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Why would anyone invest so much time and money striving to master such an outdated mode of transportation?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.

Why Lent is a lot like Surfing

Part of Lenten Series: You Are What You Do (and Eat): Spiritual Formation in Everyday Life  (See also, Finding God in Hollywood: Soul-Nourishing Practices in a Soul-Deadening World

The surfer doesn’t create the waves, but her board puts her in a position to catch their energy. In the same way, spiritual disciplines don’t create the transforming power of God, but they do put us in a position to catch it. 

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

At first glance, fasting makes about as much sense as the head-bonking monks in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”

This morning over breakfast, a brilliant young writer confronted my wife and I with a disturbing question. After an intense conversation covering Ash Wednesday, Lent, fasting, and dieting (there is a difference, right?), she wrinkled her brow and exclaimed:

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?”

Uh…? Good question.

At first glance fasting makes about as much sense as the head-bonking monks in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” Their unspoken motto appears to be: “Painfulness is next to godliness.” (Which, I think is why we find them so funny. Somehow we know that the extreme asceticism of the Middle ages, no matter how sincere, was profoundly flawed.)

But after talking it through for nearly an hour, I finally gave here the best answer I could: Fasting is a lot like surfing.  Let me explain…

A Brief History of Lent

For centuries the impartation 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 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 impartation of ashes on one’s forehead on “Ash Wednesday” can create a strong connection to the Biblical practice of repenting in sackcloth and ashes.  Skipping a meal, a favorite food, or favorite activity can help underscore our words of repentance with our bodies.

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 so oppressive Protestant leaders began to reject it altogether.  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 Zingli 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 sane balance. 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, which may have caused Luther 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 by those influenced by the contemporary spiritual formation movement. Dallas Willard, Richard Foster, James Houston, and a growing chorus of “Willard for Dummies”[2] advocates help contemporary Christians recapture the positive elements of all “spiritual discipline,” 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. Grace rightly emphasizes our inability to “earn” our own salvation. However, passivism mistakenly emphasizes our inability to take part in our own transformation at all (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” through faith by grace alone, 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 be instantly or immediately transformed by sheer force of will, we can will to practice the 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—fearing that God will smite me if I eat chocolate–or in hopes of earning brownie points with God for good behavior, are both anathema to 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.

Catch the Wave

Just as a board helps a surfer catch the power of a wave, Lent can help someone ‘catch’ the grace of God.

This brought me to the realization that spiritual disciplines are a lot like surfboards. The surfer doesn’t create the wave, but her board 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 to glad to fill. The spiritual discipline of Lent helps many people to “catch the wave” of God’s ever-available power.

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.

Alcohol, Carbs, and the Presence of God

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.

Surfs Up!

Next:  You Are What You Eat (and Do): Why You Might Not Want to Give Up Chocolate For Lent

 


[1] Okay, actually Lent is actually 46 days. Why? Medieval church leaders decided that fasting on the feast day of Sunday was a hypocrisy and deducted the six Sunday’s of Lent from the season of repentance, making Lent 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.

[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, Tivo and Hulu have helped me nearly eliminate the kind of mindless channel surfing that so thwarted my early spiritual development.

What is Spiritual Formation? by Dallas Willard, PhD

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

“We have multitudes of professing Christians who well may be ready to die, but obviously are not ready to live.” -Dallas Willard

Dallas Willard served as a Professor in the School of Philosophy at the University of Southern California for over 35 years. He exerted tremendous influence in the areas of epistemology, the philosophy of mind and of logic, and the phenomenology of Edmund Husserl. However, it is Willard’s writings in the field of religion that may prove to be his greatest legacy.

Willard has also become one of the world’s leading voices in a renewed understanding of spiritual formation. His Hearing God (1984)[1], and The Spirit of the Disciplines (1988), helped launch the modern Protestant spiritual formation movement. Subsequent publications have only deepened his impact. The Divine Conspiracy (1998) was selected as a Christianity Today “Book of the Year.” Renovation of the Heart (2002) received Christianity Today’s Book Award in the category of Spirituality. The Great Omission (2006) received a Christianity Today annual Book Award in the Christian Living category.

His final new book, Knowing Christ Today (2009), contained Willard’s lifetime of reflection on the connection between spiritual formation and philosophy. I believe it will prove to be his most influential work.

Willard’s writing, lecturing, and counsel have greatly influenced my own understanding of spirituality. Key concepts in Renovation of the Heart help shape the framework of my dissertation thesis and even merit a special appendix comparing and contrasting Willard and America’s most famous spiritual formation book: A Treatise on Religious Affections by Jonathan Edwards. (More in future posts.)

In the selection below, Willard, introduces the topic, “What is Spiritual Formation,” with concepts that I will build upon in future posts. Enjoy.


Spiritual Formation in Christ: A Perspective on What it is and How it Might be Done

by Dallas Willard on Dwillard.org

“… until Christ be formed in you.” (Gal. 4:19)

“Spiritual formation” is a phrase that has recently rocketed onto the lips and into the ears of Protestant Christians with an abruptness that is bound to make a thoughtful person uneasy. If it is really so important, not to mention essential, then why is it so recent? It must be just another passing fad in Protestant religiosity, increasingly self-conscious and threatened about “not meeting the needs of the people.” And, really, isn’t spiritual formation just a little too Catholic to be quite right?

We could forget the phrase “Spiritual formation,” but the fact and need would still be there to be dealt with. The spiritual side of the human being, Christian and non-Christian alike, develops into the reality which it becomes, for good or ill. Everyone receives spiritual formation, just as everyone gets an education. The only question is whether it is a good one or a bad one. We need to take a conscious, intentional hand in the developmental process. We need to understand what the formation of the human spirit is, and how it can best be done as Christ would have it done. This is an indispensable aspect of developing a psychology that is adequate to human life.

The reason for the recent abrupt emergence of the terminology into religious life is, I believe, a growing suspicion or realization that we have not done well with the reality and the need. We have counted on preaching, teaching, and knowledge or information to form faith in the hearer, and have counted on faith to form the inner life and outward behavior of the Christian. But, for whatever reason, this strategy has not turned out well. The result is that we have multitudes of professing Christians who well may be ready to die, but obviously are not ready to live, and can hardly get along with themselves, much less with others…

Continue Reading

Next: Jonathan Edwards Goes to Movies: What Story Structure Teaches Us About Religious Affections and Lent

.

——-

[1] Originally published as In Search of Guidance.

You Are What You Eat (and Do): Why You Might Not Want to Give Up Chocolate For Lent

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

At first glance, the concept of Embodied Cognition looks more like a whackadoodle academic program than serious research. But could it be scientific evidence for an ancient Christian practice?

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

Tom Bartlett reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education (below) that eating chocolate and other sweets can actually make you a sweeter person.

In one experiment, the researchers gave 58 undergraduates either a Hershey’s Kiss or an Altoids Tangerine Sour. Posttreat, those who had eaten a Kiss rated themselves as feeling more agreeable than those who had sucked an Altoid.

That’s not terribly shocking. Maybe chocolate puts people in a slightly better mood. Fine.

What’s harder to wrap my head around is an experiment that linked a fondness for sweet foods with a willingness to help others. First, the 108 participants (undergrads again) filled out a survey in which they rated how much they liked salty, sour, and sweet foods.

They were then asked whether they would be willing to help dispose of sandbags. The question isn’t as random as it sounds: There had been a flood in the area, and millions of sandbags needed to be removed. The way the question was framed, the participants might reasonably have believed that they were committing to help out with the cleanup.

Here’s what Robinson found: People who liked sweet foods were more likely to volunteer to remove sandbags. They were metaphorically sweet people who loved actual sweets.

kids eating candyAt first glance, this concept of Embodied Cognition looks more like some new whackadoodle academic program than serious research. But could it be scientific evidence for an ancient Christian practice?

Late USC professor Dallas Willard and other spiritual formation experts, note that most of what we call “character” consists in what our bodies are “at the ready” to do in specific situations. This means that our inclinations towards evil literally inhabit our body—our tongue, our eyes, our hands, our stomachs, etc.—in such a way that genuine Christlikeness is very much connected to the retraining our bodies for good (Renovation of the Heart, 159, 162, 166).

Willard asserted that no matter how badly we might wish to follow Christ, we cannot transform ourselves by sheer force of our will. We may know that loving our neighbor is Christ’s ideal and even wish to obey, but that desire alone is usually not enough to keep us from, say, speaking in anger when our neighbor’s dog ruins our freshly seeded lawn. If that ‘neighbor’ is a family member with whom we have often engaged in escalating war of words, we might even hear words coming out of our mouth that we vowed we would never say again just a few moments earlier. This embodiment of our sin all but guarantees that “little can be done in the moment of need to help one do the good thing Jesus commands” (90-94).

We are very much like an obese man who is suddenly offered a one million dollar price if he can finish a marathon in under four hours. No matter how badly he wants the money, he simply cannot roll out of bed the next morning and claim his prize. It is physically impossible. However, if this man is willing to devote himself to disciplining his body to a progressively intensive regimen of a careful diet, walking, and finally running, it is well within his ability to one day become the kind of person who can travel 26.21875 miles in less than four hours.

This idea of becoming the kind of person who loves God and his neighbor with her whole heart is central to Willard’s thought. To Willard spiritual transformation is achieved as we cooperate with the power of God within us by directing our bodies and minds to practice certain time-honored spiritual disciplines. “Disciplines are activities that are in our power and that enable us to do what we cannot do by direct effort. We cannot transform our ideas and images, or even the information we have or our thought processes, into Christlikeness by direct effort. But we can do things—adopt certain practices—that, indirectly, will increasingly have that effect.” (113)

Christian Spiritual Formation is therefore a matter of recognizing and replacing in ourselves idea systems and practices of evil with the idea systems and practices of the kingdom of God embodied and taught by Jesus—filling our minds with the images, ideas, and information that filled the mind of Jesus, and occupying our bodies with those activities and practices that filled his schedule.

If I occupy my mind and body with the disciplines of mediating upon Christ’s words of love and forgiveness towards me, memorizing his command to love my neighbor (or my enemy), praying for the well-being of my enemies, and perhaps even secretly serving them with no thought of reward (perhaps by secretly tending to their lawn), it is highly likely that the next time I call upon my body to hold my tongue (what a wonderfully embodied term), my body will throw off its embodied sin and obey my will.  I have become the type of person who blesses others in moments of stress where I may have cursed in the past.

Which brings me back to Tom Bartlett’s Chronicle article below. I am not making a spiritual formation case for eating sweets (which some research says may lead to a life of crime.) What I am saying is that our bodies are an integral part of our spiritual formation. Compare some of the findings of Embodied Cognition to Willard’s thought and ponder whether or not such research may very well be onto something important…

…Or at least give you a good excuse not to give up chocolate for Lent.

Next:  What is Spiritual Formation, by Dallas Willard

 

The Sweet Kisses of Embodied Cognition

People who liked sweet foods were more likely to volunteer to remove sandbags. They were metaphorically sweet people who loved actual sweets.

by  • The Chronicle of Higher Education

Best lollipopsI wandered into a session on embodied cognition at last week’s Society for Personality and Social Psychology conference, and I walked away thinking what I heard can’t possibly be true.

I mean, it just can’t be. Can it?

Research on embodied cognition—the idea, basically, that the body strongly influences the mind in multiple ways we’re not aware of (though not everyone agrees with that definition)—is a fairly new field, and in the last few years it has produced a number of head-scratching results. For instance, there’s the 2009 study that seems to show that people holding heavy clipboards are more likely to disagree with weak arguments than people holding light clipboards. Or the study, also published in 2009, that found that people gripping a warm cup of coffee judged others as having a “warm” personality.

In the session I saw, the presentation, by Michael D. Robinson, a professor of psychology at North Dakota State University, was on his research suggesting a strong connection between acting sweet and eating sweets. Between cupcakes and kindness.

Some of his research got attention when it was first published, in 2011, but I was struck again by what it would mean if it turned out to be true.

In one experiment, the researchers gave 58 undergraduates either a Hershey’s Kiss or an Altoids Tangerine Sour. Posttreat, those who had eaten a Kiss rated themselves as feeling more agreeable than those who had sucked an Altoid.

That’s not terribly shocking. Maybe chocolate puts people in a slightly better mood. Fine.

What’s harder to wrap my head around is an experiment that linked a fondness for sweet foods with a willingness to help others. First, the 108 participants (undergrads again) filled out a survey in which they rated how much they liked salty, sour, and sweet foods.

They were then asked whether they would be willing to help dispose of sandbags. The question isn’t as random as it sounds: There had been a flood in the area, and millions of sandbags needed to be removed. The way the question was framed, the participants might reasonably have believed that they were committing to help out with the cleanup.

Here’s what Robinson found: People who liked sweet foods were more likely to volunteer to remove sandbags. They were metaphorically sweet people who loved actual sweets.

And the finding hits on one of the underlying ideas of embodied cognition—that is, that the metaphors we toss around are grounded in more concrete, physiological truths. Warm things make you physically and psychologically warmer. Cold things make you feel more alienated. Sweet things make you sweeter, and liking sweet things means you behave more sweetly.

Continue reading

See Also: The Feast of Fasting: Why Practicing Lent is a lot like Surfing

 

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

Part 4 in 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

You don’t have to be a celebrity to know that high stress environments can lead to “losing it.” (A Justin Bieber’s London tirade caught on video.)

Tabloids love it when celebrities ‘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 Justin Bieber, Brittany Spears, Charlie Sheen, Tom Cruise, Kanye West have each provided ample fodder to guarantee tabloid sales and clicks stay high.

But 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. But 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: 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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