Saturday, October 07, 2017

Is Spiritual Maturity Possible without Emotional Health?

I'm presently reading a book entitled Emotionally Healthy Spirituality: It's Impossible to be Spiritually Mature while Remaining Emotionally Immature, written by Peter Scazzero.

Although the material in Scazzero's book isn't new to me, it has given greater focus, clarity, and language to a reality that I have embraced and taught for some years, which is that all of God's heart and intention is summed up in Jesus' words when he was asked about the commandments of God: “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31 NLT)

Scazzero uses his own experience as an emotionally broken pastor of a multi-ethnic congregation in New York City to illustrate the need for joining contemplation with emotional health in order to be spiritually mature. He equates contemplation of God with 'loving the Lord you God with all your heart...'; and he equates emotional health with 'loving your neighbor as you love yourself.' In other words, loving God and others is necessary for spiritual maturity, and we cannot genuinely love others without emotional health.

The following are some quotes from the book:

"Being productive and getting things done are high priorities in Western culture. Praying and enjoying God's presence for no other reason than to delight in him was a luxury, I was told, that we could take pleasure in once we got to heaven. For now, there was too much to be done. People were lost. The world was in deep trouble. And God had entrusted us with the good news of the gospel...

"Are these things wrong? No. But work for God that is not nourished by a deep interior life with God will eventually be contaminated by other things such as ego, power, needing approval of and from others, and buying into the wrong ideas of success...Our experiential sense of worth and validation gradually shifts from God's unconditional love for us in Christ to our works and performance...

"The greatest commandments, Jesus said, are that we love God with all our heart, mind, strength, and soul and that we love our neighbor as ourselves...Brother Lawrence called (contemplation) 'the pure loving gaze that finds God everywhere.'...We are not simply about experiencing a better quality of life through emotional health. Awareness of and responding to the love of God is at the heart of our lives...

"Emotional health, on the other hand, concerns itself primarily with loving others well. It connects us to our interior life, making possible the seeing and treating of each individual as worthy of respect, created in the image of God and not just an object to use. For this reason, self-awareness -- knowing what is going on inside of us -- is indispensable to emotional health and loving well. In fact, the extent to which we love and respect ourselves is the extent to which we will be able to love and respect others."

I highly recommend this book as foundational in making disciples (mature followers of Jesus).

Sunday, September 17, 2017

Prioritizing What Jesus Prioritizes Requires Letting Go, Self-denial

Following up on the two previous posts, What Does It Mean to be 'Blessed'? and Jesus' Priority, Inordinate Attachments, and Self-denial, I will share concluding thoughts here.

Why does God prioritize oneness/unity among His followers? Jesus tells us in John 17 and also in John 13:

John 17:20,21 "...that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me."
John 17:22,23 " that they may be one, as we are one. I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me."
John 13:34,35 "I give you a new commandment, that you love one another.  Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another."

Apparently in God's mind, the family likeness that is most attention-grabbing and most attractive to those looking on is our love and acceptance of one another. This does not mean that we agree about everything; in fact, there's plenty of room for disagreement because that isn't the main point! Even though I may think other things should be priority, God says that in His design of how things best work, this is what matters most. 

In conclusion, the following are two steps we can take to start prioritizing what Jesus says is most important. These are just the ground floor (contemplative) steps but are necessary in order to healthily move forward in the action to come afterwards:

First, study and meditate on and discuss this issue honestly with God. This requires time and an honest effort to put aside our dogmatic opinions concerning what is most important in the kingdom of God. Letting go can be scary for many of us who have been raised with the idea that God cares most about right beliefs (generally defined as my inherited list of 'correct doctrines') and therefore expects us to prioritize proving other family members wrong who have a different list of 'correct doctrines'. The way to dare to step out of the correct doctrine boat onto the water with Jesus is to begin to look at and agree with how utterly kind and big-hearted God is - so much so that we can be assured that He won't let us drown if we dare to trust in Him rather than trust in our beliefs about Him. This is a form of self-denial and of laying down my life for the sake of Jesus and what matters most to Him.

Second, take the first step to another level and begin contemplating this with someone else that you feel safe with (and who won't try to keep you in the 'boat'). Until you move out of your private deliberations with God into deliberations with others in the family of God, you won't be able to take the needed action steps towards prioritizing what He prioritizes.

These initial steps will lead to an enlarging of the heart towards God and towards our spiritual siblings. After this, who knows what will happen?? The Spirit of Jesus is very faithful to lead each of us according to our unique personality and situation. From personal experience, I highly recommend this adventure with Him!

Friday, September 01, 2017

Jesus' Priority, Inordinate Attachments, and Self Denial

Chapter 17 of the book of John is a wonderful peek into Jesus' conversation with His Father after speaking intimately to His followers in the final days of His earthly life. He converses with God about those He has just been speaking with and all those who would follow His ways in future generations. In this prayer He leaves no doubt about His priority and intense desire for unity and love among His followers.

Five times Jesus prays for oneness among His own: " that they may be one, as we are one"; "...that they may all be one"; "...may they also be one in us"; " that they may be one, as we are one"; "...that they may become completely one" (John 17:11, 21a, 21b, 22, 23 New Revised Standard Version).

I mentioned the following in my previous post (What Does It Mean to be Blessed?): " any good parent, He longs for His children to get along with one another, to be in unity, loving and caring for one another in visible and obvious ways that attract others." I've observed over the years that the thing that perhaps gives parents the greatest joy is to see their children genuinely caring for one another.

I confess that in earlier years of my walk with God I prioritized other things over family unity among God's children; but the longer I live and walk with Him, the more I desire to align my heart and mind with His priorities. One reason most of His followers (including myself) don't prioritize Jesus' desire for oneness is that it requires that we hold our favorite doctrines loosely, not finding our identity in them. In overemphasizing adherence to correct beliefs, we modern western Christians have unwittingly developed an inordinate attachment to belief systems rather than to the Person of Jesus. This is a great obstacle to oneness since there is wide difference of opinion within Christ's body about what the "correct doctrines" are. If adherence to a certain set of beliefs about God is the standard by which we can be united with others, then widespread unity among God's people will not be possible.

The experience of letting go of unhealthy attachments in order to more fully receive and give God's grace and love is part of what Jesus refers to when He talks about His disciples denying themselves and being willing to lose their life for His sake (Luke 9:23,24). It's a willingness to "die" to anything that provides me with a sense of deep security and rightness apart from Jesus. It's stepping outside the "correct doctrine boat" (or whatever "boat" one is in) to walk with Jesus on the water.

Next time I'll share thoughts about why Jesus wants our oneness and suggest a couple of ways we can prioritize unity with one another.

Sunday, August 13, 2017

What Does it Mean to 'Be Blessed'?

In Genesis 12 God calls Abram to leave his home and tells him, "I will make of you a great nation and will bless will be a blessing...all the families of the earth will be blessed because of you."

Though there are other meanings to what it is to be "blessed", I want to focus for a moment on something I heard years ago related to one meaning of what it is to be blessed. And that is that we are included in God's family. Applying that to this pronouncement to Abram, we could hear it more or less in this way: "I will make you and yours part of My family; in turn, you will be a visible family attracting all the other families of the earth to My global family..."

Generally our thinking as affluent American Christians is that to be blessed is to have good things happen to us or given to us. We often say things like, "God has been good to me; I've been blessed with everything working out well in this situation..." It's appropriate, of course, to be thankful for good things, but what about people who never have anything good happen to them? What about the followers of Jesus around the world who suffer without any of the simple things humans need to survive?

So I propose that we look at being blessed more in terms of being in relationship, both with the Father of all the families of the earth (see God's Dysfunctional Family) and with all His children. After many years of living and working among diverse peoples outside of the US along with years of studying and teaching scripture, I'm increasingly convinced that God's priority in His kingdom is relationships. He shows from start to finish in scripture that He wants to bless all people; in other words, He wants all people to be included in His family.

And like any good parent, He longs for His children to get along with one another, to be in unity, loving and caring for one another in visible and obvious ways that attract others.

(Next time I'll touch on Jesus' desire for oneness among His followers as seen in His prayer in
John 17).

Wednesday, June 14, 2017

God's Dysfunctional Family

Religion places emphasis on performance and looking right. The emphasis in recent decades on how a 'Christian family' should look has resulted in much false and unnecessary guilt over the condition of one's family. Often because of judgmentalism and criticism that comes if one is open and honest, there is a lot of guilt and cover up in the church.

Some time ago when I read the words of the apostle Paul to the Ephesians: "For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom every family in heaven and on earth derives its name..." (Eph. 3:14 NIV), I was struck with this picture of God being Father of all the families of the earth. 

The picture of the divine Parent with countless children struck me in a new way. Why should any parent ever feel guilty for their dysfunctional family when the perfect heavenly Parent has nothing but dysfunctional children?! 

(This doesn't excuse evil treatment of children; I'm referring to the average parent who does their best to love and care for their children. Nor does this mean parents shouldn't seek to do whatever possible to bring healing and restoration, but laboring under false guilt hinders the healing process.)

So take heart! If you struggle with serious family issues and are tempted to feel guilty for having problems that religion and/or society says you shouldn't have, look to the Father of all and be assured that He understands your pain and suffering because of His own children, all of whom are broken and lost in one way or another. 

Friday, May 05, 2017

The Dark Night: Idols Being Toppled, Desiring God for God Alone

Gerald May was a psychiatrist who worked with addicts; he wrote several books, two of which I have read and reread because of their impact on me. Although he was a brilliant doctor, his writings are almost devotional and inspiring. He had an unusual ability to blend his understanding of psychology and theology. The following quote is from his wonderful book, The Dark Night of the Soul. It is one of the finest books I've read on this topic.

Although this book is not directed at substance abusers, he makes reference to them at times because of his work with them and his understanding that all humans are addicted. In referring to recovering addicts who cling to God simply because of the "desperate need to stay alive," May says the following,

"Many people continue in recovery this way for years - perhaps for their whole lives. Others, however, experience something different at a certain point along the way. After having worked the program for a while, a person may begin to notice that what began as a desperate need for God is changing into a loving desire for God. It is as if God were saying, 'Of course I want to be your saving Higher Power. But I also want to be so much more to you. I want to be your deepest love.' And somehow, something in the person's heart has become free enough to say yes to this barely heard invitation...

"Before, one needed God as the agent of recovery, the divine dispenser of grace. Now this need is developing into a love for God as God's self. This is a beautiful happening, but it brings with it a new relinquishment that can feel deeply threatening. Along with the sweetness of emerging love comes a certain shakiness about recovery. Recovery is no longer the single most important thing in life. Something else has taken place, and the fear of relapse grows.

"Later, one may come to realize that recovery, as the most important thing in life, had become an idol. God was a means to an end: recovery. Then in darkness, after the heart said yes and love grew, the idol of recovery teetered and fell. The powers had shifted. Recovery is now no longer the end, but only a means in the service of love.

"All the signs of the night are there in this transition. What had worked before no longer does, and one's previous energetic dedication is waning. More disturbing still, the deep care, the desperate need for recovery seems undermined. And if given the unusual insight and courage to admit it, one would have to say the deepest desire is no longer for recovery but for God alone."

Saturday, March 04, 2017

Lent - a Time for Recalibrating

Recently I asked myself this question: "Is my interest in continuing to learn and to grow in knowledge so that I can understand God better and thereby love Him and others more, or is it so that I can prove that I'm 'right' and win arguments? Is it so that I can give life to others or so that I can feel superior to others?"

I believe this was the Spirit's way of continuing to re-calibrate my journey in Him to keep me focused on loving Him with all my heart, mind, soul and strength and loving my neighbor as myself.

In the story of the garden of Eden, we see the two ways of knowing that humans are offered: knowing independently of God (the tree of knowledge of good and evil) and knowing in God (the tree of life). We humans have a wonderful capacity for knowing and learning, making great and wonderful discoveries because of being made in the image of our Creator; but when we exercise this capability apart from relationship with Him, even the discoveries we make that are beneficial to others have a dark underbelly to them and side effects that are worse than the knowledge/discovery.

The follower of Jesus is not immune to this reality. We never reach a place where trust and dependence on God is not necessary in our growth in understanding (whether that be theological understanding or any other discoveries). As we pursue knowledge that leads to creativity, we must do so in Him and dependent on Him; in other words, we must seek knowledge while in vital relationship with Him and with the awareness that the purpose of learning is to better understand God and others and to be conformed to His likeness so that the way we live our life is like Jesus lived His: in loving communion with God and loving actions towards all humans. A common deadly side effect to gaining better understanding of God and His ways is pride and a sense of being superior to others.

When we grow in knowledge while depending on God, the benefits of that knowledge will have no deadly side effects. 

If increased understanding is not producing increasing tenderness towards God and others, then it may be time to step back and allow His Spirit to examine us. Lent can be a good time for this. For each person this will look different, but a periodic time of healthy self-reflection (not a morbid unhealthy religious self-hatred type of exercise) is helpful in re-calibrating the direction in which we are headed. Our natural propensity towards taking what we are learning and using it in unloving, self-serving ways requires that we allow God's Spirit to call us apart (for a moment, a day, a week...) for renewal and a fresh reminder of what life is really about: receiving His freely-given love in order to freely love Him and others with the same love and therein bring life and peace into our small corner of the world.

Saturday, February 04, 2017

On Judging Others (part 4)

Below are the final points by Frederick Faber on the topic of judging others (points 7 & 8), following the summaries of the first 6 points. If you want to see the first 6 points fleshed out, you can find them here, and here, and here.

1.  It is a universal law that when we judge others, whether individuals or multitudes, we come to erroneous conclusions from the mere fact that we naturally judge over-harshly.

2.  Severity is one of the natural accompaniments of a young and immature state of grace. 

3.  When we see evil in others, we never can see the amount of inward resistance which the person has given to the evil, or the amount of humiliation and sorrow which they may have for their own failures and defects. 

4. The evil in our fellows strikes us with bold startling proportions, whereas goodness is more quiet and hidden, and often passes unobserved...

5. Satan is active, but grace is more active.

6. We see the evil in our fellows much sooner than the good. 

7. In our opinions of others we fail to distinguish between the sinfulness of sin and the deformity which has resulted from sin...We judge people, not so much by how they stand to God as by the inconvenient or disagreeable way in which they may stand to us...This is why an impartial God must condemn us often for the condemnation we give to others, because our judgments do not proceed from the love of God but from personal taste.

8. Nothing is more amazing than the patient, gentle charity that God displays to His creatures. There is something adorable in the compassion of God for mankind which looks like a voluntary blindness to their evil...The Bible is full of instances of this in His dealings with both nations and individuals, where His justice seems to move with tortoise pace, constantly pursuing but seemingly on purpose to be a long while catching up with the one to be punished, as if to give him every allowance possible to infinite mercy...the more we are with God and the more deeply we drink of the interior sweetness of His life, the more we shall catch something of His gentleness and compassion of spirit which will destroy our proclivity for harsh judgments and take away the keenness by which we discover evil in others.  

This writing on judging others by Faber ends with these observations:
"Even where judgments are legitimate and unavoidable, we may lay it down as a rule that the severity of our judgments is an infallible index to the lowness of our spiritual state. Green sanctity is ever swift and sharp and thinks God is too lenient, and often acts as if His judgment throne wanted an occupant. Mature, mellow sanctity is always slow, gentle and compassionate, making allowances for others which it never feels justified in making for itself..."


Sunday, January 29, 2017

On Judging Others (part 3)

This is the continuation of the series of quotes about judging others from Frederick Faber. The first 2 summarized points below are from part 1 and points 3 and 4 are from part 2:

1.  It is a universal law that when we judge others, whether individuals or multitudes, we come to erroneous conclusions from the mere fact that we naturally judge over-harshly.

2.  Severity is one of the natural accompaniments of a young and immature state of grace. 

3.  When we see evil in others, we never can see the amount of inward resistance which the person has given to the evil, or the amount of humiliation and sorrow which they may have for their own failures and defects. 

4. The evil in our fellows strikes us with bold startling proportions, whereas goodness is more quiet and hidden, and often passes unobserved...

5. Satan is active, but grace is more active. ...we fail to see that God is ten thousand times more active than Satan, though He seems to be less so...we do not know how to follow God in the deep seclusion of His work, for He works opposite to the methods of satan, and is constantly accomplishing marvelous things in human souls which we do not suspect...If we actually saw what God is doing in the very people we often criticize and condemn, we could be utterly astonished at the immensity, the vigor, and the versatility of the magnificent spiritual work which God is doing all around us in the world.

6. We see the evil in our fellows much sooner than the good. On a very short acquaintance with persons we discover their defects, and the things in them which are disagreeable to us, and soon find the weak point in them where they are most likely to fail; but their better nature is more slowly unfolding...This invisible character of goodness is not so obtrusive as defects because there is an instinctive bashfulness in goodness...oftentimes in little things, in the ordinary wear and tear of life, there will come forth in unostentatious ways traits of humility and self-depreciation, or patience and sweetness and unselfishness beyond what we expect of them.

Saturday, January 21, 2017

On Judging Others (part 2)

The following are more insights from Frederick Faber as found in Paul Billheimer's book, Love Covers, on the topic of judging others. The first two points summarized from last week's post are:

1.  It is a universal law that when we judge others, whether individuals or multitudes, we come to erroneous conclusions from the mere fact that we naturally judge over-harshly.

2.  Severity is one of the natural accompaniments of a young and immature state of grace. 

3.  When we see evil in others, we never can see the amount of inward resistance which the person has given to the evil, or the amount of humiliation and sorrow which they may have for their own failures and defects. The violence of temptation is always invisible, and its peculiar oppressiveness, owing to heredity, or education, or previous modes of living, can never be estimated by a fellow creature. There are depths of invincible ignorance...which every human character has in some one or more direction, and it is almost universally true that even among good religious people there is one point of moral excellence upon which they seem stupid...In judging others we fail to see how many odd crossings there are in people's minds, which tell upon their motives and hamper the free action of their moral sense. Much sin lies at the door of a warped mind, but how much guilt there is in the sin can be known to God alone. The heart is the jewel that He covets for His crown, and if the habitual attitude of the heart is better than any particular action which we see, God be praised for it.

4. The evil in our fellows strikes us with bold startling proportions, whereas goodness is more quiet and hidden, and often passes unobserved...It must be observed that evil, of its own nature, is more visible than goodness...The evil we see, or think we see, in others is easily recognized, but often the people we are judging are more keenly alive to their defects than we imagine and may grieve over them in secret...God has so contrived the moral world that the greater part of goodness must of necessity be hidden like Himself...