Life on the Fast Track: Spiritually Thriving in High Stress Environments

Part of both Lenten Reflections series and ongoing series Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

Contrary to popular belief, the drug of choice in Hollywood (the business world, higher education, and the church) is not cocaine.  It’s adrenaline.

by Gary David Stratton

Stress: The confusion created when one’s mind overrides the body’s basic desire to choke the living daylights out of some jerk who desperately deserves it.

The closer and closer we get to allowing our work to consume us, the faster and faster we move.

A pang of conscience shudders through my body as I drop the helpless mouse into the terrarium with our two juvenile ball pythons. I know snakes need to eat. But this a really rotten deal for the mouse.

My pre-teen sons have no such qualms. They want front-row seats to this Nature Channel style apocalypse. Watching Valentine and Sweetie (yes, the women of the family named them) hunt their elusive prey is precisely why they begged us to buy them in the first place.

But it’s not to be.

You’d think that a tiny mouse suddenly confronted with a pair of hungry snakes would do everything within its power to find a way out the cage. Not so. The moment the mouse sees the snake, he freezes.  Then he exhibits the last behavior you would ever expect—he starts washing himself!

Adrenaline Induced Psychosis

You read that right. Stuck between his adrenal system’s “fight” or “flight” responses, the mouse’s only solution is to do neither. Instead, he tries to comfort himself with soothing behaviors that feel normal–like giving yourself a good lick bath.

What’s worse (or more hilarious, depending upon your point of view), as the adrenaline builds in the mouse’s system he begins to cycle through his behavior in tighter intervals. As the snake moves closer and closer, the mouse begins washing himself faster and faster.

By the time the snake is inches away, the mouse is moving at such a frenetic pace he looks like a DVD on fast-forward. With a climactic SNAP of teeth and coils (and anguished squeaks), the “hunt” is over.

My boys cheer. My daughter wretches. I am silent… I have seen this behavior before. In fact, it is my behavior (and that of nearly every human being I have ever met) in High Stress Environments (HSE).

Creativity, Scholarship, Leadership and Adrenaline

 

Filmmakers, academics, and pastors face incredible pressures, but at least no one expects us to raise the dead. (Raising of Lazarus, Rembrandt, 1630)

Contrary to popular belief, the most commonly abused drug in high stress environments like Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Wall Street is not cocaine: it’s adrenaline.

Like the mouse in our snake terrarium, the closer we get to allowing our work to consume us, the faster and faster we move. As the adrenaline builds in our system we begin to comfort ourselves with the lifelong habits that feel normal and comforting to us. Normal, that is, until the SNAP of teeth and crush of coils engulfs our soul.

I suspect this is the hidden causation behind Hollywood’s abysmal record of drug overdoses, wild-child stars, alcoholism, failed relationship, sketchy ethics, and rampant narcissism. As psychologist Archibald D. Hart warns:

“People who are caught up in the pursuit of excellence are particularly vulnerable to stress-related disorders.” [1]

Scholarship and ministry can be just as bad. A recent study discovered that there is a direct relationship between a successful academic career and an unhappy family life. And, have you seen the numbers on divorce and unhappy children in pastoral families?  Ouch!

Ancient Solutions for a Modern Curse

Before we blame our modern condition (which certainly doesn’t make things any easier) let’s admit that our situation is not as unique as we would like to believe. Our high stress environment is extremely similar to the conditions Jesus of Nazareth learned how to handle over 2,000 years ago.

Like a modern filmmaker, Jesus faced enormous crowds demanding food and spectacle, in full view of national leadership calling for his head.

Like a contemporary academic, Jesus had to balance a rigorous teaching schedule, with scholarly production that was “peer-reviewed” daily by the greatest minds in higher education.

Like a post-modern pastor, Jesus woke long before first light and worked deep into hours of the night comforting, healing, and challenging his followers.

On at least one occasion he was so exhausted he actually fell asleep onboard a small boat in the middle of a thunderstorm!

Yup, Jesus knew a thing or two about stress.

Yet through it all, Jesus was somehow able to develop a remarkably resilient and even tranquil inner life.

While Jesus was often tired enough to sleep through a storm, he refused to allow time alone in prayer to be pushed from his schedule. (Rembrandt, Christ Sleeping in the Storm, 1633)

No matter how close the snake approached, Jesus managed to never succumb to adrenaline induced psychosis. He could not be tricked into performing miracles for his demanding followers. He could not be trapped into unwinnable arguments by his academic foes.

He could not be persuaded to stay when it was time for him to go. He could not be persuaded to go while he still had reason to stay. He could not be run out-of-town even when his life was threatened.

How did he accomplish this amazing feat? By exhibiting the exact opposite behavior of a mouse in a high stress environment. Luke records that “As the news about him spread all the more and greater and greater crowds came to hear him and be healed,” Jesus responded, not with faster and faster work habits, but by “often withdrawing to lonely places to pray” (Luke 5:15-16).

In fact, Luke records no less than ten specific occasions when Jesus pulled away from his demanding schedule to pray in solitude. Jesus did not give in to stress-related behavior because he could not be pushed off his discipline of spending quiet hours alone in prayer and meditation–even if he had to rise early or stay up late to do it.

Defeat Adrenaline and you Defeat the Snake

Jesus’ soul-nourishing practices helped him learn to consistently listen for the voice of his heavenly Father. Over time they acutely tuned his spiritual senses to discern the heavenly direction needed for each day. In solitude he learned the truth that, “Man does not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Luke 4:4). It was a lesson that saved him in his greatest hour of need.

Faced with a direct frontal assault from the greatest snake of all–Satan–Jesus was ready. The high stress environment of 40 days in the wilderness provided Satan with the perfect opportunity to consume Jesus.  His attack focused on the normal litany of adrenaline-induced coping mechanisms that had worked so effectively in other leaders.

Instead of comforting himself with food, fame, or power, Jesus’ soul-nourishing practices prepared him to face and defeat the greatest snake of all. (The Temptation on the Mount, Duccio, c. 1309)

But instead of comforting himself with food, fame, or power, the rigor of Jesus’ spiritual disciplines had prepared him to face and defeat his adversary. Jesus had spent half a lifetime preparing for this moment. In secret, he had acquired an arsenal of the right memorized Scripture to parry each ‘fiery dart’ of temptation, and the strength of character to wield that knowledge effectively.

With a climactic SNAP of teeth and coils, the hunt is over. Only this time the anguished squeaks come not from the prey, but from the snake.

Learning from the Master

Can ‘normal’ people learn to use this same strategy? Jesus certainly thought so. He wasn’t satisfied with his own ability to thrive in high stress environments. His mission was to teach his followers how to arrange their lives in a such a way that they too could learn to thrive.

But first he first had to teach them why we normally fail…

Next: Story Failure: Why We ‘Lose it’ in High Stress Environments

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Notes:

[1] Hart, Archibald D. 1999. The anxiety cure: you can find emotional tranquillity and wholeness. Nashville, TN: Word Pub.


Story Failure: Why We ‘Lose it’ in High Stress Environments, by Gary David Stratton, PhD

Part of both Lenten Reflections series and ongoing series Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

The stories, beliefs and strategies we develop to survive life’s most painful experiences inevitably fail us in high stress environments. The question is, why?

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

“People who are caught up in the pursuit of excellence are particularly vulnerable to stress-related disorders.” – Psychologist Archibald D. Hart

Tabloids love it when  a celebrity ‘lose it’ in public. Nothing sells quite as well a fallen “hero.’ And fortunately for the tabloids, losing it is a common occurrence. In recent years Quentin Tarantino, Billy Bob Thornton, Mel Gibson, Justin Bieber, Brittany Spears, Charlie Sheen, Tom Cruise, Kanye West have each provided ample fodder to guarantee tabloid clicks stay high.

Still, the truth is, sooner or later, everyone loses it. Only most of us don’t have paparazzi stalking us night and day to chronicle our worst moments. What if we did? High stress environments tend to bring out the worst in us, whether you’re a filmmakers, academic, businesswoman, salesman, or church leader. The question is why?

One explanation is the worldview concept of ‘story failure.’ A famous episode from the life of Jesus highlights just how easy it is for even the most earnest spiritual seeker to lose it and why it happens so easily.

 As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—really only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her. (Luke 10:38-42)

 

A Tale of Two Spiritualities

Mary seizes the opportunity to cherish Jesus’ every word, despite village and sibling pressure to the contrary. (Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Vermeer, 1655)

Having such a great “celebrity” under your roof is a great honor, but it also carries tremendous responsibility. It places the reputation of the entire village squarely on the shoulders of these two apparently unmarried women. The eyes of every (married) homemaker in town bears down on them to scrutinize the quality of the hospitality they provide.

It is a high stress environment to say the least. And as the “snake” of the dinner hour grew closer and closer, the difference between Mary and Martha’s responses to stress begin to emerge.

Mary immediately seizes the opportunity of having Jesus in her living room. In other settings she would have to defer to the cultural practice of “men only” preferred seating. But they’re in her house now. Mary pushes past the other guests, and plops herself down at her master’s feet. She wants to catch very word that falls from his lips.

Story Failure

Martha is no less committed to Jesus. However, her way of showing her commitment reveals the presence of a profound story failure functioning in her life. We don’t know why an unmarried Martha is running her own household while caring for her younger siblings,[1] but it is a very unusual living situation in the first century Jewish world. It almost certainly involves difficult and painful circumstances. The untimely death of her parents, her husband, and perhaps Mary’s husband as well are all likely explanations.[2] No matter how you cut it, it is not a happy story and it is a story that appears to have shaped her inner life.

We don’t know all the false beliefs and strategies Martha has (unconsciously) constructed on her painful life story, but a few are evident in her words and actions in this passage. (See, Casablanca and the Four Levels of Worldview.) First, we can infer from her accusation that Jesus doesn’t care that her value and belief system seems to include hidden creeds such as: “Nobody cares as much as I do,” or perhaps, “Trust no one but yourself.” Second, we can also infer from her attempt to order Jesus around that her personal rule of life is to always stay in control.  And of course, her society’s ‘scripts’ or memes for how to run a household reinforce some of her worldview. (See, Crash Goes the Worldview: Why Character Transformation Requires Changing Scripts.)

Martha loses it.(Christ in the House of Mary and Martha, Jacopo Robusti Tintoretto, 1580)

This underlying micro-worldview may have helped Martha successfully navigate life in the past, but it fails her altogether in the high stress environment of hosting Israel’s hottest celebrity rabbi. Empowered by her unwavering (and probably unconscious) belief in her life story, Martha starts comforting herself with her preferred coping mechanisms. She knows that the evening is descending into chaos and that no one else cares as much as she does. She knows what must be done and is more than ready to demand obedience to her will. If she could only get her lazy sister’s attention then she could give Mary a piece of her mind and set things right. But her enrapt sister simply won’t take her eyes off that darn rabbi.

Like an adrenaline-charged mouse, her self-comforting behaviors begin winding her soul tighter and tighter with each passing moment.  Luke tells us that all Martha accomplishes with her adrenaline rush is becoming worried and upset. However, those English words simply don’t carry enough weight to adequately describe her internal state. In the original Greek language, the word “worried” carries the idea of being pulled in many different directions at once. Like a loaf of bread thrown into a gaggle of geese, Martha’s soul careens from one concern to the next—the bread, the village busybody’s stare, the soup, her sister’s absence, the tableware, Jesus’ presence, the wine, the disciple’s appetites—until little pieces of her soul begin to tear away.

The word “upset” is even more instructive. It literally means that her “soul is in an uproar.” Anyone who has ever lived in a high stress environment knows exactly what that phrase describes.  It is that feeling of a having an angry toddler or an out of control teenager in your soul. And it is the very state of being that now has Martha squarely in its jaws.

Two Phases of Losing It

It is only a matter of time until they begin to manifest in her relationships. Her anger boils to overflowing until she simply has to act.

In short, Martha loses it …on JESUS!

Even the most fervent filmmaker, professor, or pastor can quickly lose their connection to God in a high stress environment.
Even the most fervent filmmaker, professor, or pastor can quickly lose their connection to God in a high stress environment.

First, she transfers her self-comforting lie—“no one cares as much as I do”—onto Jesus. She pushes her way to the front of the room, not to sit at Jesus feet, but to yell at him. “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself?”

Second, she employs her self-comforting take-charge life-strategy to the Lord of the universe. Instead of sitting at Jesus feet and listening to what he has to say, Martha is now the one issuing the orders. “Tell her to come help me!” she commands.

Like everyone who loses it, Martha’s “Adrenaline Induced Psychosis” has only served to bring out the worst in her. Like a high-tempered filmmaker who “loses it” on set, a passive-aggressive academic who sabotages a rival’s tenure review, or the ever-smiling pastor who browbeats his family at home, her soul-deadening strategy has failed the test of thriving in a high stress environment.

We all develop stories we tell ourselves about life, God and others to help us cope with the pain of living in a fallen world. These unconscious narratives form the foundation of a false worldview from which we develop specific strategies to comfort ourselves from past wounds and protect ourselves from further harm.

The bad news is that high stress environments bring these lies and strategies to the surface like silver in the crucible. Veins coursing with adrenaline, our fight or flight reflex kicks in and we compulsively turn to the comfort and/or protect ourself like that mouse in a snake cage.  The results are never good.

The good news is that this same crucible makes our largely unconscious worldview visible. Once we’re aware of the false story we are living we can begin address them in our day-to-day lives. Just listen to your own “self-talk” the next time you’re in a high stress environment and you will begin to piece together some of the false story you are living. (More on this in future posts.)

A Prescription for Adrenaline Induced Psychosis

The better news it that it is possible to follow Jesus into a way of life that exposes these lies and strategies before they destroy us. We can develop a personalized plan of spiritual disciplines to help identify, replace the specific lies with truth, and our unique self-defeating strategies with new life-giving ones. (More on this later as well.)

Through personalized soul-nourishing spiritual practices, we can learn to live a better story.

Through personalized soul-nourishing spiritual practices, we can learn to live a better story. Such practices renew our minds, transform our hearts, and better align our worldview with God’s great story of love and redemption.

Like Jesus, we can even arm ourselves with an arsenal of specific Scriptural truths and character-strengthening practices that prepare us to parry the fiery darts of the evil one, and overcome the specific temptations where we are most vulnerable.

Some of the most foundational truths of the worldview shift  everyone requires to thrive spiritually in a high stress environment are found in Jesus’ response to Mary’s “losing it’ episode. One one level they are specific to Martha’s particular lies and strategies. On another level, they apply to all of us.

The first truth is that God is not angry at us when we ‘lose it.” Instead, he is full of compassion. He begins his response with the double use of her name—“Martha, Martha”—a cultural idiom for endearment. It is certainly not the reaction Martha anticipated.  In fact, his gentle touch completely disarms her. Suddenly becoming self-aware of the scene she is causing in front of the very people she is trying to impress, (trust me, I’ve been there), her indignation drains from her face like a deflated balloon.

For the first time Martha looks into Jesus’ eyes. Instead of finding the anger/compliance response her take-charge strategy has produced in the past, she finds something altogether different. Jesus meets her bullying with unadulterated compassion.

He has been ready for this moment. He knows her story better then she does.  With a knowing smile, Jesus shakes his head at his zealous follower and replies:

“You are worried and upset about so many things. But only one thing is necessary. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken away from her.”

This is the second truth Jesus wants Martha (and us) to grasp–no one can take away your connection to God, but you. Like Curly’s advise to Billy Crystal in City Slickers, only one thing is really necessary. Do whatever it takes to stay connected to Jesus—those practices that help you live your life “sitting at his feet and listening to what he says.”—and everything else will take care of itself.

Double-Knowledge. The Two Steps Forward

This means than learning to thrive in high stress environments involves at least two different processes.

First, we need to discover which spiritual disciplines best help us stay connected to God in the midst of the battle. This is a very personalized process involving a great deal of trial and error (and, yes, failure.)  We’ll come back to this theme later.

Second, we need to go on the journey of discovering WHY we keep blowing up and self-sabotaging.  Spiritual directors through the centuries have discerned what they came to call the principle of double-knowledge: We can only know God as well as we know ourselves, but we can only know ourselves as well as we know God. I know that sounds like a Catch-22. But believe me, it’s not. Like the right and the left pedals of a bicycle we need to keep pumping both sides of this process to get anywhere.   Only as we get to know God and his love will will begin to understand our own story better. And only as we come to know our own story better, will we become more open to the love of God.

Next Week:
Casablanca and the Transforming Love of God
See Also
Fight Club: Why Our Unreliable Narrator is Always Getting Us Into Trouble
 The Volcano in Your Backyard: The Micro-Worldview of a Honeymoon from Hell

 


[1] Martha is always mentioned first, so she is most likely the older of the two. It was their younger brother Lazarus who Jesus raised from the dead (John 11).

[2] It is also possible that Martha and Mary’s singleness is deliberate. Scholars note that a Jewish apocalyptic sect known as the Essenes (who may have helped train John the Baptist) had a strong presence in Bethany and encouraged celibacy. Mary, Martha, and Lazarus could have been older members of this community rather than younger widows and/or orphans. Still, if their singleness is intentional, that makes it highly unusual and stressful in its own way as well.

 

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Emmy Magazine’s Interview with Kurt Schemper, Korey Scott Pollard, and Gary David Stratton

SERIES INTRO: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

“The entertainment industry is no different than any other place with lonely people searching for gladness.”  -Emmy Award-winning producer, Kurt Schemper

by Gary David Stratton, PhD • Senior Editor

Emmy Magazine isn’t the most likely place for insight into spiritual formation.

“A writer for Emmy magazine is on the phone for you.” At first I thought our PR director was pulling my leg. College professors don’t get calls from Emmy magazine, even if they are moonlighting as the Executive Director of a community of Christian entertainment industry professionals seeking to train and equip storytellers to enter mainstream Hollywood.  Act One had been in existence for over a decade and even though we had graduates writing, producing, and directing on numerous TV shows and more than a few feature films, no entertainment industry press had ever called our offices before.

Kurt Schemper changed all that.  A producer for A&E’s critically acclaimed reality program, Intervention, Kurt had just become the first Act One graduate to win a prime time Emmy Award. The writer on the phone, Libby Slate, was fascinated by Kurt’s connection to a Hollywood Christian community. But, what really impressed her was how the Act One community had lived out our faith by rallying to aid former staff member Rosario Rodriguez after her gang-related shooting while walking in the tawny L.A. neighborhood Libby called home. (Read story here.)

Libby wanted to know if Emmy could do an article highlighting Kurt and Act One’s unique mission in Hollywood.  Kurt and I readily agreed, and director Korey Scott Pollard (House, Grey’s Anatomy, Monk, Nashville, Rizzoli and Isles, Lie to Me, The Middle, Jack Ryan) signed on to represent the Act One faculty perspective.

Kurt posing with his new hardware.

As Kurt, Korey and I prepared for our interview, Korey pushed for us to be ‘really ready’ to express exactly what we wanted to say. Our conversations turned to how difficult it is to thrive spiritually in Hollywood, and interviewer Libby Slate graciously picked up on this theme.

In the course of our conversations Kurt mentioned that one of his college professors at Judson College encouraged him to pursue his calling to Hollywood by quoting Frederick Buechner:

“The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

Kurt’s response was, “My deep gladness is Jesus. The entertainment industry is no different than any other place with lonely people searching for gladness.”

The idea of finding “deep gladness” in Hollywood really resonated with me, especially as I contemplated what a “soul-deadening” place Hollywood can be for many industry insiders. So in my interview, I told Emmy, “We’ve found that the spirituality taught by Jesus is an ideal starting place for guiding industry professionals on a soul-nourishing spiritual journey.”

That language resonated with Emmy readers as well, and soon opened doors all over Hollywood. Now it leads to this new series entitled, “Soul-nourishing Practices for a Soul-deadening world: Finding the Voice of Your Own Gladness in Hollywood and Beyond.”

My hope is that these posts will help filmmakers, educators and other culture makers find their own “deep gladness” through the soul-nurturing practices Jesus taught his first followers over 20 centuries ago. Not mere religious practices targeted at greater self-righteousness, but spiritual practices targeted at nurturing a deeper connection to God.

We officially launched the series earlier, but today I thought you might want to read the original Emmy article. (I couldn’t figure out how to post it directly, so you’ll have to download the article as a pdf.)  Enjoy!

Click to download Emmy Magazine Article PDF

 

NEXT:  Connecting to the Life of God in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Beyond – Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

The Ride: Connecting to God in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Beyond

Part 2 in series Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

Horseback riding is not a mode of transportation from one physical locale to another. It is a mode of transportation from one spiritual state to another.  And so are the classic spiritual disciplines.

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

Micaiah with ‘Maryland’: The crankiest and best horse in the Equestrian Center’s stable

As I write this, I am watching my daughter, Micaiah, take a riding lesson at the Equestrian Center in Burbank, CA. The Equestrian Center is, uh, shall we say, “oddly out of place” in urban Los Angeles. On my right, traffic on the Golden State Freeway (“the” 5, as we say here in L.A.) zooms by at 65+ miles per hour. On my left, horses plod around a riding circle at, well, a lot less than 65 miles per hour. What gives?

Why would anyone invest so much time and money striving to master such an outdated mode of transportation? It takes years to painstakingly advance through learning to walk, trot, cantor, gallop, jump, dressage, etc. Then, once you do achieve riding excellence, your top speed is still only a fraction of that of the traffic whizzing by. My daughter shovels, “stuff,” to earn her lessons, but most riders shell out enough cash to cover monthly payments on a luxury car. I mean, if your goal is to get from Pasadena to Hollywood, then this horseback riding thing is a total waste of time. Just buy a Jag and get on with it.

Yet if you think of horseback riding as something designed to get you somewhere on your busy schedule then you are missing the entire point. Horseback riding is not a mode of transportation from one physical locale to another. It is a mode of transportation from one spiritual state to another. The disciplines of learning to ride cleanse the rider of the soul-deadening effects of modern life and “re-center” their soul in a calmer, deeper place. My actress-singer daughter says it’s “rejuvenating.” Seeing the light and energy in her eyes after each time she rides, I believe her.

Spiritual Disciplines

Now at first glance, striving to master 2,000 year-old spiritual disciplines seems even more irrelevant than learning to ride a horse. I mean, at least horseback riding might help you land a role, or inspire a screenplay. What earthly good does it do to invest the time and energy it takes to master practices like prayer, meditation, fasting, Torah-study, or Psalm-singing? Sure, prayer can come in handy when you’re facing an audition, pitch meeting, or financing appointment. But this kind of “spiritual discipline” is practiced by everyone in Hollywood (even the staunchest atheists), and probably has about as much utilitarian value as wearing your lucky pair of socks.  Prep for your meeting, pay for some good coaching, and get on with it.

Yet, if you think of the spiritual disciplines only as something to get you somewhere in your career, you are missing the entire point. Spiritual disciplines are not tools for getting you from failure to success. They are pathways for keeping you alive spiritually in the constantly shifting landscape of success and failure that is Hollywood.

The Soul-Deadening Worlds of Power

The overarching characteristic of the Ivy League (and Hollywood) is what Schmelzer calls, “Grim drivenness.

Actor/Comedienne/Writer Susan Isaacs once challenged a crowd of aspiring entertainment industry students, “Would you accept God’s call to Hollywood if you knew that you would only have three successful years out of a thirty-year career?” Most wouldn’t, yet that is about the average for those who ‘make it’ here.  The spiritual disciplines are the means by which someone survives and even thrives, not only in the three years when they’re a hot property, but in the other twenty-seven as well.

Make no mistake, the competitive nature of all centers of power–Hollywood, the Ivy League, Wall Street, Washington, D.C., etc.–nearly always creates a soul-deadening culture. Former Yale Professor Henri Nouwen warned, “Our society is… a dangerous network of domination and manipulation in which we can easily get entangled and lose our soul.”[1] Dave Schmelzer, principal at Blue Ocean, Inc. in Cambridge, MA asserts the overarching characteristic of his Ivy League community is what he calls, “Grim drivenness.”  Dave adds, “These are the brightest and most talented people in the world, and the very drivenness that got them this far in a highly competitive environment prevents them from ever really enjoying the fruit of their success. There is always another rung to climb on the ladder of success.”[2] Sounds a lot like Hollywood to me!

Yokes that Bring Our Souls Rest

Spiritual disciplines counteract this soul-deadening effect by nourishing the soul of the practitioner and re-centering the filmmaker, professor, stockbroker, and/or congressman in a calmer, deeper place. Prayer, meditation, study, etc. are means by which we deepen our connection to others and to God. Nearly everyone working in a pressure-filled environment can benefit from practicing them—from Zen Buddhist’s like Laker’s coach Phil Jackson, to Scientologists like Tom Cruise.

However, the spiritual disciplines play a particularly meaningful role in the Judeao-Christian tradition. They are part of what early Rabbis referred to as their yoke—the teachings and spiritual practices each Rabbi used to guide their students into a deeper relationship with God.[3] Like learning to ride a horse, the study of Torah—the principal spiritual discipline in rabbinic education—demanded the utmost commitment to move from one level of expertise to the next. Yet, the promise of a life centered in God and his ways made the effort worthwhile. (See, Rabbinic Higher Education.)

Connecting to the Life of God

Jesus of Nazareth built upon this rabbinic tradition to shape his own version of spiritual formation. Jesus told his first followers, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me… and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29). He taught his disciples to pray, study, build community, and serve not to earn religious brownie points, but to form a deep attachment to God—to ‘rest’ in him. Like vines on a branch, Jesus promised his followers that if they would focus upon staying connected to the life of God, then the life of God would flow into them and bear fruit in everything they do (John 15:1-8). The spiritual disciplines are one of the key means by which we maintain that connection. (See, With Prayer in the School of Christ.)

USC philosophy professor, Dallas Willard, has worked tirelessly over the last few decades to describe how Christian spiritual formation can and should help us maintain our connection to the life and the love of God in the Academy, Hollywood, and beyond. He states:

“God’s desire for us is that we should live in him. He sends us the Way to himself.  That shows us, in his heart of hearts, what God is really like–indeed, what reality is really like. In its deepest nature and meaning our universe is a community of boundless and totally competent love.”

Personalizing the Process

Like horseback riding, staying connected to the life and love of God is not a one-size-fits-all process. It has taken Micaiah years to find the right stable, the right trainer, the right horse (the crankiest, but “best” in the stable), and the right sub-disciplines to learn to ride in a way that maximizes the ‘gladness’ riding brings her soul. The same is true for those seeking to cultivate a relationship with God. The disciplines that help one person are often torture for another. The key for some is sitting quietly in a beautiful sanctuary, for others it is walking in the beauty of nature, for some connection to God is found among books in a quiet library, for still another it is best found amidst music is a raucous worship service.

The point of spiritual discipline is not to perform some cookie-cutter religious ritual to make God like you better, but rather to find the pathways that best help your soul connect to the God who already loves you infinitely, ultimately, and unconditionally.

In the following weeks I will explore a number of the key concepts and disciplines that have been most helpful to a variety of leaders in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and beyond in living a soul-nourishing life in a soul-deadening world.  My hope is that we can help you create your own individualized set of spiritual disciplines that help you stay connected to the life and love of God even in the most pressurized situations.

Of course there is another way: the way of giving in to a soul-deadness. Will we? Or will we follow my daughter’s example and embrace an “outdated” approach to life, that in the end is the only one capable of transporting us where we really want to go—to the very heart of God.

Let’s ride!

..

Next post in series: Life on the Fast Track: Spiritually Thriving in High Stress Environments 

 

See also

Emmy Magazine Article Featuring Emmy-winning Producer Kurt Schemper, Director Korey Scott Pollard, and Gary David Stratton

Why Lent is a lot Like Surfing

Spiritual formation book recommendations:

The Practice of the Presence of God, by Brother Lawrence

Sacred Rhythms, by Ruth Haley Barton

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Alberg Calhoun

The Organic God, by Margaret Feinberg

The Celebration of Discipline, by Richard Foster

Invitation to a Journey, by Robert Mulholland

The Way of the Heart, by Henri Nouwen

The Life You’ve Always Wanted, by John Ortberg

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, by Peter Scazzero

The Good and Beautiful Life, by James Bryan Smith

Sacred Pathways, by Gary Thomas

The Spirit of the Disciplines, by Dallas Willard

 


[1] The Way of the Heart (New York: Random House, 1981), p. 9.

[2] At least in the Ivy League it is possible to get tenure!

[3] M. Maher (1975). ‘Take my yoke upon you’ (Matt. xi. 29). New Testament Studies, 22, pp 97-103

 

Ash Wednesday Logic: Why Lent is a More Like Moana than Monty Python

The surfer doesn’t create the waves, but her canoe puts her in a position to catch their energy. 

by Gary David Stratton, Ph.D. • Senior Editor

Don’t you think it’s a little odd to give up something for Lent in order to worship a Savior who told us to remember him by eating carbs and drinking alcohol?”

That’s the question a brilliant young writer confronted me with after an intense conversation covering Ash Wednesday, Lent, fasting, and dieting (there is a difference, right?).

To her, fasting made about as much sense as the head-bonking monks in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail,” whose unspoken motto appears to be: “Painfulness is next to godliness.”

She had a point. We find the head-bonking monks so funny precisely because we know that the extreme asceticism of the Middle ages, no matter how sincere, was profoundly flawed.

But are all ascetic practices flawed? She suspected they were. I desperately tried to offer an alternative perspective.

After talking it through for nearly an hour, I finally gave her the best answer I could: fasting is more like Moana than Monty Python. 

Let me explain…

A Brief History of Lent

For centuries the imposition of ashes on “Ash Wednesday” has served as a symbolic entrance into the Lenten season of repentance

Fasting for 40 days before Easter was originally established as a time of spiritual preparation for new converts to Christianity before they were all baptized together each Easter. However, in 325 AD, The Council of Nicea made Lent an official season of fasting for the entire church to prepare to receive the new members.

This was normally practiced as eating only one meal per day for the entire 40 days.[1] (Note: While many modern Catholics give up something for Lent, the Vatican only prescribes Ash Wednesday and Good Friday as official fast days.)

In the ensuing centuries many Christ-followers found Lent a helpful practice in their walk with God. Fasting is often connected with repentance in Scripture. Using fasting and repentance to help “Prepare the way” for the Lord” in one’s heart for the celebration of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection can be a very helpful and instructive practice.

Entering this season of repentance through imposition of ashes on one’s forehead on “Ash Wednesday” can create a strong connection to the Biblical practice of repenting in sackcloth and ashes.  (Traditionally, the ashes are made from palm fronds from the previous year’s Palm Sunday to remind us of how quickly our cries of, “Hosanna” can turn to “Crucify him!”) Skipping a meal, a favorite food, or favorite activity can help underscore our words of repentance with our bodies.  Our “hunger” allows us to more closely identify with Jesus’ missional commitments, “My food is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work” (John 4:34).

Lenten Warfare

However, the practice of Lent also has a dark side in church history. As the human tendency toward hyper-control began to infiltrate the church, the practice of Lent became more and more prescribed and restrictive with each passing year. By the Middle Ages the compulsory practice of Lent had become genuinely oppressive, not unlike Monty Python’s head-bonking monks. With the advent of the Reformation, Protestant leaders began to distance themselves from the practice.

Martin Luther saw nothing wrong with Lent in theory, but feared that most Lenten fasting had become dead compulsory religious ritual aimed at earning God’s favor that amounted to “fasting to Satan instead of a fasting unto holiness.” Ulrich Zwingli and later John Calvin were just as rough. They all but outlawed what they called the “gross delusion” of the “superstitious observance of Lent.”

John Wesley helped advance a balanced perspective on Lent

Soon, Lent-keeping became a shibboleth defining which side of the Reformation you were on. Take ashes and the “Anti-Lent” crowd called you an enemy of the gospel. Refuse them, and the “Pro-Lent” gang condemned you to hell.

John Wesley, founder of the Methodist church, was perhaps the first Protestant to swing the pendulum back toward a more balanced approach. Wesley broke with the Church of England’s ban on Lent by listing it among his approved fast days of the Church. In fact,  he thought it was “deplorable” that many Methodists neglected such fasting.

Wesleyan Methodist churches eventually reinstated Lent as an official church practice. Anglicans, Lutherans, and later Presbyterians also eventually reinstated Lent as well (which probably caused Zwingli and Calvin to roll over their graves.)

Dallas Willard and the Spiritual Formation Movement

In recent years, Lent has enjoyed something of a revival among younger Christians, especially those influenced by the contemporary spiritual formation movement. Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, James Houston, and a growing chorus of “Willard for Dummies”[2] advocates are helping contemporary Christians recapture the positive elements of “spiritual discipline” in general, and Lent in particular.

We indirectly participate in our own transformation through the spiritual disciplines.

Willard warns that Protestantism’s emphasis upon grace all too often draws believers into the heresy of passivism. A proper understanding of grace rightly emphasizes our inability to “earn” our own salvation. However, passivism mistakenly emphasizes our inability to play a role in our own transformation (The Renovation of the Heart, p. 82). Fasting in general, and Lenten fasting in particular can help counteract this passive, “I’ll wait around for God to change me,” approach to faith.

While we are saved by faith through grace alone (Eph. 2:8-9), we are transformed by the “interactive presence” of the Holy Spirit in our lives (p. 23). God could transform us instantly and unilaterally, but he has chosen to transform us largely by working with us (p. 10). We participate in our own transformation indirectly by shaping of our thoughts and feelings through the rigorous and skillful application of spiritual discipline  (p. 248).

In other words, while we cannot instantly or immediately transform our character by sheer force of will, we can will to practice the kind of disciplines that put us in a place where God’s grace can transform us into the image of Christ.

This is why Lent can be both used and abused. To practice Lent out of sense of compulsion—say, fearing that God will smite me if I eat chocolate—or in hopes of earning brownie points with God for my good behavior, are both anathema to the the gospel of Christ and the true spirit of the disciplines.

However, to give up something for Lent in hopes of using your body (your whole being) to express your prayer of repentance can be very powerful.  It can put you in a position to better cooperate with the movements of the Spirit in your own soul. And, of course, if we also “take up” a spiritual discipline for Lent—say, Scripture meditation or centering prayer—then we are in a position to catch even more of God’s grace.

Catch the Wave

Just as a surfboard (or canoe) helps a surfer catch the power of a wave, Lent can help someone ‘catch’ the grace of God.

This is where Moana comes in. Just like in Disney’s Moana, the surfer doesn’t create the wave, but her board (or canoe) helps her to catch the energy provided by the ocean. In the same way, a spiritual discipline (such as a Lenten fast) doesn’t create the transforming power of God, but it does help us to catch it.

The spiritual discipline of fasting creates a space of faith that God is only too glad to fill. When practiced in this way, the spiritual discipline of Lent helps people “catch the wave” of God’s ever-available power. (For ideas, see The Lent Project, sponsored by Biola University’s Institute for Spiritual Formation.)

A Personal Note

That’s the way it has worked for me. I didn’t grow up in a tradition that emphasized Lent. Yet for some reason, As a young Christ follower, Lent just seemed like a good idea to prepare my heart for Easter by following Christ into a 40-day fast. Since I wanted my fast to be ‘to’ Christ and not just ‘from’ something, I decided to give up television and use the time I freed for prayer and bible reading.

It turned out to be a profound spiritual experience. I discovered that God’s power and presence had been fully available to me, but night-after-night I had not been available to him.  Once I began using the time previously devoted to mindless entertainment to seek him, I began to catch the supernatural resources that had always been at my disposal. [3] The spiritual discipline of Lent became a surfboard God used to propel me forward in my faith. I’ve since witnessed corporate Lenten fasts impact entire churches and academic communities.

Alcohol, Carbs, and the Presence of God

And that is why Lent is more like Moana’s majestic wave riding than the Monty Python monks pointless head-bonking.

So, Arielle, there’s my answer. Enjoy the blessings of God found in food, drink, carbs, and the arts.  “Whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God” (1Cor 10:31). But sometimes an intense season of spiritual discipline such as Lent is just what we need to re-examine our heart and catch the wave of Christ’s ever-present help.

The Ocean is Calling!

 

See also

Connecting to God in Hollywood, the Ivy League, and Beyond, by Gary David Stratton
What is Spiritual Formation? by Dallas Willard
Sabbath as Spiritual Warfare, by Richard Beck
The Spiritual Lives of Christian College Students, by Todd W. Hall

 


[1] Okay, the official Lenten season from Ash Wednesday to Easter is actually 46 days. Why? Because Medieval church leaders decided that fasting on Sunday (a Christian ‘feast’ day) was hypocritical. They deducted the six Sunday’s of Lent from the season of repentance, making Lent an awkward 46 days long. This has always seemed more like a loophole than an actual spiritual discipline to me. I normally just fast the whole 46 days, but having a break once a week can be nice and even help prevent legalism from creeping in.

[2] John Ortberg’s self-professed job description.

[3] Don’t take this as a slam on TV viewing in general. I still love television and many of my friends and students work in the TV industry. I think moderate viewing of excellent shows can be a very helpful spiritual discipline. In fact, my DVR and streaming services have helped me nearly eliminate the kind of mindless channel-surfing that often thwarted my early spiritual development. Since then I have given up Facebook or Social Media, as these tend to be my major time wasters in my current lifestyle.

Andrew Garfield on the Ignatian journey that led him through ‘Silence’ and into the love of Christ

“What was really easy was falling in love with this person, was falling in love with Jesus Christ. That was the most surprising thing.” -Andrew Garfield

The experience of falling in love with Jesus was most surprising, perhaps, because Garfield, like many people, came to the Exercises asking for something else…

Read the complete article in America

What does the University have to do with Prayer?

Remarks by Gary David Stratton

Given at the Campus House of Prayer Annual Banquet 

The Foundry, Knoxville, TN

October 29, 2015

The University of Tennessee Campus House of Prayer (CHOP) was established in 2009 as a venue for 24/7 prayer, worship and intercession for U.T. students and campus ministers.
Gary and Rhonda Peacock founded the Campus House of Prayer (CHOP) at the University of Tennessee in 2009 as a venue open day and night for U.T. students and campus ministers to pray.

Thank you for that gracious introduction, Bryan. And thank you to Gary and Rhonda, for inviting Sue and I to be with you tonight. When the four us first met in Colorado over seven years ago, I don’t think we could have ever imagined that one-day we’d get to live and minister together in Knoxville.

And let me make something clear: ‘minister’ is exactly what I mean. Don’t let any changes in role and title over the years fool you; Sue and I are campus ministers through and through. We started our careers as Cru staff at the University of Memphis, an experience that nearly kept us from taking another job in Tennessee, [Laughter] and everything we’ve done since has only served the pursuit of our primary calling as ministers to students and those who lead them.

So speaking on prayer to the extended family of the Campus House of Prayer, CHOP, at the University of Tennessee makes perfect sense. And as I prayed at CHOP early this morning, I sensed that I needed to scrap my planned remarks and pave the way for the stories you have heard already tonight and the ones you will hear later by providing an educational rationale for a campus house of prayer.

But first, I want to start with a piece of advice that might lead to some great PR for CHOP. After just a few months of observing the UT community, I believe that the greatest service the Campus House of Prayer could offer the University would be to petition the football program to stop praying before games… [pause] ….and ask that the athletic department move the prayer time to the fourth quarter! [Laughter.]

(Note to those who are not Volunteer football fans: The UT football team–who open every game at Neyland Stadium with public prayer for the 102,422 faithful in attendance–lost four of its first seven games in the 2015 season after leading in the fourth quarter, including narrow losses to eventual CFP tournament teams Alabama and Oklahoma.)

Prayer: An Odd Duck in the Modern University

Let’s admit it, football traditions not withstanding, a House of Prayer on a college campus sounds more than a little out-of-place. Colleges are centers of learning; universities established as institutions devoted to study and to scholarship, not spiritual exercises.

In the second century after Christ, Christian theologian Tertullian famously asked, “What does Athens have to do with Jerusalem?” Now the tables are turned, and a better question today might be, “What does U.T. have to do with prayer and prayer with UT?”

Some might argue that the best answer that question is, nothing. Even many Christians may say, “We have so many campus ministries devoted to teaching Biblical truth in a manner worthy of a community of higher learning, why confuse things with a practice that appears amusingly antiquated to many in the university community, and completely delusional to others? Let’s preach the gospel and forget this troubling notion of prayer.”

However, tonight I wish to argue that the real answer to the question, “What does UT have to do with prayer and prayer with UT?” is everything. I believe that is true even for those who have no faith commitment whatsoever. (I will have to leave that argument for another day.) However, it is especially true for those who name the name of Christ. Here’s why.

Prayer in the College of Christ

While Jesus never established a brick and mortar school in the modern sense of the word, the discipleship movement he founded was indistinguishable from first-century Jewish higher education. Itinerating with a rabbi was simply the way you “did” college in Jesus’ day. After a youth spent studying the Torah, only the most remarkable students were allowed to go on to the Jewish version of higher education: obtaining permission to study as a talmid (disciple/student) of a great Rabbi. (See, Rabbinic Higher Education: Culture-Making, The Life of the Mind, and the Word of God.)

Like all Rabbis, Jesus’ curriculum centered on the study of his teachings and interpretations of Torah. Like all Rabbis, Jesus’ pedagogy was highly relational and centered on the creation of a learning community where master and disciples lived in close proximity and forged a friendship.

What distinguished the “College of Christ” from other first-century higher education was Jesus’ unique emphasis on the spiritual discipline of prayer. While prayer was part of all Jewish education, Jesus’ overarching commitment to prayer goes far beyond any Rabbi of his day. [2] Luke records no less that nine occasions when Jesus prayed with and/or modeled prayer for his students. [1] Matthew recalls least twenty-percent of Jesus’ parables and the Sermon on the Mount centered on prayer. John, perhaps Jesus’ favorite student, notes that his teacher devoted nearly half of his “last lecture” (John 13-17) to teaching his students about prayer, and praying together with them.

For Jesus prayer and education were inseparable, because education and the knowledge of God are inseparable. Whereas the object of Greek education was to study to ‘know thyself,’ Jesus taught his students that true spiritual life is found in knowing God (John 17:3). This emphasis was consistent with the Rabbinic concept that you could only know someone or something you experienced. Jesus’ learning outcomes demanded that his students encounter God not merely intellectually, but experimentally as well. He taught them to seek this experiential knowledge of God not only through the discipline of study (as important as this might be), but in prayer as well.

1) Education and Contemplative Prayer: Instruction in Abba Intimacy

After years of teaching and modeling prayer, Jesus’ students finally ask their Rabbi, “Lord, teach us to pray.” Jesus’ response would have sounded both disappointingly familiar, and astonishingly radical at the same time.

On one level, “The prayer is thoroughly Jewish “and “could easily have appeared without change in rabbinic literature.” [3] However, another level, the Lord’s Prayer highlights at least two unique aspects of prayer in the College of Christ.

First, in teaching his disciples to address God as Father, Jesus’ rooted the practice of prayer in his desire for his students to experience the intimate love of God. While the fatherhood of God is only inferred in the Torah, it is clearly evident in the Psalms and Prophets, and later rabbinic writings. [4] Jesus drew upon this rabbinic tradition, deepening it in a manner that would have been nearly unthinkable for most Rabbis of his day.

Renowned Near Eastern Studies scholar Joachim Jeremias discovered that “In the literature of Palestinian Judaism no evidence has yet been found of ‘My father,’ being used by an individual as an address to God… We do not have a single example of God being addressed as Abba (my father) in Judaism, but Jesus always addressed God in this way.”[5]

It is an astonishing choice of words. Abba implies a close, personal and familial relationship. “What others thought too intimate in praying to God, Jesus used because of its intimacy.”[6] What’s more, he taught his disciples to do the same. As New Testament scholar Joel Green asserts, Jesus’ teaching on prayer “begins and ends with references to God as the Father of his disciples.”[7]

Prayer was a critical educational practice, because in prayer students encountered genuine knowledge of God the Father. As Singaporean theologian Simon Chan affirms, “Intimacy with God is what characterizes a life of prayer.”[8]

The early Christians followed Jesus’ example so thoroughly that for the first 1200 years of the church, prayer and education were inseparable. In fact, for most of that time if you wanted to learn the great Greco-Roman liberal arts, you had to do it in a community devoted to prayer. As renowned church historian, Jean LeClerq, summarizes, “Hence, there arose a distinctive culture with marked characteristics, contemplative’ in bent, oriented toward spirituality [and] assuming there is no theology without prayer and the establishment of certain [experiential] contact with God.” [9]

How will they know unless someone teaches them?

This past summer I had the honor of addressing many of the top leaders in Christian Higher Education in Canada—presidents, faculty and student life staff. As part of my remarks I led us in a brief centering prayer exercise. Now, there is this wonderful thing that happens regularly in centering prayer known as “the drop.” It is a physical sensation that often accompanies moving from our head to our heart in prayer. Now, I can practice centering prayer for twenty minutes a day for a week and never experience the drop. However, that day the Lord graced us with a nearly universally experienced collective drop that you could literally hear in the transformation of everyone’s breathing patterns.

But was most instructive was when I asked how many of these perhaps most highly educated leaders in the entire nation, “How many of you have ever been taught the art of centering prayer and experienced a drop before?” The answer was significantly less than half the room. Their education had never included instruction in what would have been considered a Freshman 101 lesson in most Christian catechetical schools for over 1200 years. Why? Because there was nothing like a campus house of prayer on their campuses to teach them.

So… “What does UT have to do with prayer and prayer with UT?”

If we are committed to building campus ministries capable of following after the model of the College of Christ by leading student into a life of Abba intimacy, the answer is Everything!

How are UT students ever going to learn to pray, unless as in the College of Christ, someone models a life of prayer so thoroughly that students ask, “Teach us to pray”? Which is exactly what happened to Aaron when he wandered into that CHOP city prayer meeting.

The first reason why UT needs the Campus House of Prayer is to provide a safe place for students and staff from every campus ministry to learn to grow deep in the experiential knowledge of Abba intimacy with God through prayer.

2) Education and Answered Prayer: Evidence of the In-breaking Kingdom

The Lord’s Prayer also reveals second reason why we need a campus house of prayer. Jesus didn’t want his students to merely become prayerful navel gazers, experiencing God in private. He wanted them to experience God breaking into their world. He taught his students how to enter into the coming of the kingdom, not only through faith, repentance, and prayer for “private” experiential knowledge of God, but also to pray for the “public” manifestation of the compassion and power of the Father God of the kingdom.

He therefore instructed them to pray, “Cause your kingdom to come, your will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.” Through the Spirit who was “upon” Jesus, God was exerting his “authority to rule” in order to bring about the will of God upon the earth that the Father intended in the heavens. Jesus’ Spirit-empowered ministry was a sign that the Messianic kingdom of God was breaking in upon the world (cf. Matthew 12:28). Supernatural answers to prayer were the fuel of his outreach and discipleship ministry.

Like CHOPS the prayer tent on UT’s campus, Jesus’ students experienced God as alive and active in the physical world through answered prayer. He modeled, mentored and coached his students into an increasing participation in supernatural answers to prayer. He pressed his students to grow into a confidence that no prayer was too big for God (John 14:13-14; 15:7,16; 16:23-26).  He taught them that certain kinds of spiritual resistance could be overcome only through prayer (Mark 9:29). He assured them that miraculous answers to prayer they experienced in his earthly ministry would continue in the new era of the Spirit (John 14:12). And he taught them that the ministry of the Holy Spirit is given in answer to prayer (Luke 11:13).

Then, after their remarkable “graduation” ceremony from the School of Christ at Pentecost (we give students diplomas, he gave them the Holy Spirit), Jesus’ students continued to advance the kingdom of God by praying for power of the Spirit to be released in supernatural answers to prayer (Acts 4:30-31); and witnessed spiritual awakening after spiritual awakening that demonstrated that the kingdom of God was indeed breaking into the world. (Romans 15:9; 1 Corinthians 2:4).

Prayer preceded the first outpouring of Holy Spirit in Jerusalem (Acts 1-2), and the second (Acts 4:31-5:11). Prayer was integral the spiritual awakenings in Samaria (Acts 10-11) and Antioch (Acts 13:1-3).

Prayer for the outpouring of the Holy Spirit was the genesis of Paul’s great revival in Ephesus (Acts 19), where Paul adopted and adapted the best practices of Greco-Roman higher education by teaching in the lecture hall of Tyrannous until, “All the Jews and all the Greeks in all the Roman province of Asia heard the word of the Lord” (Acts 19:10).

And that is not the inflated spin doctoring of Paul’s PR team. It is the inspired word of God. One can only begin to imagine what might happen if prayer for the outpouring of the Spirit on UT’s campus might lead to all the students and all the non-students in province of East Tennessee hearing the word of the Lord.

Which is why, as the CHOP website so eloquently expresses, “Historically, the great movements of God have been predicated by movements of prayer. On campus at the University of Tennessee there is a space that strives to lay this foundation of prayer. We call it the CHOP, the Campus House of Prayer. It is a melting pot where students of different denominations and backgrounds unify to seek God and catalyze a movement for Christ.”

This has been Sue and my experience on each of the fours campuses where we have witnessed spiritual awakening. In each case it began with a dedication group of students and adults becoming a house of prayer for all nations in their intercessions for the kingdom of God to break into their world by the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. Whether it started with a group of students who prayed from 5:30 to 7:30 each morning, a campus ministry team who fasted together for forty days, or a mother who cried out day and night for over 17 years for God to move on the campus where her son would one day attend, God granted the outpouring of the Holy Spirit to those daring to take Jesus at his word and pray.

But one does not have to wait until a season of spiritual awakening to live out the teaching of the college of Christ. Sue and I have become deeply committed to teaching people to become “Two-Handed Warriors” for the Harvest. Men and women of God committed to both the life of the mind and the life of the Spirit, to both faith-building and culture-making—intellectuals, artists, ministers, philanthropists, and leaders in ever facet of society from the local church to global relief agencies, the Silicon Valley to the Mayo Clinic, Wall Street to Main Street, Hollywood to the Ivy League.

Whether that’s a screenwriter who turns to prayer in a time of desperate need only to rise and write an Academy Award-winning screenplay, a scientist whose research project had failed, but turned to God who granted her Nobel Prize-winning scientific discovery that took her decades to prove in the laboratory, or a UT student who turned to God when an engineering simulation proved impossible like Bryan, or a group of UT campus ministers who are called to tackle racism head on like Matthew described. These men and women are true two-handed warriors following the example set by Jesus in the School of Christ.

Through both the intimacy of “Abba prayer” and the supernatural power of “Kingdom prayer” the distinctive outcome of the graduates of the College of Christ was their experiential knowledge of God. Even in the midst of tremendous pressures of leadership, nothing could distract Jesus’ alumni from devoting themselves to the two key disciplines he had carefully cultivated within them. When pressed with tremendous ministry and service demands they pressed back, “We must devote ourselves to prayer and the ministry of the word.” (Acts 6:4). His graduates not only knew about God and his word, they had experienced the Father God of the kingdom.

3) CHOP: Leading UT Students into a More Experiential Faith

It has been forty-five years since J.I. Packer warned the church, “One can know a great deal about God without much knowledge of him.”[10] Today, we may be danger of producing students who possess neither. If Christian Smith and Kenda Creasy Dean’s sobering research on the sorry spiritual state of today’s Christian students is to be believed, we are facing a generation who knows neither the Scriptures nor the power of God. (Matthew 22:9) and are therefore bored out of their minds. And who can blame them.

The church has managed to take a spiritually intimate and supernaturally powerful faith and made it about as compelling as, “whatever.” [11] Contemporary Christianity offers little of the “personal relationship with Jesus” students were promised when they made their profession of faith and virtually no power whatsoever.

In a generation hungering for intimacy at an unprecedented level, can we offer students pathways to encounter the Father’s transforming love? In a generation flocking to supernatural movies, television shows, and video games, can our campus ministries help students experience the kingdom of God breaking into the world in ways that defy all natural explanation?

Jesus would say we can, but only if we summon the courage to fill our outreach and our discipleship ministries with prayer. A recommitment to a biblical worldview will never be enough to rescue a generation from “moralistic, therapeutic, deism.” [11] They need the experiential knowledge of God. We need to be able to offer students the power of answered prayer to break through the insipid deism of a materialistic worldview. We need to be able to offer students the intimacy of reflective prayer to encounter the love of the Father and evoke genuine love of God in return.  Half measures won’t cut it.

“What on earth does prayer have to do with UT and UT with Prayer?” Nothing?

Everything?

You decide.

As for me, I can only throw my lot behind Gary, Rhonda and CHOP and cry out,

“Lord, teach us to pray!”

 

© Gary David Stratton 2015

Notes

[1] Luke 3:21; 5:16; 6:12; 9:18,28; 10:17-21; 11:1; 22:39-46; 23:34,36.

[2] George W. E. Nickelsburg, Ancient Judaism and Christian origins: diversity, continuity and transformation. (Minneapolis, Minn: Fortress, 2003). See Also, Gary David Stratton. 2014. “Rabbinic Higher Education: Culture-Making, The Life of the Mind, and the Word of God,” Two Handed Warriors, http://wp.me/p1TN9X-2R.

[3] Marvin R. Wilson, Our father Abraham: Jewish roots of the Christian faith. (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1989), p. 118, see also. p. 288. David Bivin, “Prayers for Emergencies,” Jerusalem Perspective 37 (Mar./Apr. 1992), 1-17. Samuel Sandmel, Judaism and Christian Beginnings (Oxford University Press, 1978), p. 358. Bradford H. Young, The Jewish Background of the Lord’s Prayer (Austin, TX: Center for Judaic-Christian Studies, 1984).

[4] Psalms 2:7; 89:26; Isaiah 9:6; Isaiah 63:16; 64:8; Jeremiah 3:4,19; Malachi 3:10. See, N. T. Wright, Jesus and the victory of God (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 265. See also, Scot McKnight, A new vision for Israel: the teachings of Jesus in national context (Grand Rapids, Mich: W.B. Eerdmans, 1999), p. 62-63.

[5] Joachim Jeremias, The Prayers of Jesus (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1978), p. 57.

[6] James D.G. Dunn, The Evidence for Jesus (Philadelphia, Penn: Westminster, 1985), p. 21.

[7] Joel B. Green, The theology of the gospel of Luke. New Testament theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), p. 111.

[8] Simon Chan, Spiritual theology: a systematic study of the Christian life. Downers Grove, Ill: Intervarsity Press, 1998), p. 132.

[9] Jean LeClerq. 2007. The love of learning and the desire for God: A study of monastic culture, 3rd Edition. New York: Fordham University Press, 2007, p. 3.

[10] Knowing God (London: Evangelical Press, first published in 1970), p. 16.

[11] Christian Smith, and Melinda Lundquist Denton. Soul searching: the religious and spiritual lives of American teenagers. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005). Kenda Creasy Dean, Almost Christian: what the faith of our teenagers is telling the American church. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010).

[12] Smith, and Denton, p. 2.

 

God’s Cure for a Very Bad Day, by Sue Stratton

Part three in series: What’s in a Name? The Presence of God!

It was a Terrible, Horrible, No good, Very bad day. That’s what it was because after school my mom took us all to the dentist, and Dr. Fields found a cavity just in me. “Come back next week and I’ll fix it,” said Dr. Fields.

“Next week,” I said, “I’m going to Australia.”

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, no Good, very Dad Day

by Sue Stratton

We all have our personal Australia’s, but would would escape really solve our problems?

Alexander’s cure for his bad day is to go to Australia.

I want to go to Australia too.  Want to come?  Somehow I think though we will find that Australia does not hold the cure for bad days after all, mostly because we still have to take ourselves along.

Unfortunately that means that we will have to drag about the four caustic marks of being human: shame, blame, fear and hiding.

This tangled four-strand web of inner turmoil is definitely at work in each of our lives whether we are in Australia or not.

So the question remains, “How do we untangle and overcome the results of the fall in our own personal life?” How do we get back into THE Garden? This presents a conundrum not easily pulled apart as we examine our own psyche.   However, there is a good place to start.

God is Love

As we practice the presence of God, we need to recognize that the One who is present to us is present to Love us.

The Apostle John tells us  “God is Love” (1 John 4:7). The Greek word used here for “God” is also the same Greek word used in the Septuagint in Gen 1:1 for the Creator and Sustainer of all of Life.  He is later revealed to us as YHWH, the One who is dynamically present to each of us at every moment in our lives.  The God of the Universe is always present with each of us but the question we must answer is, “How do I become present to HIM?”.

Immersing our conscious minds in the loving presence of YHWH is the very first step in overcoming the shame, hiding, blame and fear in our lives. After all, it was the very presence of YHWH that permeated THE Garden.  Before the fall, Adam and Eve basked in God’s Presence 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year.   Every 6 seconds the human mind wanders.  If we trained our minds to come present to the GOD who is present to us 10 times each minute, every minute of our day, we would come a long way in practicing the presence of God in our lives.

Present to Love

Let’s not stop there, however.  As we practice the presence of God, let’s recognize that the One who is present to us is present to Love us.  Did you know that there are literally hundreds of verses that reinforce the truth that God’s intent toward us isn’t to scold or chastise us, or scrutinize us, but it is to love us?

When we really allow God to draw near and love us our fear melts away.  1 John 4:18 tells us:

“There is no fear in love; but perfect love casts out fear, because fear involves punishment, and the one who fears is not perfected in love.”  (1 John 4:18)

Perfected in Love . . . that sounds pretty good to me!  These four psychological handicaps not only affect our relationship with God, however.  They also raise their ugly head in our relationship with others.

Shame, hiding, fear and blame fall on the opposite spectrum from selfless agape love.  It is impossible to love and be loved while filled with a toxic sense of fear and shame. Have you ever tried to blame someone and express love to them at the same time?  It can’t be done. It is also impossible to experience love while we are in hiding.  We must come out of hiding.    This is why YHWH was calling Adam’s name in the garden.  He was calling him out of hiding.  Today He is still calling . . . He is calling your name and mine. He wants us to come out of our darkness and into the light of His presence.

God’s strategy for coming out of hiding

Here is a strategy for coming out of hiding and overcoming shame, fear and blame. First, practice the presence of God.  Begin to ask God to bring you present to Him.  Ask Him to reveal His love to you.  He is very faithful to answer these requests.  There is a good little book by Brother Laurence called The Practice of the Presence of God. This book serves as a great tutorial in this process as we walk with this wonderful 17th century monk humbly through his journey of finding God amidst the simple moments of his life.

Second, meditate on the passages that concentrate on the love of God for you.  A simple Bible search on the word ‘love’ reveals hundreds of passages to focus on in your study.  Bible Gateway.com and StudyLight.com are good places to start.  I have put together a love journal both on my computer and in book form for personal meditation.  I go back to this journal again and again.

Third, become a student of your own thoughts.  See if you can recognize the influence of the toxic four in your mind and heart.  When you spot yourself giving into shame, fear, hiding or blame take active steps to counteract this false way of thinking and acting with Truth.  Find scripture to help you reprogram your harmful automatic responses and God will reprogram your inner being so that you are able to love Him, love yourself, and love others.

Fourth, realize that this is a battle and it takes a lifetime of perseverance to win.   But, you can win!! Instead of playing ‘Hide and Seek.’  Let’s play ‘Seek’ instead!

Seek, not Hide

Let’s seek the presence of our loving heavenly Father each and every moment of our days. Let’s return to THE Garden of His Presence and watch Him turn those Bad internal days into days spent in the presence of the only One who can love us fully and completely…

…even in Australia!

 

Fear, Shame, Hiding, and Blame: God and The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day, by Sue Stratton

Part two of a three part series: What’s in a Name? The Presence of God!

I went to sleep with gum in my mouth and now there’s gum in my hair and when I got out of bed this morning I tripped on the skateboard and by mistake I dropped my sweater in the sink while the water was running and I could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.

Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, no Good, very Dad Day [1]

by Sue Stratton

Alexander is having a bad day. We can all relate.

We all have bad days. You know those days where nothing goes right.  On those days the universe itself seems set against us.   Some of those days are merely inconvenient.  Who hasn’t had a flat tire, a lost wallet, or a missed flight?  We might curse our luck, but we call AAA, go to the DMV, or reschedule our flight and life goes on.

Then there are bad days that leave a mark on our soul. They normally come in succession. Bad Day followed by Bad Days. There is the heartache of prolonged unemployment, foreclosure on a house, a marriage gone sour, a sick child, or the death of a loved one.  These events affect us deeply; they change us.

As a parent, the events that seem to be the most devastating have to do with our children.   Children are vulnerable; they are dependent.  They need us.  Most parents would do anything to keep their children safe, secure and comfortable.  Most of us are like our heavenly Father in that regard, He loves His children.  The worst day in a parents life is the day that their child is hurt, sick or in trouble.  Equally as painful is if the relationship is threatened resulting in estrangement of the child from the parent.

The Worst Day in the Life of God

The worst day in a parents life is the day that their child is hurt, sick or in trouble.

I think the worst day in God’s life took place thousands of years ago in a garden now lost somewhere in Ancient Middle East. There He suffered the greatest loss known to any parent:  the estrangement and ‘death’ of His children.   Adam and Eve decided that relationship with Him was not worth the cost of obedience and they willfully struck out on a course of their own.

Adam and Eve must have been quite shocked at the expulsion from the only home they had ever known.   I think an even greater shock was the agony of living and moving through life no longer knowing the sweet manifest Presence of their Father.  As great as these losses were, they were not their only concern. There were other tragic internal realities that Adam and Eve (and their children) endured on and since that fateful day. Not only did their external reality change, their internal reality was altered as well.

After the Fall

It was a very bad day.  From this fateful day forward, Adam and Eve and their children will never be free of shame nor will they ever experience a lasting sense of peace for fear will be a constant companion. This fear and shame will drive them to hide deep within themselves.   The perfect relationship they have enjoyed will be continually tarnished as they blame one another for faults both great and small.  These are the four immediate results of the fall as recorded in Genesis 3:7-13.

Shame

Adam and Eve’s first response was to sew fig leaves together to cover themselves:

“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” (Genesis 3:7)

Adam and Eve were experiencing shame for the first time in their lives.  Shame is a painful emotion caused by a strong sense of embarrassment, unworthiness or disgrace.

Shame is what makes us drop our eyes and withdraw within ourselves.  It shouts outs within us “You are bad to the core.” We embrace this thought and feel as though we are not good . . . and that we will never be good enough.

Shame drives our true selves deep inside causing us to create false selves in order to cover the fragile broken reality within.

Fear

For Adam and Eve, shame was swiftly followed by the new sensation of fear.  Adam summed up the experience:

“I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked…” (Genesis 3:8)

Webster defines Fear as the feeling of disquiet or alarm caused by the expectation of danger, pain and disaster.

Since the fall we are afraid.  We are very afraid.   Our waking hours are too often spent trying to insulate ourselves from all that can go wrong in our lives.  We insure our house, our car, our boats, our pets, our phone, our smile and of course our very lives.    Sometimes even our insurance has insurance.  Some of us fear not measuring up so fashion becomes our Task Master. Beautiful clothes hide so very much; they ensure that another’s gaze won’t find the real us. Others ward off fear by becoming workaholics. Often an unhealthy drive to succeed has fear firmly in the driver’s seat.

Hiding

Adam and Eve’s response to this overwhelming fear was to hide from God.

I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” (Genesis 3:8)

No one can hide from YHWH.  It is just not possible. Ps 139 reminds us: “Where can I go from Your Spirit? 
Or where can I flee from Your presence? 
If I ascend to heaven, You are there; 
If I make my bed in Sheol, behold, You are there. 
 If I take the wings of the dawn, 
If I dwell in the remotest part of the sea, Even there Your hand will lead me, 
And Your right hand will lay hold of me.”

But we still try to hide from God . . . and one another.  We have become so good at hiding that some of us even try to hide from ourselves.

Blaming

The final blow was Adam blaming both God and Eve for the entire event. The man said:

“The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.”

When the LORD God says to the woman, “What is this you have done?” Eve blames the snake:

“The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Gen 3: 13)

Ever since that fateful day, shame, fear, hiding and blame sum up the human condition . . . just one bad day after another.

Created to intimately know, love and be loved by their Father and one another, Adam and Eve became consumed with shame, hiding, fear and blame.  And so are we today. No matter how much we mature, no matter how much we aspire to move beyond these constraints, these four emotional riptides can knock us over and pull us under in the blink of an eye.  They are always lurking in our psyche influencing our inner life.

Your Bad Day

Having a bad day?  Maybe you are in the middle of a personal riptide.  Maybe you are living in the midst of “Nightmare on Your Street” or maybe you are a secretly a “Girl Interrupted.”  Have shame and fear sent you into hiding? Do you find yourself blaming your husband, your roommate, your boss or the weather for the tough luck in your life?

Alexander came to the realization that some days are like that . .  . even in Australia.   I think we could travel to each of the four corners of the earth and find these devastating disorders at work.  We must overcome these four deeply rooted response patterns to become all that we are created to be.  We must somehow return to the Garden from whence we came.

Take Heart

Take heart!  YHWH has provided a way through our pain back to his presence and tomorrow I will share with you how I have found a little piece of THE Garden in my life …and no it is not in Australia!

Tomorrow: God’s Cure for A Very Bad Day

 


[1] Viorst, Judith, and Ray Cruz. 1972. Alexander and the terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day. New York: Atheneum.

 

What’s in a Name? The Presence of God! by Sue Stratton

How God introduces Himself to us by His personal name tells us a great deal about how he wants to relate to us each day

Sue Stratton

Old Testament professor Susan Stratton is famous for her rich insights into the names and ‘Presence’ of God.  Her passionate teaching in classrooms, retreats, (and coffee shops) have richly blessed her students, her children, and her adoring husband.

In a three-part post she shares a few of these insights and roots them in the spiritual discipline that has made greatest difference in her own life–practicing the Presence of God.

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Part of ongoing series: Soul-nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World.

 

What’s in a Name? The Presence of God!

by Sue Stratton

What’s in a Name?

In some ways, luck was with me on that fateful day when my mother gazed down at the babe in her arms and named me Susan.  Let’s face it, some names are easier to live with  (Sue, John, Rob, Alice) than others (Sage Moonblood, Apple, Kyd, or say Moon Unit).

Susan means Lily. I can live with Lily.   The name also stems from Hebraic origin, which is fascinating since I have since come to love the Hebrew language, heritage and people.

Naming and True Language

The Bible tells us that Adam possessed True Language- the ability to look deeply into a created being and vocalize an articulation that captures the essence of that creature.  Of course this ability was given to him as a gift from the Creator who also knows the essence of all things.

Sly Stallone with son ‘Sage Moonblood’.

My daughter, Ashley, has a form of this Adamic gifting.  Her intuition in naming the pets in her life is truly remarkable.  I am sure she will use this same insight in naming her children.  Unfortunately for most of us, our names were chosen by parents not possessing this particular gift of Adam.

Thankfully, at some appointed future time, the Creator Himself will rename His own children, with a word that will re-capture our essence for all eternity.

“To him who overcomes, I will give a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.” (Rev 2:17).

Our heavenly Father knows that names matter to us!

Names Matter to God

I also think that names matter to God.  In the Hebraic mind, naming and being are linked together to form an integral harmony.  This is reflected in the Hebrew Scriptures where the relationship between a thing and its name is quite important. Understanding this relationship is a valuable first step in understanding not only the First Testament, but also the reality of the God manifested through the First Testament.

Scripture is full of titles and designations for God, but only one is his personal name.

In fact a good portion of the Pentateuch (he first 5 books of Scripture) is the progressive revelation of the character and ways of God as revealed through what he is called. Beginning in Genesis 1:1 God reveals Himself as Elohim (powerful, preeminent, transcendent), El Shaddai (God Almighty or All sufficient One), Adoni (Lord or Master) to name just a few. Flipping through Scripture, one finds a host of other Titles that reveal very specific attributes possessed by the God of the Universe.

However, most of these designations are merely ‘titles’, highlighting different aspects of the Divine Being and the various roles He has performed.

The Personal Name of God

As great and instructive as these titles are, they are not His Personal Name.  There is only one vocalization that God gives as His Personal Name and that is YHWH.  YHWH is by far the most powerful word in the universe and the irony is we have no idea how to pronounce it.  Early followers of YHWH decided that this name was too holy to be pronounced, and so we have since lost the proper pronunciation because we have lost the vowels to this most holy word.

On Sinai, God revealed his personal name to Moses

YHWH, known as the ‘tetragrammaton,’ is a verbal form of the Hebrew verb “to be” from the root hwy, later hyh, meaning to be at hand, to exist (phenomenally), to come to pass.  God’s personal name carries with it a dynamic sense of being — not pure existence, but becoming, happening. You will find it translated in all capital letters- L O R D in our Bibles and is often confused with Adonai which is translated lower case Lord meaning Master.

YHWH, however, means DYNAMIC PRESENCE and is used over 6800 times in the First Testament.  Deeper understanding comes as we grasp that this is not the same as God’s Omnipresence.

Of course God is present in all of his creation all of the time, but this is different.   I tell my college students: God is ‘in your face’ present!

The Nearness and Name of God

God’s name may sound terrifying at first, but it is the secret to his longing for moment to moment intimate relationship with us

Once I was with a high school Bible study group and I was sharing this dynamic truth.  I was very excited for them to see the God of the universe invading all the moments of their lives. Suddenly they grew VERY quiet.  Eventually one of them piped up and said:

“If you are telling me that God is with me all the time, ALL the time… that is the scariest thing I have ever heard.”

Everyone nodded. These girls were experiencing first hand the fear that can accompany the nearness of God. Just who is this God who is present with me moment by moment? I think this is exactly why God chose to reveal this particular truth about Himself to Moses on Mt Sinai in the midst of other truths that help us understand His character. Exodus 34: 6-7 describes the event:

“Then YHWH passed by in front of him and proclaimed, “YHWH, YHWH-Elohim, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin.”

YHWH is present “with you” at EVERY MOMENT in your day, He is present “for you” in all the darkness and uncertainty you encounter.  He is present “to you” as you navigate the back alleys and boxed canyons in life. And for those of us who have put our trust in YESHUA He is present “in us” by the Holy Spirit.  Knowing that God is dynamically present with me 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year has changed my life.

Practicing the Presence of God’s Name

On that day, God will call us by OUR true name.

Learning to practice the presence of the One who is ALWAYS present is the cornerstone of all of my spiritual growth and understanding. Every 6 seconds the human mind wanders.  If every 6 seconds we train our mind to wander to the fact that YHWH is with us right now, if we remind ourselves that He is loving us RIGHT NOW, our life is bound to change.

One day each of us will step through the veil that separates us and finally meet YHWH face to face.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that moment to be a shock to my system. I want to live in His Presence NOW in unbroken harmony with our amazing Father.

And on the day when he hands me that white stone, I’m hoping my whole soul resonates with the truth etched upon it. And as I look into those blazing eyes, I long for a smile to break upon His beautiful face and to hear the words: “Well done good and faithful servant.”

Next: God and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

 

Why Beauty Matters in a Broken World, by Catherine Hart Weber, Ph.D.

Part of Lenten Series You Are What You Do (and Eat): Spiritual Formation in Everyday Life

We can’t escape the pain, darkness, and brokenness of a fallen world, neither can we escape the beauty of Christ’s transforming life. Through the 40 days of Lent we acknowledge this, in us, and around us.

by Catherine Hart Weber, PhD

Beauty will heal and save you.

That’s the hope and message woven into the 40 days of Lent leading up to Easter. God’s balance of beauty through love, goodness and redemption are His divine antidote to vandalization and brokenness in and around us.

Protesting Brokenness with Beauty

A dear friend of mine who admires pottery came across a large bowl that particularly caught her eye at a recent art show. It was in an amazing shape of waves and the beauty captured her heart. But, it was expensive. So she focused on the joy of another potters three small pots formed together, symbolic of a three-fold cord unbroken.

The next day however, she just couldn’t get the beauty of the wave bowl off her mind. She had to go back. Admire it once more. Maybe the artist would be willing to give her a discount. She had saved some Christmas money – for such a time as this.

The potter was flattered at her admiration of his work. They had a great conversation. As she turned to approach him about the beautiful wave bowl, her bag knocked a large vase behind her, and it fell to the ground, shattering in small pieces.

She was in shock. How could this happen? She came to pursue and acquire beauty, and now she was faced with brokenness – that was very expensive!  Right then and there, something in her also shattered. She broke down crying, sobbing.

It wasn’t just about feeling bad for the loss of the art, or the huge cost.  It was much more, much deeper.

The Balance of Beauty

You see most of her life is about dealing with or paying for brokenness. She has lived with cancer for over 20 years, consistently for the last 12 years. The 5th round of chemo and treatment she is on now costs thousands.  Her life revolves around the damaging consequences of her broken body and other shattered things around her.

But it just couldn’t end this way. She couldn’t just pay for more brokenness and walk away with no beauty. God has always provided a balance of beauty and goodness in her life. She exemplifies beautiful fruitfulness. Each fresh new day she embraces answered prayers, deep relationship connections, pilgrimages and daily ‘love and kisses from God’.  Just the other day, the Lord assured her of His love in Zephaniah 3: 16, 17 through three different sources.

So, once again, the spirit of God gave her the gift of being released to keep pursuing and embracing the gift of beauty. The potter offered for her to pay wholesale for the broken vase and the wave bowl.  She left with a bag of shattered vase pieces and a beautiful wave bowl: the balance of beauty to protest against the brokenness.

Beauty Matters

That’s how life can be. Keeping the balance of beauty.

We teeter on the edge of freedom and fear.

Dealing only with broken pieces keeps us deprived, holds us back. The beauty is too extravagant. I can’t justify it. It’s unrealistic, unreachable. I can’t enjoy it because it’s overshadowed by the darkness and brokenness.

That’s why Jesus came. His love and beauty set us free.

He brings light into our darkness. He makes beauty from ashes.

And only the Spirit of God can release us, open our eyes and hearts to see all that Christ is, what He provides for us through the Cross. What He promises to do in us, in the new Heaven and the new earth – is goodness and beauty. Images of fresh flowing rivers, life-giving fruitful trees, no more pain and tears – instead peace, love and laughter.

Beauty matters. The beauty of Christ’s transforming life in us matters.

We can’t escape the pain, darkness, brokenness and vandalizing.

Through the 40 days of lent we acknowledge this, in us and around us.

But then we open our lives to the Holy Spirit, holding on to our visions of God paying the price, transforming and empowering us now and finally making the whole of creation anew – with love, joy, peace, hope – and beauty.

Live out the beauty

You can protest the darkness and brokenness by balancing with beauty.

Embrace God’s kingdom, His Shalom, His resurrection in you, living in harmony with nature and others each day.

The Spirit of God challenges us to protest the languishing and brokenness. Anticipate and embrace the beauty God provides and promises.

Make this vision come true by living out love and beauty each fresh new day.

It is this vision that enables us to live fully alive, right where we are.

Love matters. A cup of water matters. Creating beauty matters.

A beautiful wave pottery bowl matters.

Henri Nouwen reminds us that “every time we show compassion to a suffering person, every time we arrange a bouquet of flowers, offer care to tame or wild animals, prevent pollution, create beauty in our homes and gardens … we are making the vision come true…Whenever it comes alive in us we will find new energy to live it out, right where we are….this beautiful vision gets us involved.

That’s the reason why I am coming alive while watching the daffodils I planted in my window boxes slowly open their happy faces to brighten my day.

  • Why I feed the wild birds around my home.
  • Why I finally painted my kitchen cabinets.
  • Why I lead a spiritual formation group.
  • Why I write this blog.
  • Because living out the vision of God’s love and beauty matters.

QUESTION: What beauty matters to you right now?

Next: Give it a Rest, by Keith Kettenring

For more by Catherine visit her blog 52 Ways to Flourish

Why I am Giving Up Prayer for Lent, by Margaret Feinberg

Part of Lenten Series You Are What You Do (and Eat): Spiritual Formation in Everyday Life

When Lent began, I struggled to pray three word prayers. I’d count words. Oops! And realized I’d added a fourth or fifth. As the days rolled into weeks, three word prayers became more natural. But now I’m finding that my prayers are becoming one word. Not out of force or effort but this natural expression to God.

by Margaret Feinberg 

I’ve been thinking a lot about Lent this year and wondering how best to walk through the next seven weeks. I know people who are giving up Twitter, chocolate, and a long list of self-indulgent or addictive activities and foods.

As I’ve reflected, I’ve decided to give up prayer for Lent.

Okay, maybe not all prayer, but lengthy prayers in my personal time with God.

I recently heard a sermon by our friend, Jay, which highlighted the importance of praying simple but potent prayers. As I’ve been mulling over this concept, I realize how mindless I’ve become in my own prayer life. Yes, I feel free to express every desire, whim, ache and need to God–which is a good thing!–except that at times my prayers sound like a gushing four-year-old who talks in an eternal run on sentence. I realize that over time I’ve been increasingly unspecific and inattentive in my prayer life.

That’s why I’m giving up prayer for Lent. Or at least long prayers. For the next 40 days, I’m committed to only offering God three word prayers.

Help me Lord. Heal oh Jesus. Give grace abundant. Grant strength now. Thank you, God.

I’m hopeful the discipline will help me be more thoughtful in my prayer, more strategic in the things I ask God, more focused on Jesus, more ready to listen, more prepared to unleash heartfelt worship and gratitude on Easter morning.

Since I began this journey, I’ve found myself becoming more focused in prayer life, more sensitive to God’s presence, and more aware of my dependence.

But over the last week something new has been happening and I didn’t notice it at first.

When Lent began, I struggled to pray three word prayers. I’d count words. Oops! And realized I’d added a fourth or fifth. As the days rolled into weeks, three word prayers became more natural. But now I’m finding that my prayers are becoming one word. Not out of force or effort but this natural expression to God.

This morning I’ve been praying some friends who are facing a challenge in their relationship. I know they’re talking about the issue sometime today diving into the messiness of hurt, pain, and miscommunication all with a hope of healing and restoration. My prayers for them began as three words. But slowly rolled into two then one. Heal. Restore. Reconcile. Understanding. Compassion. Grace. With each word, I naturally pause as the fullness of the word is heartfelt and passionate yet peaceful.

The single word is a petition, a request, a prayer. One that I offer with the full confidence that God hears and that God will answer.

My prayer life is far more simple than it’s ever been yet somehow feels more effective, more intentional, more potent.

Next: The Soul Killing Problem of Bad Art, by Ashley Arielle

Visit Margaret’s Award-winning website. Used by author’s permission. Photo credit