Self-Compassion Prayer

    Once again I found myself talking my friend off the proverbial ledge. We often remark that he needs to learn a self-calming strategy; he hasn’t. When you find yourself out of sorts with yourself and about to angrily snarl at yourself, take a pause and offer a prayer of grace to yourself.

    Put your hands on your heart and prayerfully say to yourself:
    May I know/experience God’s rest.
    May I know/experience God’s tenderness.
    May I know/experience God’s love.

And this is a prayer for more than just wishful thinking .You are asking that this be true for yourself. When you finish, consider pausing and pray this prayer of blessing on another: a brother, sister, parent, co-worker. Shower them with God’s love. It will do you both good.

God’s training is for now, not later

One of the joys of being a College faculty member is listen to the joys and aspirations of young people as they seek to discern their vocation. And one of the unintended consequences of all this future orientation is to miss the formation of the moment. At a recent conference on Oswald Chambers this reading (July 28) emphasizes that "His purpose is for this very minute, not for sometime in the future."

We tend to think that if Jesus Christ compels us to do something and we are obedient to Him, He will lead us to great success. We should never have the thought that our dreams of success are God’s purpose for us. In fact, His purpose may be exactly the opposite. We have the idea that God is leading us toward a particular end or a desired goal, but He is not. The question of whether or not we arrive at a particular goal is of little importance, and reaching it becomes merely an episode along the way. What we see as only the process of reaching a particular end, God sees as the goal itself.

What is my vision of God’s purpose for me? Whatever it may be, His purpose is for me to depend on Him and on His power now. If I can stay calm, faithful, and unconfused while in the middle of the turmoil of life, the goal of the purpose of God is being accomplished in me. God is not working toward a particular finish—His purpose is the process itself. What He desires for me is that I see “Him walking on the sea” with no shore, no success, nor goal in sight, but simply having the absolute certainty that everything is all right because I see “Him walking on the sea” (Mark 6:49). It is the process, not the outcome, that is glorifying to God.

God’s training is for now, not later. His purpose is for this very minute, not for sometime in the future.
— Oswald Chambers, My Utmost for His Highest, Reading for July 28

God’s training is for now, not later. His purpose is for this very minute, not for sometime in the future. We have nothing to do with what will follow our obedience, and we are wrong to concern ourselves with it. What people call preparation, God sees as the goal itself.

God’s purpose is to enable me to see that He can walk on the storms of my life right now. If we have a further goal in mind, we are not paying enough attention to the present time. However, if we realize that moment-by-moment obedience is the goal, then each moment as it comes is precious.

Chambers, Oswald. My utmost for His Highest: An updated edition in today's language. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Discovery House Publishers, 1992, reading for July 28.

Observe the upright; a future awaits those who seek peace.

Consider the blameless, observe the upright;
        a future awaits those who seek peace. Psalm 37:37

I came across this verse today as I was reading the Psalms. I take this as a reminder to look around and call to mind those people in your life who live upright and blameless lives (by grace). In our churches and communities we can find such people and make these people the object of our study. Be curious about how they grew in patience, how they came to care for the young and vulnerable, and how they always seem to have a gracious word that build one up.  If we place our focus on public figures, who lack these characteristics, we will miss the positive formation that can come from the observation of the saints amongst us.

Union with Christ

In preparing for a class session on prayer I reread this helpful piece by Hoekema. It provides a good reminder of the need for us to have a rich and full understanding of the spiritual benefits of Christ's work.

One of the ways in which the doctrine of union with Christ is helpful is in enabling us to preserve a proper balance between two major aspects of the work of Christ: what we might call the legal and the vital aspects. The Western branch of the Christian church, represented by such theologians as Tertullian and Anselm, tended to emphasize the "legal" side of Christ's work. The aspect of sin these theologians were inclined to stress was guilt, which Christ took away through his atonement, by which he made satisfaction for us and thus paid our debt; the outstanding soteriological blessing was seen as justification; and the most important day on the ecclesiastical calendar was thought to be Good Friday. The Eastern wing of the church, however, represented by such theologians as lrenaeus and Athanasius, was more inclined to stress the "vital" or "life-sharing" side of Christ's work. The aspect of sin these theologians tended to emphasize was pollution, which Christ took away by joining us to himself through .his incarnation; the outstanding soteriological blessing was seen as sanctification; and the most important  feast day for the church was Easter. For the Western church, the central boon of the Christian life was deemed to be forgiveness, whereas for the Eastern church it was everlasting life. The Western church tended to accent the Christ who is for us; Eastern church, on the other hand, was more inclined to celebrate Christ who is in us.

We must always keep these two aspects of Christ's work together: legal and the vital, Christ for us and Christ in us. Standing as we doing the Western tradition, we are probably inclined to overstress the legal aspect of our Savior's work and to understress the vital or life-sharing aspect. The doctrine of union with Christ can help us to keep these two facets proper balance. Christ came to earth not just to pay the price for our salvation, as one might pay an overdue bill, but also to bring us into and keep us always in living union with himself. Through union with Christ we receive every spiritual blessing. Christ not only died for us on Calvary’s cross many years ago; he also lives in our hearts, now and forever.

Anthony A. Hoekema, Saved by Grace (Grand Rapids, Mich.:. Eerdmans, 1989), 66-67

Does Meditation Mean Emptying One’s Mind?

I think it is helpful to see that meditation is a category, like sport. There are all kinds of sports—soccer, badminton, running, baseball—and there are all kinds of meditation. In this blog I focus on two types: mindfulness meditation, which helps one learn to quiet one’s mind and form a new relationship with one’s thoughts and biblical meditation, which enables one to ponder and savor Scripture. The forms of meditation I am interested in are not concerned with emptying one’s mind. 

One of the goals of meditation is to quiet one’s mind by reducing the amount of self-talk and running commentary that is going on. When we have quieted our minds it is not blank or empty but very full—full of an awareness of what is going on and full of what we are directing it to focus on. The mind is contented and “mind-ful” in the sense that it is not hungry for new stimulation. This is pictured in the Bible like this: “Surely I have composed and quieted my soul; /Like a weaned child rests against his mother, /My soul is like a weaned child within me” (Ps 131:2, NASB). The picture is of a young child who climbs into her mother’s lap just to cuddle and be loved and quieted. One outcome of meditation is quieting our minds so that, like this child, we can be present to God—present without the self-talk and running commentary and perpetual distractions pulling us away. So, not an empty mind, but a focused mind.

Thoughts direct our lives

Thoughts direct our lives. That is the message that comes from the early Christian spiritual writers. As they looked into their own hearts and listened to the stories of the men and women who came to them for spiritual guidance, they noticed the important role thoughts play in shaping our lives. We hold, in our thoughts, a way of seeing and "being in" the world. Converts to Christ discover new ways of thinking. Sometimes we are oppressed by our thoughts: patterns of perceiving, relating, and understanding that crowd out the presence of God's Spirit in our lives. And at other times our thoughts bring us comfort and enable us to make tough choices and live well. An important message of these early desert spiritual masters is that “you are not your thoughts.” We may have thoughts that are lustful or revengeful, but we can choose to step away from them. 

Paul highlights the fickle nature of these thoughts when he says “their conflicting thoughts will accuse or perhaps excuse them” (Rom 2:15, NRSV). These thoughts are not productive thinking—the thoughts of planning, solving a problem, or thinking hard about something—but the mental chatter of accusations, daydreams, nursing wounds, and thoughts of anger and revenge. The desert writers remind us that it is not only the content of these thoughts that is the problem, but the very presence of what they called logismoi. These are the automatic negative thoughts, the self-focused daydreams, and the fantasies. The desert elders saw these thoughts as having a sticky quality because, like velcro, they attach themselves to other thoughts and quickly form a train of thoughts. As Meg Funk reminds us “thoughts are like a comet that has a life of its own with a trail of little vapors in its tail”( Funk 2013, 3). None of these tempting thoughts are innocent, they remove us from the here and now—where God is at work—and contain lies about our true value and God’s love for us. We find God in reality—in the beauty of nature, in the gift of a friendship, in doing well the work that is before us, or in the hope of the resurrection in the midst of tragedy. We do not find God in the chatter of our heads. This ancient wisdom tells us to step back from the chatter and listen to the small still voice of God in His word and His world. It is only found in the present moment, so be mindful to this time. We should seek to have our minds carefully observe and engage in the situation at hand—living fully in the moment rather than being trapped in our “vain imaginations” (Rom 1:21, KJV).

The ancient writers saw these automatic thoughts as very appealing and generated by one’s mind more than perceived in the real world. One of the great human freedoms is the ability to direct the focus of our attention. If you are told, “pay attention to what you are doing,” “watch the road,” or “think about a white bear” we have a remarkable ability to direct our thinking in the short term. We find it easier to switch our focus than to maintain long-term attention. Because we are so good at switching our attention we can operate under the illusion that willpower is all we need to continuously direct our thinking. These ancient Christian psychologists remind us that trying (using will power alone) will never bring about the results that training our brain through spiritual practices will produce.

Our thoughts do matter, and over time we can learn to reshape the way we think and what we focus on. Our initial attempts at redirecting our thoughts may end so poorly that we may be tempted to give up. As difficult as this change may be, there is reason for optimism, for both the Bible and contemporary neuroscience tell us we can reshape the focus of our attention.

Funk, Mary Margaret. 2013. Tools Matter: Beginning the Spiritual Journey. Collegeville, Minn.: iturgical Press. 

Fear crowds out God

When I first began reading writers in the Christian spiritual tradition, I was surprised by the emphasis they placed on how practicing the spiritual disciplines could result in a deliverance from a bondage to fear. I was struck by these wise words by Marilynne Robinson, "first, contemporary America is full of fear. And second, fear is not a Christian habit of mind. As children we learn to say, 'Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me.' We learn that, after his resurrection, Jesus told his disciples, 'Lo, I am with you always, to the close of the age.' Christ is a gracious, abiding presence in all reality, and in him history will finally be resolved." Indeed, "fear is not a Christian habit of mind" and we fear ourselves from a bondage to fear through the gracious practices God has given us like constant prayer, meditation on Scripture, and worship.