5 Practices – To Put a Spring in Your Step

Our life doesn’t have to be going great to experience joy.  Even when things are going well, it is easy to take it all for granted.  Whenever I am able to live with an awareness of God’s presence, even when things are bad, a can sense this joy.  Most often, it is our response to life and our outlook on our pain that determines our attitude. Here are five practices that will improve your response to problems, and put a spring in your step.

  1. Be Grateful

If you find that gratitude is a challenge at times, and let’s face it, faking it doesn’t really count,  try saying this old prayer.

Thou hast given so much to me,
Give one thing more – a grateful heart,
Not thankful when it pleases me,
As if Thy blessings had spare days;
But such a heart, whose pulse may be Thy praise.

George Herbert

  1. Be Optimistic

A positive outlook, it is fair to say, is a much more helpful way to live.  For instance, studies show that optimists are generally healthier.  However,  being a realist, my heart needs reassurances; so I  remind myself that because God is good, and because His love for me is great, all will be well.  This reminder truly helps me to stay positive.

  1. Count Your Blessings

My mind goes back to an old hymn we used to sing, “Count your blessings name them one by one, and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” Memory is a powerful ally when we are tempted to despair.  We could learn this practice by doing what my great grandmother did in her rocking chair each night:

“What are you doing?”, my Mom would ask her.
“I’m collecting my thoughts,” she would say.

Saint Ignatius spiritual practice of reviewing the day, is a way we recall the good of our days, and place value on the blessing of being alive.

  1. Use Your Gifts

A man’s gift makes room for him and brings him before the great. Prov. 18:16 

When we practice the things we are most naturally good at and enjoy doing, we will feel so much better about ourselves, than when we try to force ourselves to fit into someone else’s mold.   When family and friends are gathered in our home, I’m in my element when I’m helping prep the meal, serve the coffee, or fix up a tasty dessert.  I don’t resent it, I enjoy it;  and of course my wife appreciates it too.  What is your gift? Please share it,  be blessed and be a blessing.

  1. Share With Others

It is truly more blessed to give than to receive.  There is great joy in living for the benefit of others.

History shows that people who put others first are the ones we remember and are inspired by.  Our chief example of this is Jesus of whom the Bible says,  “For the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.”  (Heb. 12:2)

We will experience some of this unspeakable joy while we lay down ourselves for one another.  This is not doormat theology, but rather it is a daily practice, refreshed and refilled by God’s love.

Staying Open

I want to stay open to the stirrings of God’s Spirit more often this year.  He is pursuing us daily but I so often miss those moments. This year, I want to be more tuned in.

With all that science, can you tell me how light enters the soul?” Henry David Thoreau.

Discovering God’s love is like finding the ivy-covered gate to a secret garden that has been closed for years and forgotten.   Once discovered, we have the choice to enter the garden and be changed, or remain outside with our longing and our safe life.   One of our human contradictions is that the thing we long for is often the very thing we work to keep out.   Like young lovers who play hide and seek with their affections, we are perhaps afraid of getting hurt by love.   We may simply fear the cost of true love, and the grace that is free but not cheap. The oddest part of this scenario is that I might be working hard at getting to know God while at the same time resisting Him.

“Divine intimacy can be powerfully appealing and yet frightening at the same time,” Mary Ann Schofield.

To move past my natural fear of change, is a choice I want to make more often this year.   That choice can mean leaving some of the familiar surroundings that feel safe, but may be blocking my growth. The self limiting perspectives and the unquestioned assumptions that I cling to,  are being tested.  The unbounded love of God cannot be controlled or tamed but continuously moves us to the boundaries. The Spirit draws me beyond the need for intellectual order into the cloud of unknowing, where love remains.  Sometimes I recoil, however, these thin, liminal places are God’s preferred points of contact with the soul.   Here we are transformed as our ego self is diminished and the fire within is able to be ignited afresh.

God is pursuing a relationship with us continuously, even as we resist Him.  How much more beautiful life will be, when we can stay open and connected to His reality.

“Contemplation is a long loving look at the real.”  – Walter Burghardt

 

Love That Won’t Tie You Up.

The wedding party of smartly dressed young men and colourful bridesmaids lined the front of the chapel as the bride glided slowly up the aisle to meet her husband-to-be.  At the right time, I began to recite,  “Dearly beloved we are gathered here today . . . . ” Within any wedding crowd there are a variety of people:  some  married, others not;  some fondly remembering their wedding day, while others have sadly moved on. Yet, each one knows that this day is good, and love is wonderful. The two become one and live happily every after.   In reality they spend their first few years figuring out which one they will become. One piece of advice I shared that day was to love in such as way as to gradually, learn to set each other free.   True love is the most liberating and beautifying energy in the world.   Love that liberates however, also calls for the highest degree of devotion, forsaking all others.

Love, it will not betray you or dismay you or enslave you, it will set your free.  Mumford and Sons

Jesus love for us, bound him to the suffering of the cross, but in freedom He lives today.  His love releases us from the inner prisons of the soul that keep us bound.   Inside of us are self-destructive addictions that take root and wind around the soul. These passions keep us tied to destructive responses to life, such as rage. We are usually able to stay composed but then out of the blue our impatience flares up with even the smallest slight. In rage we feel for a moment strangely in control but then we are left with an emptiness. The ego self is energized by a desire for self protection and relief from the pain of living.  Yet, living for the benefit of our ego self we start to view others as obstacles to our happiness.  We can try to apply ourselves to the commandment to love others as ourselves, but our good intentions fail us.  The pure love of God can free us from our blindness, but we must be willing to be accept a love that won’t cater to our self centred demands.

Much of human life can be understood as addiction to patterns of life that ease pain but are physically and spiritually debilitating. They give the appearance of help but conceal the price. – Wendy Farley, The Wounding and Healing of Desire.

Like a flower opening up to the sunshine, a soul that is daily lifted up toward the source of light,  Jesus,  is able to outgrow the weeds of sin. Be captivated by this one great desire and love will set you free.

Jesus, the very thought of Thee
With sweetness fills the breast!
Yet sweeter far Thy face to see
And in Thy presence rest.

On Following Your Heart

If you could have whatever you want, what would it be? Do you really know what you want? In my experience, my desires are all jumbled up. Sometimes, my wants are all about me. Then, it’s about money or affection. At another time, I’m benevolent and want others to be free and fulfilled. The longing for good is there but like Paul, “I don’t realize what I’m doing. I don’t do what I want to do. Instead, I do what I hate” (Romans 7:15)

This question reveals our inner longings. The inner desires of the heart can seem like a scary underworld that we feel ill equipped to explore. Yet, within this underworld of the soul, we find the great hidden treasure of our true self.

Our deepest inner longings seek something outside of us for fulfillment. They seek the divine source from which they come.

In Christian tradition, however, misplaced and disordered desires are also within us. Alongside inner longings like, love, beauty, joy, peace and justice are urges and habits that keep the good far from us. These passions, as they are historically called, are responses of the ego either to the pain of life or the longing to be whole. The tragic reality of the human state is that we often destroy the very things we love and we hinder ourselves from attaining the good we long for. There is a disorder within us that defies our put-together exteriors.

Our problem is not with desire itself. The problem is that desire, which has an infinite spiritual source, cannot be satisfied with the pleasures and possessions that we often seek. Neither, will this thirst be cured with the more hidden responses such as jealousy or revenge. The Christian message is not opposed to passion, in the sense we understand it today as desire for the good, but warns of passions in the sense of misplaced desire.

Once, I was at the gas station and my mind was on many things. Before I knew it I was filling my car with diesel, not noticing the yellow handle on the pump. Since a gas car can’t run on diesel, I barely made it home and had to drain the tank before I could drive it again. We defeat desire, when we try to fill our emotional and spiritual tanks or ease our inner thirsty by attaching ourselves to passions that are destructive to others and ourselves. We are made for so much more than that. We were created for intimacy with divinity and nothing less can quench our inner thirst.

“Love God and do whatever you please: for the soul trained in love to God will do nothing to offend the One who is Beloved.” St. Augustine.

Friendship, Servanthood and Love

Sometimes when I think of obedience, I’m reminded of those schools for training dogs. Their obedience is won with treats and repetition. Who hasn’t at sometime been told not to ask questions, but just do it? Maybe in the military such unquestioned obedience is a virtue, but in all other relationships, it leaves a person feeling alone, even unwanted. So when people talk about obedience to God, I naturally get a bit suspicious.

“Relationships first” is the way many cultures in our world get things done. Western businessmen are known to lose patience at the perceived time wasted in building rapport when travelling abroad. However, it is really mostly our industrial based European cultures that are more task oriented. I believe God is more relational than task oriented. In the stories of the Bible, God seems quite willing to put his plans on hold while working with a prophet like Jonah, or with his stubborn people on the way to the Promised Land.

A servant or employee is often expected to say, ‘Yes sir,’ whether he has an understanding of what the boss is doing or not. I imagine in some factories of the world, people have no clue what they are making or how it will be used.  Friends, on the other hand, talk it over and get on the same page.   When Jesus spoke about obedience and servanthood, it was not a militaristic or industrial age type of command. Rather, He spoke about friendship with God and love in the same sentence.

“You are my friends if you do what I command you. 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.” John 15:15

God has invited us into a relationship of understanding that moves us from slavery into a new kind of servanthood. When God was planning the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, he talked to Abraham, his friend, about it.

“Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” (Amos 3:7)

This invitation is given to us to enter into a friendship that will include our whole being; mind, will, emotions, body and soul. God speaks to the listening heart, through many avenues.  Our awareness of  His Spirit’s promptings will mean being more in tune with our emotions and longings.   In this way knowledge of God and awareness of our own feelings are interconnected.  Emotional intelligence enhances our spiritual awareness.

“With honest and open prayer, we come to recognize how our fear, anger, sadness, joy, or longing relate to the promptings of God’s Spirit and how the force of our emotions can be used to further God’s purpose in our own lives and the wider universe.” Kathleen Fischer

The Elusive Spirit

The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” John 3:8

Snow leopards are one of the world’s rarest, most elusive and little studied large animals. They are generally very shy and well camouflaged, and hardly ever seen. Most encounters involve villagers looking for firewood or herding animals. The first photograph of one in the wild was taken in 1970 by the legendary zoologist George Schaller. Its long tail gives it amazing balance as it scales mountains as high as 18,000 feet. Known to catch a falling rock with its paw, the snow leopard can sneak up on its prey and not to be heard.  It is so elusive the locals call him the Holy Spirit of the mountains.

Have you ever felt like God’s presence is as elusive as the snow leopard? He shows up, it seems, in his time and usually by surprise. Then, just as often it feels as if he has left you waiting for some sign or sense that he is near. Living in this linear time bound world, I can easily miss precious, life changing, “sightings” when God is breaking in. The feeling that life is somewhere up ahead and that I must strive for it, or that life is behind in some former lost and lamented time, can squeeze life now in God out. However, God is always in the Eternal Now, as Thomas Kelly describes it. Behind this busy active life of time and place, the Eternal Now of God is knocking, and He desires to enter our world through us and change time for eternity. This invasion of God’s presence can be upsetting to a life driven by the ticking of the clock of progress. Don’t we sometimes look upon those who are yielding to the Eternal Presence as odd and out of place? Yet, we intuitively know there is something entirely credible about their compliance to God.   Sighting are not as rare for those who wait on God, those who learn to live in both times zones simultaneously – time now and Eternal Now.   Yes, and that is the Christian calling and joy.

“The sooner we stop thinking we are the energetic operators of religion and discover that God is at work, as the aggressor, the invader, the initiator, so much the sooner do we discover that our task is to call men to be still and know, listen, hearken in quiet invitation to the subtle promptings of the Divine. “ (Thomas Kelly)

 

A Gentle Voice

They say most people would rather do the following than attend a family function with certain relatives:

  • Be poked in the eye with a sharp stick (16%)
  • Get a case of hemorrhoids (12%)
  • Swallow a live bug (12%)
  • Get audited by Revenue Canada (11%)
  • Clean the toilet (9%)

When it comes to conflict, silence or violence are too often the dead end streets we go down. There must be a better way. I usually prefer to avoid conflict in order to keep the peace. However, I’ve discovered that peace keeping doesn’t work when the situation needs to change. When a relationship is dying from lack of respect, or when someone is being hurt by a corrupt system, we must speak out, or we risk becoming an accomplice to another’s suffering. Proverbs affirms this by saying,

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. “ (Prov. 31:8)

The challenge for me is how to confront with love and gentleness. On the surface it seems naïve to think we can confront that way, however, the example of Jesus shows us it can be done. Matthew saw in Jesus, the fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy when he wrote,

“A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not quench, until he brings justice to victory.” (Matt. 12:20; Isaiah 42:3)

The apostle Paul similarly taught that,

“ . . . the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness.” (2 Tim. 2:24,25)

I believe that when we approach conflict from a heart of peace rather than a heart of war and when we speak out of a place of respect and non judgement, it’s easier to stay focused on the issues. When the accusations become personal and the emotions escalate, communication breaks down and no resolution is found.

I’ve discovered that whenever I doubt the motives of others and believe the best about myself, I contribute to the problem and often end up eating humble pie. However, if I will instead believe the best about others and doubt my own intentions, knowing how complicated the heart can be, I may find enough humility and peace of heart to get a conversation started. In conflict, communication is the goal. We are trying to add to the pool of meaning. It’s not about being right or looking good, it’s about understanding others and ourselves better.

“If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” Romans 12:18

Risk Valuing Others

The Most Important Thing In Life Is To Learn How To Give Out Love And To Let It Come In

“There can be no peacemaking or social work or anything else to improve our world unless we are convinced that the other is important.”  Jean Vanier.

One person who sees the value in another can alter that person’s life.  I would like to be that person to someone just as I have needed someone like that in my life.  The truth I sometimes face is that valuing others can feel risky.   How do I view other people with value and overcome the darker urge to one up them?  If I lift others up, does that mean I’m putting myself down? What if my service to others is really about needing to be a Savior to someone?

“How hard it is for people to live without someone to look down upon- really look down upon.  It is not just that they feel cheated out of someone to hate.  It is that they are compelled to look more closely into themselves and what they don’t like in themselves.”   Martin Luther King Jr.

The walls of our world are most often created by a fear that someone else’s success or prosperity is a threat to mine.   The competitive drive that motivates so much of modern society is based upon this self protective insecurity.    The divisions in our world between rich and poor, good and bad, powerful and powerless, result is broken relationship and distrust.  The end game becomes, get more power than the next guy.

Behind the falsehood, what we so often dread deep within, is the feeling that we are of no value or that we are not loved.

“When you look at all these kinds of fear, the common denominator is the fear of being pushed down or being seen as valueless or non existent. “ Jean Vanier

The antidote to fear is to grow in the understand and experience of the love of God.  Being secure in the knowledge of God as lover of my soul, overcomes the worry and strain of working at being worthy.   Then our living is free and our love is genuine.  As God fills our emptiness with his abundance of love and grace, we are able to risk loving and valuing others.

……..that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.  Eph. 3: 18,19

 

 

Jesus in Disguise

Being present with people in conversation and living in the moment, isn’t always something that comes natural, at least to me. Perhaps this woolgathering comes from insecurities or my short attention span. Being on the introverted side of the personality scale, I know I can be less interested in small talk and tune out unless the subject grabs me.

In an attempt to overcome inner obstacles to being present with others it helps me to remember Jesus words,

“For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” Matt. 18:20.

He is putting a value on human relationships in promising that this is a place where God shows up.

It is a worthy desire to seek after an encounter with God. Through the centuries people pursued these experiences through prayer and solitude and truly this is one of the most important spiritual paths. We discover the depth of God when we develop an inner stillness that allows his presence to be recognized and our earthly self to be quieted. However, bringing this sense of being present with God into relationships can be a challenge. We might even conclude that it’s easier to avoid relationships. Yet, God himself dwells in the perfect relationship of Father, Son and Spirit.

Being a pastor I am called upon to be with people in their difficult times, to listen and learn and see God as a present helper. However, today’s leaders are often conditioned to believe that it is the big events in front of the crowds that matter most. We might even begin to believe that one on one encounters aren’t that important in the work of God. If we think this way we will miss many opportunities to see God in the disguise of another human being. It seems from Jesus words that no encounter with another person is trivial to God.

When someone like mother Teresa says she saw Jesus in others she reminds me that God can be encountered in the ordinary interactions of life. She says,

“We try to pray through our work by doing it with Jesus, for Jesus, to Jesus. That helps us to put our whole heart and soul into doing it. The dying, the cripple, the mental, the unwanted, the unloved they are Jesus in disguise.”

With this open hearted approach, self is forgotten and God is discovered in even the uncomfortable conversations of our lives.

The Interrupted Life

It has been said, “Life is in the interruptions.” Christmas also reminds us that God is in the interruptions.  We spend so much of our lives on hold, it seems.   Now we are waiting for Christmas holidays to start and then we’ll wait for the next paycheck to pay for them.  We stand in line at the checkout; sit in traffic jams; wait at the doctor’s office.   We look forward to the birth of a child, long for a prayer to be answered and hope for a problem to be solved.   Can it be that these delays are opportunities for life too?  Can we find God in the middle of unfinished tasks and unfulfilled longings?  I think this is where we will most often find him, if we are looking.

The whole world is in a Grand Interruption.  The first Advent of Christ was the first phase of God’s great rescue mission.  We are in the in-between times while we wait for his return and our final adoption as sons and daughters of God.  According to scripture, creation is like an expectant mother,

  “ . . . we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.”  (Rom 8:22)

Creation has been subjected to futility by the will of God as a consequence of fall of humankind.   Yet creation hasn’t given up hope, but rather groans like a woman in labor longing for the birth of her child.  The sons whom creation is giving birth to are every believer who longs for Christ’s return.  Because we live in a fallen groaning world, we too groan with expectant longing for the good that God intends for mankind.   For the word of God says

And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good,g for those who are called according to his purpose.  (Rom 8: 28)

Most of us prefer things that are neat and tidy and with happy endings.  Christmas is about Jesus coming into a mixed up world and God dwelling among us.  If God can be born in an obscure and stinky stable, he is able to abide in our messes.   Do you ever feel like you have to get it together for God before you can let him into your life?  It’s as if he is standing at the door and knocking but we leave him there because we are so busy tidying up.  Let’s invite him into the middle of our muddle, because life is in the interruptions.