ, (3) we are capable of living in peace, joy, and godly love, and (4) we are given the choice to follow the unfailing guidance of the Holy Spirit of God Almighty who indwells the heart, mind, and soul of the transformed believer. We believe, according to Jesus, the kingdom of redemption, reconciliation, and restoration of God is here today and still yet to come, but we are capable of experiencing the fruit of the ultimate kingdom today… on this side of eternity. Why do we still choose to pursue distractions and allow ourselves to become “bewitched?”
Speaking out loud from my own experience and observation, I think the problem of our “bewitching” (the distractions of life that remove our focus and sight from God) is twofold. The first is our failure to truly accept the forgiveness and freedom of His grace to us. I think this stems from a continued lack of trust in the God we profess to trust. This problem goes back to the first sin of man (Adam) and we continue to suffer from it. In most cases with man and sin, we can find that pride and trust intermix to overthrow God as the Sovereign in our lives. Ultimately, since we do not trust God, we seek to find bastions of our present reality to cement our trust and place our faith (work-career, social status, participation or non-participation in certain activities, affiliations with groups and organizations, and etc) …and this, removes our focus and relationship with God to something else which ultimately deceives and fails us.
The second problem is systemic to our Greek influenced Western world. Our general approach to the essence of life is dualistic and also suffers from various forms of Gnosticism (follow the links to learn more on those terms). In very simple language, we separate our relationship and compartmentalize most facets of worshiping God and following the ways of Jesus Christ in our lives. We toss around terms like “spiritual life” and “secular world” as if this is the normal way of viewing our relationship with God… the inner life and the outer life. We have been bewitched by thinking this way. The Hebrew mind (and the teaching God gives to us) does not separate the essence of man or the life he lives. We are commanded to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.” There is so much more that can be said about this, but I’ll save that for another time.
A recent reading from a piece from Joan Chittister expressed much more eloquently than I could, a clear image of this duality. She writes as follows:
The private preserves of the spiritual life are far from dead, however. It is so much easier to go to daily Mass and feel good about it than it is to serve soup at a soup kitchen. It is so much more comfortable to say bedtime prayers than it is to speak peace in a warring world. It is so much more satisfying to contribute to the building of a new church than it is to advocate welfare legislation. It is so much more heroic to fast than it is to be patient with a noisy neighbor. It is so much easier to give the handshake of peace in church than it is to speak gently in the family. And yet one without the other is surely fraud if life with God in community is truly of the essence of real spiritual growth.
The messages of the Prologue (The Rule of Benedict) are clear: Life is very short. To get the most out of it, we must begin to attend to its spiritual dimensions without which life is only half lived. Holiness is in the Now but we go through life only half conscious of it, asleep or intent on being someplace other than where we are. We need to open our eyes and see things as they exist around us: what is valuable and what is not, what enriches and what does not, what is of God and what is not. It may be the neighborhood we live in rather than the neighborhood we want that will really make human beings out of us. It may be the job we have rather than the position we are selling our souls to get that will finally liberate us from ourselves. It may be what we do rather than the prayers we pray that will finally be the measure of our sanctity.
God is calling us to more than the material level of life and God is waiting to bring us to it. All we have to do is to live well with others and live totally in God. All we have to do is to learn to listen to the voice of God in life. And we have to do it heart, soul, and body. The spiritual life demands all of us. ~~Joan Chittister; The Rule of Benedict – Insights For the Ages [pp.31-32]
Why are we so easily bewitched? Why are we so quick to follow a way that is not The Way?
I caught glimpse of another parallel this weekend. Paul writes with direct reference in his letter to the Galatians concerning the old covenants (Abrahamic and Mosaic) and the new covenant of Jesus Christ. This past weekend I was in a worship gathering and heard a teaching from Hebrews 12:18-29. In this letter the writer recalls the first meeting of the Israelites with God at Sinai following the exodus from Egypt. I don’t recall the entire point of the teaching, but my mind was drawn to the similarities I noticed from my own study and reflection on this Galatians letter and this text from Hebrews. The writer is sharing his words in a very forthright manner or so it seems. There appears to be an urgency in his words for his readers to understand what he is saying… it’s as if they too have lost their way. Sinai still exists today for so many Christians who decide that living in the shadow of fear, the unknown, and an angry, unpredictable god (lower case intended) is better than living in wholly continuous fellowship with the God of Zion. The problem, in my opinion, is that many people consider “living in Zion” to be more work and more costly in personal sacrifice than the cost of living in the shadow of Sinai. Truthfully, it is…more costly to live in Zion. Zion cost Christ his life, the cost for us is nothing less than the same. The cost of Sinai is occasional sacrifice, but Sinai brings with it the covenant reward of death. The consequence of choosing Sinai over Zion is eternally catastrophic…and the ripples of that forward-reaching catastrophe reverberate with every tick of the second hand during our present-world existence. We follow our own truth and our improperly lit paths, because we have rejected the illuminated path of whole-hearted surrender that is the price of the Christ Journey.
Can we live in harmony with God; experiencing the sweetness of His Presence in every moment regardless of circumstance? The Scriptures tell us yes. If we disagree, the logical conclusion is that Scripture is a lie or we are a lie. If we follow Scripture according to our own interpretation and selection, we do not follow the God who has chosen to speak to us through His Scripture. The writer of Hebrews emphatically reminds us; “Be careful that you do not refuse to listen to the One who is speaking.” (Hebrews 12:25)
How is God speaking to you? What is He saying…? What is your answer? Are you tired of being deceived?
Oh, foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? (Or “who has cast an evil spell on you?”)[Galatians 3:1] Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to beings that by nature are not gods. Now, however, that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and beggarly elemental spirits. [Galatians 4:8-9] I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel. [Galatians 1:6]
I continue to meditate daily on the Scripture from Galatians and seek God to teach me understanding from these passages as I go through my dailyness. One of the thoughts in an earlier post included some consideration given to the question from Paul the Apostle; “who has bewitched you?” I haven’t been able to completely shake this question and I keep returning to it, seeing so many things that “bewitch” us and mislead us…taking us away from the Presence of God during our day and wandering off on the “rabbit trails” that would bewitch us and distract us from His Glory. This morning, I read the following from Sister Joan Chittister:
Agitation drives out consciousness of God. When we’re driven by agitation, consumed by fretting, we become immersed in our own agenda and it is always exaggerated. We get caught up in things that, in the final analysis. Simply don’t count, in things that pass away, in things that are concerned with living comfortably rather than living well. We go to pieces over crying children and broken machines and the length of stop lights at intersections. We lose touch with the center of things.
At the same time, a kind of passive tranquility is not the aim of Benedictine life. The call of this spirituality is to be gentle ourselves and to bring nonviolence in our wake. It is an amazing position for a sixth-century document to take in a violent world. There is no Armageddon theology here, no call to a pitched battle between good and evil in a world that subscribed to dualism and divided life into things of the spirit and things of the flesh. Joan Chittister; The Rule of Benedict, p.24.
We can be so easily distracted… the one thing that everyone seeks, regardless of their awareness of it or not, and regardless of the visible object of their chase …is God. It is the hunger of our souls. It is amazing how easily we are distracted from seeking Him and settling for a lesser god. What is bewitching you?