Archive for the ‘Spiritual Disciplines’ Category

So I wrote the title of this post.  And then I logged out, because my granddaughter woke up from her nap.

And now it’s time for bed, and I’ve logged back in to stare at the blank page some more.  What is it that I want–or don’t want–to say?

Maybe it has to do with a growing feeling of ambivalence in me.   I’m not uncertain about what I believe, but I have lost the passionate desire to live it out.  Has turning 50 done this to me?  No, truth be told, it’s been coming on for quite awhile.  The intense morning devotional times, the pages of conversation with God in my journal…those were fading away a couple of years before Lucy was born.  Certainly I’m more tired now than I have ever been, with more aches and pains and no less responsibility to a variety of commitments.  But getting up early to be with the Lord is no longer a high priority, and it makes me sad.  Inviting people to church, even though I love my church, has no urgency.  And telling people about Jesus–never my strong suit to begin with–just doesn’t happen.

I’ve been a Christ-follower for 28 years.  What has happened to me?  It certainly isn’t that I’m acting in my own strength…more and more, I know that I can’t.  As the director of a faith-based theater company, I know the power of prayer, I delegate better than I used to, I praise God for the widening network of volunteers, resources and partnerships we have developed.  As a full-time grandma, I love conversations about God with Lucy…but when she evinces no great interest, I’m not really alarmed.

I forget to pray for my adult sons, who are not walking with the Lord.   I cry less.  I have lost much of my appetite for spiritual food.   I have shelves full of intriguing books which I have not read, as well as profound books which I should probably read again.  But I don’t.  What is wrong with me?  Spiritual apathy, perhaps a form of acedia, has set in.  I go through the motions–church, worship team, grace before meals (sometimes)…once in a while, when praying for a particular person or need, I feel a momentary connection.  But it is fleeting.  Every so often, a song will hit me just the right way and I open my heart (and usually bawl my eyes out)–but it is so seldom nowadays.

Is this what growing old in the Lord is supposed to be?  I sincerely doubt it.  I certainly hope not.  But I am at a loss as to what in the world to do about it.  Or rather–I can think of a number of things (they’re called spiritual disciplines and I’ve read a LOT about them), but I can’t muster up much enthusiasm for any of them.

Maybe my biggest problem is that I haven’t asked for prayer about this.  So, my little following of…20, is it?…this is my cry for help, as loud as I can yelp at the moment.  It’s not a last gasp.  I don’t think the Lord is finished with me yet.  But something’s gotta give…and I’m pretty sure it’s me.


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I’m reading Eugene Peterson’s Eat This Book, in preparation for WBCL’s Digging Deeper on MidMorning this coming Thursday, September 10th, at 9:05 am.  This is one of the more challenging small books I’ve read recently.  For instance, what to make of this statement?

It is the very nature of language to form rather than inform.  When language is personal, which it is at its best, it reveals: and revelation is always formative–we don’t know more, we become more.  Our best users of language, poets and lovers and children and saints, use words to make–make intimacies, make character, make beauty, make goodness, make truth.  (page 24)

I’ve certainly experienced enough of the worst of language…the dryness of a text book, reciting facts in a way no one could ever read for pleasure or interest;  the convoluted prose of an instruction manual for assembling a bookshelf which only frustrates and confuses.  But what does it mean that language at its best is “personal”?    The dictionary definitions helps a bit. Personal can mean  “pertaining to or coming from a (particular) person, a self-conscious being.”   Good communication has an element of the personal–or perhaps conversational?– about it.

So far, so good.  But how does language make beauty or goodness or truth?  Making is different from revealing, isn’t it?  When something is revealed to me, I recognize its truth or beauty, perhaps for the first time.  Do the words make it true or beautiful, or only reveal something inherent?  I believe God is the source of beauty and truth, and I think Peterson does, too.  My biggest problem with the early chapters of this book is that he makes statements which are deep with implications, and then he does nothing to unpack them with illustration.

The rich metaphors of a good poem cause us to see in a new way.  For instance,

Earth’s crammed with heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes –

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

–Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh, Book vii

This snippet of verse is a powerful picture of our God-saturated world, and the necessity of looking at creation with awareness of God’s presence.  The idea of being so oblivious we’d sit and pluck berries when we should be worshiping carries a sense of shame.  So few words, so much depth.  But does the poet create the beauty or the truth?  Or does she reveal it by her fresh metaphor and strong verbs (crammed, afire, pluck)? The comparison of Moses at the burning bush to simpletons feeding their faces with fruit carries conviction which cuts to the heart.  It reveals not only a truth of nature, but a truth about our own perceptions (or lack).

If this revelation creates a desire in us for change, if we are formed (or perhaps re-formed is more apt…formed anew) by it, then I suppose we can say that the poet “made” more goodness, character, beauty.

Of course Peterson’s contention is that the Bible is the all-important text for our spiritual formation. We are not to “use” Scripture for our own goals, plans, information or agenda. Rather, we are to ingest it so that it permeates us, becomes part of us, nurturing us as the best food does.

“Eating a book,” he writes, “takes it all in, assimilating it into the tissues of our lives  Readers become what they read.”   I do believe that “it is the very nature of” Scripture to form rather than inform. I’m just not convinced that the same is true of language in general.

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I’m not sure why my thoughts strayed to piano teaching the other morning, when I was praying. (Why do my thoughts ever stray at that time? A perennial question.)  I recalled my conversation with Angela about the “hard parts” needing more practice than the “easy parts.”

“Think about it, honey,” I said. “If some measures are really easy for you, and some give you lots of trouble, how does it help to just start at the beginning and play the piece straight through?  You’d always be playing the easy parts just as much as you do the hard ones.”

It strikes me that this must be true of practice in general, and therefore of practicing the spiritual disciplines, too.  I have the same challenge facing me which faces my piano students:  I have to identify the parts which give me the most problem, so that I can focus more energy on fixing those parts.

So–what are the hard things for me in the Christian walk?  Is it the “praying without ceasing” command?  The love of God with all that I am and have?  The love of others as myself?  Is it tithing or fasting or reading or meditating?  It’s a good solid question, which deserves pray and seeking an answer from God.  Then when the problem is identified, I can further pray about my plan for improving in that area.

Maybe I should start with keeping my thoughts from straying during prayer?

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Have you ever noticed that when you learn something new, suddenly you hear about it everywhere?  Or you get a different car, and now it seems that every other car on the road is the same make?  It’s not as if the word ‘acedia’ is coming up in conversations all over the place, but the concept certainly is.

In Sunday School our teacher was talking about “settling” for less in life, and why we don’t pursue spiritual things more aggressively.  Some people mentioned fear of failure or fear of rejection. Others said they don’t have time.  Some admitted that we do other things instead, because we’re seeking to fulfill an immediate need.  I suggested that actually we’re not fulfilling any real need, but trying to numb ourselves against our own dissatisfaction.

We live in a world of media, and I wonder how much of our time connected to a computer, an IPod, a DVD screen or a video game is meant to distract us from a whole list of “shoulds” or “what ifs” or “if onlys”?   Acedia is the demon of “I’ll think about that later”…”I’m too tired now”…”it doesn’t really matter anyway”…  A generation of procrastinating students don’t do any homework at all because “when am I ever going to use this information in the real world?”  They plug into ear-damaging music, send each other messages filled with wild fantasy, play endless rounds of Guitar Hero and Grand Theft Auto.  And of course this is so much more useful in the “real world”…

I’m not trying to sound like a last-generation fogey.  My generation turns on the TV, picks up the phone, eats another cookie, reads a magazine or a novel, checks e-mail again.  We’re all professional-level procrastinators, and I think it’s the spirit of the age.  Acedia isn’t just a personal demon any more.  It’s a prime tool of the prince of the power of the air(waves) which makes us feel mildly productive when we’re only getting better at avoiding what’s important.  Our instant access to world news increases our helpless despair…what can I do about war in Israel, or another shooting in a shopping mall, or the plummeting stock market?

What we don’t ask is, “What is my next-door neighbor’s greatest need?”  Heck, often we don’t even know her name.  What we don’t ask is, “What could I do for two hours this week to better my community?”  I’m preaching to myself here, folks, so if this doesn’t apply to you I’m envious.  It definitely applies to me.   And I really hope that these thoughts and ideas and images don’t go away any time soon. I hope they keep coming up.  Maybe then I’ll do something about them.

For one idea of a social issue to pursue, you could read Jon’s post for today, where he talks about his friend, Dian.

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The quote above is Dante again, to which Kathleen Norris responds: “The question presumes the freedom to choose; if I am truthful with myself, I recognize that in midlife, there are many days in which I indeed choose to sin and wither. Even if I can think of ways in which I might rouse myself from lethargy, I resist acting on them.” (Acedia & Me, page 201)

The picture of sinning as withering makes it clear that the choice of passivity, non-caring, is a self-destructive one. Isn’t it ironic that we sometimes get to this place of lead-limbed inaction through a misguided sense of ‘taking care of myself for a change’?

Perhaps I become weary with doing good—and as Ruth pointed out in a comment recently, it may be that I was doing too much, or taking on burdens not rightly mine. In any event, I am not seeking God’s face and asking for my proper work (Ephesians 2:10). It may begin to feel as if God is requiring too much of me. So I deaden myself to agape and replace it with a languid narcissism, acedia. I reject discipline as being tedious or repetitive. I embrace the new, the sensational.

But though I may think I’m seeking an exciting life, I’m really only looking for new ways to be passively entertained. My senses become dulled to what is productive, life-affirming and God-honoring. In any “activity” I should ask: who am I serving with this? If the answer is too often “me” then acedia rules our hearts.

Now listen: we’re not talking about the healthy care for one’s physical, mental and emotional health. And an occasional self-indulgence as a “treat” is a vastly different thing from wallowing in amusement—a word which literally means to not think. But like the naughty boys in Pinocchio who are enslaved because of a surfeit of sweets, sin “so easily entangles” us…once we awaken to truth, it can seem like a hole too deep to climb out of.

I wonder if perhaps acedia is sometimes a defense mechanism we use when we think we’re too far gone. We choose to deceive ourselves into thinking that “it doesn’t matter” what we do or don’t do. The demon’s lies seem plausible at times when we feel that either God doesn’t care what we do, or we can never live a life that pleases Him enough, so why try? As Norris says, “When we are convinced that we are beyond the reach of grace, acedia has done its work.”

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I think my previous post may have been unclear.  I was following my own train of thought about anger and acedia, based on just a few sentences in Norris’ book.  She takes a passage from Dante’s inferno, describing the fourth circle of hell, where “the angry are denied the mercy of forgetting” and stand naked in the mire striking at one another. Nearby, sunk in the bog and barely visible are the slothful who ignored beauty while they were alive.  “Inside us, we bore acedia’s dismal smoke…”

The juxtaposition of anger and acedia strikes Norris as meaningful, and so she explores it. “When unexpressed anger builds up inside, people perform even legitimate duties carelessly and resentfully, often focusing on others as the source of their troubles.”  Notice that Norris doesn’t specify that the anger is caused by someone else, or that one’s resentment is expressed necessarily against the person with whom you are angry.  I imagine this could as easily be a case of “kicking the dog”–taking out one’s frustration on an innocent third party.  The passage isn’t definitively about one or the other…her point is only that acedia is sometimes linked to anger.

It seems to me that the morose mood of acedia is more likely to be the cause of unjust anger than vice versa.  Perhaps it is a vicious cycle, where the numbness of uncaring provokes an irrational anger which results in more careless action or inaction…And this passage in her book is by no means implying that ALL anger is caring too much about the wrong things.  I think I may have made Dante seem to say that, and I apologize for the confusion.

On the other hand, “be angry and don’t sin” is a useful commandment here…even righteous anger can lead to careless words and acts, or a stewing silence in which the offense grows like cancer until it’s unrecognizable. When I choose to let the sun set on my unresolved anger, am I not choosing to embrace acedia?

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acedia-and-me3“Dante ties anger, which entails caring too much about the wrong things, to acedia, which is caring too little about the right ones.” Acedia and Me, page 202

This sentence from Kathleen Norris’ book made me pause and reflect: Does anger really mean that I care overmuch for unimportant things? Is my interrupted quiet time more important than my son’s need to talk? Is that broken cup worth spewing out words that I can’t take back? The questions may be rhetorical, but they can still sting.

Norris suggests that when we are angry–especially when the anger isn’t verbalized–it comes out in action: a duty is done with resentment, carelessly. And so acedia, non-care, rears its head.

When I sweep away my concern for the right things, the best things, and cease to focus my heart, mind and actions on them, that vacuum is easily filled with more trivial desires. My thwarted will, in the midst of an otherwise empty room, seems hugely important. Any real or imagined slight by my family festers there; perhaps the laundry piles up or a requested item on the grocery list is ‘forgotten’…

Jonah couldn’t bring himself to care about the Ninevites, even after he had preached repentance to them. His resentment of God’s mercy emerged when he became unreasonably angry over the withered gourd whose shade he had enjoyed. His energies were turned inward to his own gratification, and he resented what spoiled his comfort.

What Jonah needed to realize was that God was NOT asking him to minister out of his own superior strength and holiness. Norris points out in an earlier chapter that “we engender compassion not through our strengths but through our common weaknesses.” Jonah was supposed to offer the same mercy that he and all Israel had received.

Prayer (no surprise) is the antidote here. My devotional last week gave me a good quotation to round out this relating of anger and acedia:

“I can no longer condemn or hate a brother for whom I pray, no matter how much trouble he causes me…There is no dislike, no personal tension, no estrangement that cannot be overcome by intercession as far as our side of it is concerned…To make intercession means to grant our brother the same right that we have received, namely, to stand before Christ and share in His mercy”  (from Life Together by Dietrich Bonhoeffer).

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I would love to know whether anyone who reads this has heard of this word before…especially if you have not read the book by Kathleen Norris which includes acedia in the title.  Having read all her previous prose works, I happened upon Acedia & Me:  A marriage, monks and a writer’s life on the new book shelf of our branch library and took it home on the strength of the author’s name.  I didn’t really ask myself what the title was (or how to pronounce it) until a week or two later when I picked it up to begin reading. acedia-and-me

Norris’ books are all at least partially memoir, and this one is no different, focusing on her marriage to poet David Dwyer, who died in 2003. The author has been for many years an oblate of the Benedictine order, although she claims Presbyterian as her official denomination. The seeming contradiction in that will require the curious to read The Cloister Walk, an earlier book, because it would be too cumbersome to explain here.

Her reading of the early Church fathers led, many years ago now, to a desert monk named Evagrius (4th C.), whose writings introduced her to the concept of acedia…a slippery word which she spends the entire book defining.   Here’s a first stab at it from page 3:

At its Greek root, the word acedia means the absence of care.  The person afflicted refuses to care or is incapable of doing so.  When life becomes too challenging and engagement with others too demanding, acedia offers a kind of spiritual morphine:  you know the pain is there, yet can’t rouse yourself to give a damn.

Norris is very careful to distinguish the spiritual problem of acedia from the physiological and/or psychological one of depression.  A paraphrase of Thomas Aquinas from page 24 says:

For despair, participation in the divine nature through grace is perceived as appealing, but impossible; for acedia, the prospect is possible, but unappealing.

In case you’re still with me, and still curious, acedia is pronounced uh-SEE-dee-uh, and it is variously defined by sloth, apathy and indifference, especially to spiritual things.  Before there were seven deadly sins, the early writers identified “eight bad thoughts”–the motivating cause behind the sinful effect, I suppose.  What does this have to do with us, you ask?  Well…

The torpor of acedia can be felt every time you sit down to read your Bible but remember something else that you “need” to do first…

Every time you question whether there’s any point in praying for so-and-so any longer…

Every time you wonder if God is really interested in having a relationship with you and instead of asking Him you turn on the TV or pick up a magazine (because perhaps the answer would be painful or require action).

And if you can’t relate to any of those scenarios, brother or sister in Christ, then you have much indeed for which to be thankful.

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Some of us just want to read the directions ourselves. It’s the way we’re wired.

We speak with clenched teeth to the well-meaning:
“Don’t read me the the package insert, and please don’t show me how to do it …just (grunt, sound of ripping) give me the paper and let me read it myself.”  Sigh of relief; panic subsides. I can do this. Leave me alone.

disciplines-coverBut once in a while, almost in spite of myself, a prayer/groan rises and the Spirit hears it.  So after months of floundering around trying to revamp my devotional time, I stumbled on a book that saved me: Disciplines for the Inner Life, a week by week compilation of thematic Scripture and excerpts from a vast range of Christian writers. Bob Benson, Sr. and his son, Michael W. Benson prepared this book for Thomas Nelson.  My edition, discovered in Hyde Brothers where I wasn’t looking for it, was published in 1989.  I’d never heard of it, and have no idea whether it’s still in print.

Another groan, occasional and desultory, goes something like this:  “Once upon a time, You gave me a verse for the year, a theme to focus on.  Of course I generally forgot about it before December, and I can’t say I’ve made a lot of progress in those areas…Maybe that’s why You stopped?  Or is it because I stopped asking?”

On the last morning of the old year, I picked up Disciplines and read the passage for the day.  It resonated.  I walked away.  And then, by God’s grace,  as I sat on New Year’s Day pondering the year ahead, that Word came back to me as if engraved in gold on marble.  It’s been some years since I was blinded by the obvious that way, assaulted by a passage which proclaims to me that this is my directive for this time.

I’m sure I’ll be writing about that passage at some point, as I live with it from day to day.  It won’t mean to you what it does to me, but that’s all right.  My thankful heart today sits satisfied because God still answers the prayers we hesitate, forget or are ashamed to pray.  Asking for direction is difficult for some of us.  But not paying attention when directions are given is hazardous in a life which is already hard enough.

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My body got a shock last week, and I acquired a new humility along with a few more aches and pains.  But the ultimate result will be strength, endurance and steady progress.  Thanks to new technology, I can’t fool myself any more into thinking that I’m working as hard as I can.

CurvesSmart is a new computerized tracking system at the facility where I work out.  It gives continous instant feedback while you’re on the machines, telling you whether your range of motion is correct, and how much energy you’re putting out.  Since I’d already been working out here three times a week for nine months, I really didn’t think I’d feel much difference when I signed up for the new program.  I was seriously mistaken.  My heart rate jumped, my anti-perspirant disappointed me, and I went home feeling chastened instead of smug.  Wow.  Now that was a workout.

After a week and a half, each day looking at the online piecharts and bar graphs which show me my last ten workouts, I’m seeing progress.  My muscles are working harder, more consistently.  I’m burning more calories.  I expect to see a difference in the inches and pounds I lose, too. (I do have measurable goals.) But building my strength and stamina is my primary goal.  If i didn’t have this electronic coach–or is it more like a conscience?–with me every time I work out, I’d still be lying to myself, convinced that I was excercising at my full capacity.

It didn’t take more than a few days before it occurred to me:  I wish there were something comparable for my spiritual life.  But maybe there is, and I just haven’t wanted to admit it.  I likened the success tracker at Curves to an electronic conscience…but I have a built-in conscience in the Holy Spirit, and all I have to do is listen to it.

How often lately have I heard or read an exhortation to immerse myself in the Word?  Not a new thought–a really old one.  But how often lately have I put it into practice?  I’ve been avoiding a reading chart, because I know that it’s too easy for me to fall into a complacent “check list” mentality when I’m just reading through the Book on a schedule.  And choosing a passage to read at random doesn’t appeal to me, so…I’ve been rationalizing my reasons for reading spiritual books rather than THE Book.

I don’t think the Holy Spirit is going to give me a pie chart print-out of my spiritual progress (“you’ve increased your meditation intensity by 14% this week, but prayer is down 3% from yesterday…”).  To quantify would be to miss the point, anyway.  Spiritual disciplines are only a means to the end of Christlikeness, and I’m not going to get those test results until I see Him face-to-face.  Meanwhile, I keep my eyes on Him as my goal, and let Him do the measuring.  If I pay attention to my “personal coach” I won’t keep fooling myself.  Humility is a very good thing.

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