Category Archives: Sprituality

Personal reflections on Thomas Merton

I have been deeply influenced by Thomas Merton, thus my spirituality reflects, in large part, his spirituality. My spirituality begins with the assumption that God exists and desires to reveal Godself to all. Along with that assumption is the belief that God is revealing Godself in all places and at all times, the only major differences between people is our amount of awareness. Some people are more conscious of, or aware of God’s presence, goodness, love, and beauty, while most of us remain unaware the majority of the time. (And this has nothing to do with how religious a person is.)

Similar to Merton, I believe that an awareness of Gods presence and love is a gift given from God. We don’t do anything to earn it. God doesn’t withhold from some until they have put in a certain number of hours in prayer or contemplation. Yet (I suspect Merton would agree here), I think that contemplation allows us to be more receptive to this gift, or as Merton would say, to our true self. I want to be cautious here because while I do not think there is a direct link to the number of hours one spends in prayer or contemplation, I do believe that spending time in prayer or contemplation opens a person up in greater ways to more easily receive this gift. While I do believe that gift can also be received through numerous other ways, I have found contemplative practices to be the most beneficial for me on my spiritual journey. I find silence and stillness allows my true self to emerge. The noise, stress, and busyness of western life is one of greatest, if not the greatest major struggle for spirituality today. I also believe this is one of the reason why so many struggle with a lack of meaning, purpose, and contentment in life. We are all running around so busy and stressed, just skimming the surface of life, and living mostly unaware of the sacredness of every moment.

Contemplative practices allow one to find stillness in the midst of the chaos and allows a safe place for the true self to emerge.

It is clear that the goal of the Christian life is love. When Jesus was asked what was the greatest commandment, he said it was to love God, others, and self. Jesus also said that people would be able to tell who his followers were by the love they had for each other. Like Merton, I do not believe that our love increases just by sheer will power, though it does take work. Spirituality then, leads us toward a greater connection with God, others, and self and thus increases our compassion for all. A spiritually mature person is a person with a great amount of compassion for self and others.

I believe that the primary way we grow in love is through experiencing Love.

Contemplative prayer – wordless prayer accompanied by stillness where one beholds God/the sacred – is the best way I have found to open oneself up to this Love. Merton would say this allows our true self to emerge – our self in union with God’s loving presence. I agree, and though I may use different words I believe we are conveying the same thing. Merton’s spirituality is perhaps even more relevant today than ever before. We cultivate compassion not by trying harder, but by finding stillness and allowing our self to be transformed by God’s loving embrace. The more aware we become of this Love, the more compassion we have for ourselves and others. The spiritual journey is paradoxically both external and internal.

It is through the journey inward that we are better equipped to extend compassion outward.

Thomas Merton’s Spirituality – part 3 of 3

Last week I wrote about Merton’s view of salvation. If salvation is a gift from God, what does the role of prayer play if any?

Concerning this Merton writes:

The inner self is precisely that self which cannot be tricked or manipulated by anyone, even by the devil. He is like a very shy wild animal that never appears at all whenever an alien presence is at hand and comes out only when all is perfectly peaceful, in silence, when he is untroubled and alone. He cannot be lured out by anyone or anything.

For Merton, prayer is sitting in stillness to allow the true self to emerge. Merton compares the true self to a “shy wild animal,” and suggests that one must become silent and still and wait patiently for the true self to emerge. Prayer is not primarily something to be “accomplished,” but rather is something one does to wait for the “accomplishing,” which is always done by God.[1]

All that we can do with any spiritual discipline is produce within ourselves something of the silence, the humility, the detachment, the purity of heart and the indifference which are required if the inner self is to make some shy, unpredictable manifestation of his Presence.[2]

For Merton, there is no formula or outline in the discovery of the true self.[3] Discovery of the true self is a gift, given by God. However, one can help this process by quieting their soul to allow this gift to emerge. Contemplative prayer then, is the act of quieting oneself and waiting patiently. Contemplation is simple, but extremely difficult, especially in today’s busy world!

For me the meaning of contemplation has evolved over time, but it continues to be a vital part of my spirituality – perhaps the central part. I have heard that contemplation is a form of wordless prayer where one beholds the essence of God, particularly God’s love and goodness. Through contemplation we find stillness and silence – it is here that we find God in the deepest sense. Like stilling water, contemplation allows us to still the chaos of life so we are better able to see clearly. One author writes that, “contemplative practice nurtures interior silence, teaches us the art of letting go, and helps us experience our struggles with greater clarity and balance.”[4] I have experienced this to be true in my own life. Contemplative practices, such as centering prayer, have become the most important aspect of my spirituality because it opens me up to become more conscious of God’s loving presence in all things.

The result of the discovery of the true self for Merton is love. Merton writes:

All through the Verba Seniorum we find a repeated insistence on the primacy of love over everything else in the spiritual life: over knowledge, gnosis, asceticism, contemplation, solitude, prayer. Love in fact is the spiritual life, and without it all the other exercises of the spirit, however lofty, are emptied of content and become mere illusions.[5]

Love must always be the end, for it is the spiritual goal. For Merton, greater love cannot be obtain by sheer willpower or demands, which is why the path of the spiritual life runs through self-transformation.[6] One becomes more loving not by trying to be more loving, but by coming to a greater awareness that one is loved.[7] The true test of a maturity is if a person extends compassion to others, for Merton writes, “contemplation is out of the question for anyone who does not try to cultivate compassion for other men.”[8]

In summary, Merton’s spirituality suggests that the goal of the spiritual life is the transformation of the self, which happens when a person is awakened to their true self. Contemplative practices allow a safe and quiet place for the true self to emerge as a gift from God. The result of a person walking into their true self is greater love or compassion for others.

[1] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 296.

[2] Ibid., 298.

[3] Ibid., 297.

[4] Laird, Into the Silent Land, 5.

[5] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 275.

[6] Ibid., 274.

[7] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 75.

[8] Ibid., 77.

Thomas Merton’s Spirituality – part 2 of 3

Sin & Salvation

Last post I introduced Thomas Merton and his spirituality. Today we will explore the role of sin and salvation from the perspective of Merton.

Sin, for Merton, is that which conceals our true self. “To say that I was born in sin is to say I came into the world with a false self. I was born in a mask.”[1] Because Merton associates sin with the mask of the false self, salvation is exposing the false self and an allowing the true self to emerge. “To be ‘saved’ is to return to one’s inviolate and eternal reality and to live in God.”[2] Merton understands salvation to be a returning to the true self, here we experience union with God. Merton writes, “I shall find myself. I shall be ‘saved.’”[3] While salvation for many within western Christianity has become primarily about the afterlife, for Merton salvation involves realizing that you are beloved of God – you are already loved and accepted as you are – this realization will lead us to union with God in the present (this idea has most likely shaped my personal spirituality in more ways than anything else!).

In other words, salvation is a reality to be experienced in the here and now as we become aware that we are already inside of God’s love.

It may seem that Merton is suggesting that salvation is obtained through human effort, but this is actually a gift one receives. Merton writes:

And so the contemplation of which I speak is a religious and transcendent gift. It is not something to which we can attain alone, by intellectual effort, by perfecting our natural powers…It is not the fruit of our own efforts. It is the gift of God, Who, in His mercy, completes the hidden and mysterious work of creation in us by enlightening our minds and hearts by awakening in us the awareness that we are words spoken in His One Word, and that Creating Spirit dwells in us, and we in Him. That we are “in Christ” and that Christ lives in us.[4]

For many salvation is obtained by “believing the right things,” but for Merton, salvation is obtained by a growing awareness (or even experience) of reality. Salvation, a realization of our true self, is a gift given by God when God “enlightens our minds and hearts” to recognize that “we are in Christ.” For Merton, there is no massive gulf that needs to be bridged, there is no sacrifice to appease an angry God, there is no hoop’s you need to jump through. Salvation is resting in God’s loving presence as this love exposes our false self.

Note: think about the life of Jesus. Every single time he encountered someone who felt they were a “sinner,” or felt unworthy or ashamed, Jesus extended love, compassion, and grace. My greatest critique for the majority of the church in the west, is that it often seems to think that it is through shaming, then one will be “saved.” The only people Jesus consistently struggled with were those who tried to create extra barriers and hurtles along the spiritual journey.

I think it is through an encounter with love, compassion, forgiveness and grace that we are transformed. What else could the story of the prodigal son mean?

I think it is important to note here that salvation is an ongoing process, not an instantaneous act where one becomes enlightened and then remains in that state from then on. It is more accurate to state that Merton believed it was a progressive movement by which a person becomes increasingly aware of their true self.

Next post I will conclude with Merton’s teaching on the role of contemplation in the process of spiritual formation.

 

 

 

[1] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 33.

[2] Ibid., 38.

[3] Ibid., 37.

[4] Ibid., 4-5.

Thomas Merton’s Spirituality – part 1 of 3

Thomas Merton has deeply influenced my spiritual journey. Since I think many who are seeking a different, more authentic way of being Christian today will find him compelling, I thought I would write a little about the spirituality of Thomas Merton as an introduction.

Thomas Merton was one of the greatest Catholic spiritual leaders of the twentieth century, and is one of the most well known authors of the contemplative life. While his life led him to become a monk at the Abbey of Gethsemani in Kentucky, he was a writer by nature and has authored over sixty books and hundreds of articles and poems. One writer once introduced him as “a monk by vocation, a theologian by conviction, and a writer by instinct.”[1] While he may have been all of these things, he is best known as a spiritual guide, a mystic, and a contemplative. His writings have inspired many who continue to find them relevant and insightful for their own spiritual journeys. In following  posts, I will explore Merton’s spirituality, his view of the goal of the Christian life, sin, and salvation.

Transformation of Self

Merton’s spirituality is fascinating. While his view of God, the world, and creation are not all that different from the Easter Christian tradition, his views are new for many in the West which tends to emphasize doctrine and theology over experience. For Merton, the goal of the Christian life is not an accumulation of information or correct doctrines, which is often the case for western Christianity. Reflecting upon Merton, one author writes, “He understood the interior transformation as the meaning and goal of the monastic life and of its solitude and contemplation.”[2] Concerning the inner journey Merton writes, “What can we gain by sailing to the moon if we are not able to cross the abyss that separates us from ourselves? This is the most important of all voyages of discovery, and without it all the rest are not only useless, but disastrous.”[3] Clearly the transformation of the self, or as Merton states this “inner voyage” is central to his view of spiritual formation.

Merton often contrasted what he called the “true self” with the “false self.” For Merton, exposing the false self and walking into the true self (or realizing one’s true self) is what leads to transformation. Merton defines the false self in the following way:

Every one of us is shadowed by an illusory person: a false self. This is the man that I want myself to be but who cannot exist, because God does not know anything about him…My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love – outside of reality and outside of life.[4]

The false self is an illusion, it is not who we actually are. I think what Merton is saying here is that people put on masks and then mistakenly identify themselves with that mask. Merton writes, “The creative and mysterious inner self must be delivered from the wasteful, hedonistic and destructive ego that seeks only to cover itself with disguises.”[5] The major problem is that this mask tells us we are outside of God’s reach, that we are not loved, valued, and accepted as we are. (Notice many forms of religion will capitalize on the feelings of shame and unworthiness that is brought on by the false self.)

If the false self is an illusory mask, the true self is “the true, secret self in which the Believer and Christ were ‘one Spirit.’”[6] It is precisely in realizing our true self that we experience union with God. According to Merton, our true self is who we actually are; our true self is our self “hidden in the love and mercy of God.”[7] As we expose the illusion of the false self, it is at this moment where we are receptive to God’s love and presence in our lives. This is available at all times and all places and for all people.

True Self/False Self

My spirituality has been so shaped by the idea of the true self and false self I’m not sure I can explain it any better than Merton. I view the false self as the part of us that feels unworthy of love and is full of shame – something I believe every human experiences (for more on shame explore Brene Brown’s work). Unhealthy religion will capitalize on this by pointing out our sin, separation, and unworthiness – often suggesting we need to believe all the correct things or do all the correct things in order to be loved and accepted by God. Healthy religion will allow us to transcend this shame, because we are already accepted as we are.

The false self is that part of us outside of God’s love because we don’t feel like we deserve God’s love. When we step into our true self, we realize that we are deeply loved by God regardless of whether or not we feel worthy. The spiritual path helps us walk into our true self by exposing the illusion of the false self – that part of us that feels outside of God’s loving union, that says I’m not good enough or worthy enough. In other words, the spiritual path allows us to become more aware of reality – the reality that we are already in loving union with God!

For me, this is everything!

 

 

 

[1] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 32.

[2] Ibid., 7.

[3] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 271.

[4] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 34.

[5] Ibid., 38.

[6] Cunningham, Thomas Merton: Spiritual Master, 267.

[7] Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation, 35.

Knowing Self

The goal of the spiritual journey is the transformation of the self.[1]

I have wrestled with the idea of knowing self much the last several years – it often feels selfish. Yet, as Thomas Kempis once wrote, “A humble self-knowledge is a surer way to God than a search after deep learning.”

Let that sink it for a moment.

Often, we strive for more information, thinking that if we can just check off all the boxes or answer all the questions correctly then we are spiritually mature. This mentality has caused so many to strive to be seen by others as righteous, knowledgeable, and all together; yet it has caused many to lack in humility.

I cannot help but notice that when religious people focus on the external, they quickly become rigid, judgmental, and hypocritical – I must confess that I have seen this within myself more times that I would like to admit!

This struggle also seems to be the great struggle Jesus had with the religious leaders of the first century. In the gospel of Matthew, Jesus confronts this tendency by saying the following:

25 “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you clean the outside of the cup and of the plate, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. 26 You blind Pharisee! First clean the inside of the cup,  so that the outside also may become clean.

27 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which on the outside look beautiful, but inside they are full of the bones of the dead and of all kinds of filth. 28 So you also on the outside look righteous to others, but inside you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.”[2]

I think it is easy for us as humans to focus on other people’s junk – in fact it’s not only easy, it boosts our own ego and sense of self-righteousness. It is easier for me to see the places and areas where others should grow or change than it is for me to notice, see, and accept the areas where I have messed up or have room to grow; accepting the shadows within us is a necessary part of our transformation.

Genuinely transformational knowing of self always involves encountering and embracing previously unwelcomed parts of self.[3]

Once we begin to notice things within ourselves, the second and even more difficult step is to accept these things. This is painful for several reasons. First, I would rather ignore these dark places. Second, once I am willing to look at and notice these areas, I struggle with shame and unworthiness, in other words, I struggle to accept these parts of myself.

Brene Brown writes:

We protect ourselves by looking for someone or something to blame. Or sometimes we shield ourselves by turning to judgment or by immediately going into fix-it mode.[4]

She continues to explore the relationship between self-acceptance and extending acceptance toward others:

The heart of compassion is really acceptance. The better we are at accepting ourselves and others, the more compassionate we become.[5]

 

Questions:

  1. Do you struggle to accept yourself?
  2. What parts of yourself do you struggle to accept? Why?
  3. Do you believe that God accepts all parts of you?

 

 

 

 

[1] David Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself, 14.

[2] Matthew 23:25-28

[3] David Benner, The Gift of Being Yourself, 52.

[4] Brene, Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, 16.

[5] Brene, Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection, 17.

Spiritual growth is more about subtraction than addition

If your following along the Lenten devotional by Richard Rohr, yesterday you read that the spiritual journey is more like giving up control than taking control.

I have been thinking about spirituality and the idea that we grow through subtraction and not addition (I can’t take credit for that analogy as I first heard it from Richard Rohr).

This was difficult for me to grasp at first because I viewed people who were spiritual mature as those who could pray, fast, and read boatloads of the Bible. My experience, both personally and what I have seen of others, has led me to believe that you can do all those things and yet not become spiritually mature, i.e., transformed (particularly into greater love).

Perhaps spiritual growth happens more by becoming aware of our false self and letting go of this self – our fears, insecurities, desire to defend, our creation of us-vs-them, shame, anger, etc.

  • Is there something in your life you are invited to give up or let go of?

In today’s reading Rohr writes, God is always much better than the most loving person you can imagine…

For many of us, the good news was what we had to do to get God to love or forgive us. Yet Jesus suggests God’s love is unconditional. I would summarize the Good News as, “You and I are each loved by God.” Our job, our work, is to become aware of this and to walk into this.

  • Is the good news something we have to do, or is it something we simply become aware of and receive?

If Jesus tells us to “Ask and you will receive. Seek, and you will find. Knock and it will be opened…,” perhaps today you might ask for a deeper knowledge of God’s unconditional love for both you and those around you. If you are really bold, perhaps you might ask for a greater understand of this love even towards those whom you dislike.

I invite you to meditation on these texts. Allow them to wash over you as you are reminded of God’s intimate love for you and for those around you.

Romans 8v38-39

38 For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, 39 nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Ephesians 3v18-20

18 I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, 19 and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, so that you may be filled with all the fullness of God.

Ash Wednesday

Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.  – Ps 51:11

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day that begins the forty days of Lent season (excluding Sundays) in the Christian calendar.  Lent mirrors the forty days Jesus spent in the wilderness before beginning his public ministry.

Lent is a season of self-reflection, self-examination, prayer, and fasting as Christians around the world join together to anticipate Easter Sunday.

Ash Wednesday is a day that reminds us of our mortality. Ashes, that come from the palm branches from the last years Palm Sunday,  are placed upon the forehead in the sign of a cross while the clergy pronounce:

Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

It may sound strange to think of a day dedicated to recall one’s mortality, but this can be very formative for us as we take time to reflect on the fact that we will all one day pass away. At the very least, it can allow us to become more grateful for every moment we have and for every encounter with have with beauty and with each other. It can also be a time to examine and reflect upon the meaning of our lives.

Traditionally,  Christians choose to abstain from something (i.e., fast) during Lent. Some do this as a sign of penance, others as a sign of devotion, and others as a means to create space in their lives to allow God to speak to them. Often, Christians today will engage in a spiritual discipline (e.g., a Lenten devotional or specific spiritual practice such as meditation, journaling etc.)

I have chosen to enter into this season by intentionally engaging in some of these ancient practices. While I do not pretend to know how God always works, I do believe that we can be intentional about spiritual formation by creating space in our lives for the divine to work. Are there ways you can create space by forgoing things in your life? Perhaps things that are not necessarily bad but that either take up a lot of time or energy during your day?  Or perhaps there are activities you engage in, either consciously or unconsciously, that distract you from diving more deeply into your own pain or weaknesses? If your like me, you will find it difficult to forego these things because they have become such a habit in our lives.  Are you willing to enter into Lent with the intention to create more space to engage in a spiritual practice? I believe by doing this, we increase our sensitivity to God’s work in the world and I think we can expect to be formed in some way – perhaps in unexpected ways!
On this Ash Wednesday, I invite you to reflect upon the following questions, and to see them as invitations for you during this Lent season. Feel free to write a response to any of them, or simply use them as a personal reflection.

  1. If you have been a part of a tradition that has celebrated Lent, how has this practice influenced you? Has it been positive or negative? Why do you think that is?
  2. Do you feel invited to enter into a season of fasting? (Ideas on what to fast below.) If so, what have you chosen to abstain from? Why have you chosen this?
  3. Have you chosen a specific spiritual discipline or practice to help connect you with God or the sacred in greater ways? (If you are interested in a Lenten devotional, I invite you to join us at One Church as we journey through a devotional written by Richard Rohr which you can find here.)

Ideas for fasting:

  • Fast from food – once or twice a week (sunrise to sunset).
  • Fast from certain kinds of food (e.g., chocolate, alcohol, meat, fast food, etc).
  • Fast from social media (ouch, that one hurts!) or choose to look at social media only during select times throughout the day (e.g., 2x’s a day in the morning and evening).
  • Fast from TV.
  • Fast from the internet (is that even possible?).
  • Fast from listening to the radio on the way to/from work to create some silence in your life.

Ideas for spiritual disciplines:

  • Lenten devotional
  • Journaling
  • Meditation or contemplative prayer
  • Nature walks

Suggestion to incorporate into your spiritual disciplines:

  • Spiritual disciplines can take many different forms, but consider incorporating journaling during this Lenten season. It’s not a diary, but more of a spiritual journal where you can write down what you think, feel, desire, etc. I have found this to be very powerful as I can go back and read things I have written before and see the ways that God has worked in my life that I would have otherwise been unaware of. Spiritual formation most often happens slowly – it is a process. Journaling is a way to keep track of this progress as well as a spiritual practice itself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Personality type and spiritual formation

If you know me at all you know that I am pretty obsessed with personality typing. I often catch myself talking to others about their Myers Briggs or Enneagram type. Sometimes, I confess, I take it a little too far and have to remind myself (or more accurately my wife reminds me) that there is more to the person than their personality type.

Some people believe that personality typing places people inside a box, but I have found that it actually exposes the boxes I put myself in and gives me ways to get out of the box – this is especially true of the Enneagram. Here are two ways that understanding personality has helped me grow.

  1. It brings compassion.

I heard someone talk about the Enneagram recently as a tool that increases your compassion toward others because you begin to understand that other people don’t think like you. I cannot tell you how many “discussions” (ok sometimes they are more than “discussion”) my wife and I have had concerning trite things like toothpaste, where something belongs, or how to go about cleaning the bathrooms. While at the time they always seem important, they are usually very small things, and they often reflect how we see the world differently. In hindsight I can see that our approaches differ because we have different personalities – thank God!

For example, I am an idealist who lives in my head and dreams of the future. My wife lives in the here and now (something that takes me a lot of practices to do and thus a trait I greatly admire) and takes the world in through her senses. She is much better at remembering street signs or where a certain grocery store is located. When we drive, I am daydreaming about what someone said, what I heard, what I read, or trying to make connections concerning some theory or model concerning the future of the universe (Yes I somehow tend to avoid collisions as I have only totalled one vehicle). My wife, on the other hand, is taking in all the information that is passing her by in the immediate “here and now.”

I also dislike (well actually cannot stand!) clutter. If it were up to me, my car would always be washed, waxed, and vacuumed and our house with minimal things inside. For my wife, clutter isn’t near as big of a deal as having fun, making memories, and enjoying whatever the present brings – I wish I were more like her and I am hoping that she will wear off on me.

Understanding that we don’t take in information, we don’t process information, and we don’t make decisions in the same way can bring about greater compassion for your spouse, your parents, your children, your boss, and all your relationships. I heard someone recently say that the different Enneagram types is similar to wearing different glasses – it greatly influences what we see and what we pay attention to. The struggle for me is reminding myself this on a regular basis as I so quickly forget.

2. Others experience/see the sacred differently.

This is one area I have been thinking about (or daydreaming) a lot recently. I often ask people their MBTI or Enneagram and I have noticed that some are more naturally drawn to things like contemplative spirituality while others find it much more difficult and less helpful.

For example, many NFs (particularly INFx’s) are almost mystic by nature. If someone is an Enneagram type four this is also true (and even more pronounced if they are a type 4 and an NF!). Many believe Thomas Merton was a type four and he is often seen as an example for many modern mystics. It is much more difficult for an extrovert (though obviously not impossible) to engage in contemplative practices and if that person is an S (sensing) or a T (thinking) on the MBTI it is even more likely they will find contemplative practices more difficult.

role-proportions-chart

I use contemplative practices as an example because as an INFJ I have found it very helpful, yet my tendency is to think that everyone would benefit from it in the same way I do and thus herald it as the thing.

What I have noticed in myself and in plenty of others is that we tend to think that how we view the world is how others do. As spiritual people we also tend to think that what works best for us may work best for someone else – this often leads to cookie cutter approaches to spirituality.  We can see this to be true in many others ways, e.g., exercise, diet, politics, education, parenting, leadership etc. I think we tend to forget that other people see the world differently and an exercise or diet that may work great for me may not work all that well for someone else.

In the end, the more I understanding the different personalities the more it opens me up to see and appreciate diversity – diversity of thoughts, opinions, worldviews, choices etc. I do still struggle, however, often thinking that my own opinions are the correct ones and that since I love yoga everyone should. Yet, I am reminded that while yoga may work well for me, some people just need an intense, high energy workout. While contemplative practices may be a more natural fit and very beneficial for me, others may need a place to serve, a place to share, or loud music to just let it all go. Sometimes I wish my wife saw the world exactly how I do, but would I really want to be married to myself? (just i case there is any question let me answer this clearly…hell no!)

There is beauty in diversity. Diverse foods, people, places, and things. I have much room to grow when it comes to compassion toward others and understanding that others may see and approach the sacred differently than I, but understanding the different personality types has helped me.

Perhaps you feel frustrated because others connect with the divine in a certain way that does not work for you.

Perhaps you found that certain spiritual practices, books, teachings, etc work well for others, but they just don’t work well for you.

Perhaps you wonder if you are odd because you don’t see God the same way that many around you do.

Spiritual formation, while leading us all to greater love and compassion, may look radically differently from person to person. As we better understand that we are all hardwired a little differently, maybe we can have more grace for the way others think and be more open to different ways and approaches to life and spirituality.

 

Process theology part IV – pastoral ministry

I wouldn’t call myself a process theist, though there is nothing about process that I have a problem or disagree with. I would say that I have been deeply influenced by process theology and that it makes sense to both my intellect and my experience in this world, but I’m not 100% sold that this is the way it is. I am open to parts of process being wrong, incomplete, or ways others may experience the world. Below I will list several of the major ways I see that process theology can have a positive influence on pastoral ministry.

  1. Creates more openness

Yes, it can open the pastor up to see the many ways God may be working in different situations and people. Also, there may not be one right and one wrong choice, but there may be many choices, sometimes with varying degrees of good or bad. Instead of having a great deal of pressure to find the “one way” or “one correct choice,” the pastor is free to explore multiple choices and to allow a lot more “wiggle room” for others to do so as well. This will automatically allow the pastor to be less rigid, as each person is given more freedom to create their future. The idea that there may be several good options and God may not care which one (or God only cares that we don’t choose certain ones) brings a sense of freedom and creativity that I think our worlds needs more of. This lack of freedom and creativity is also a major reason why many are distancing themselves from organized religion.

  1. Invitation to partner with God

Process theology invites people into a co creative act with God in a way that more traditional theologies do not. Since the future is open and yet to be created (the future is not predetermined), there is a lot of work that can be done. Of course with this can come some pressure as there is also a lot of responsibility, but I think most would see this as a wonderful opportunity – we get to create a future with God and our actions really matter! In this regard, the decisions we make may be varying degrees of participation with God as we open ourselves up to God’s leading in each situation.

  1. Everything is interconnected

When a pastor believes that all things are relational and thus interconnected, his or her vision is much larger. It’s not just about saving souls from going to hell, or about convincing everyone who is not a Christian that they are wrong, but it is a way to see that every life matters, every creature matters, and our earth matters. Some theologies are very short sighted and even destructive as they are merely “evacuation plans.” In process theology everyone is invited to see with new lenses the ways that all our choices affect others for better or worse. Our diet, our transportation, our clothing, our lifestyle are all-important because they have affects on others. When all things are relational we see all things with greater value. This leads to a much more expansive view of the world that includes not just human souls, but all creation!

  1. God is for the flourishing of all things.

This is related to the others, but is a wonderful way to see the world. In process theology, God is not an angry, judgmental tyrant. Nor does God require blind obedience. God will not punish you just because you didn’t obey. Clearly there are consequences to not following the lure or initial aim of God, but this is greatly different than receiving punishment for not obeying. If God is working for all things to flourish, then God is working for each individual to flourish. It becomes more about opening yourself up to God’s aim than it does about obeying a directive. A pastor can help others understand that God is not waiting for them to mess up or carrying a list of the people who are naughty and nice, but is always working on their behalf. For so many people this will be absolutely freeing! This also means that God is not only working for my flourishing, but for yours, and for all creation. This brings a larger perspective than the common and narrow anthropocentric view of many theologies. God wants all creation to flourish and when we participate in the flourishing of other things we are participating with God. There are numerous ways one can do this, so a pastor can encourage others that they are doing sacred work even in the ordinary things.

  1. God is not a “being out there,” but is personal and near.

Many picture God as somewhere a long ways away sitting on a throne. Process informs us that God is here and very active in the world. A pastor who has a panetheistic view of the world can encourage others to see all the ways God may be working in the world, or to at least be open to see that perhaps God is working in ways they cannot see. When “all things are in God” then all things become sacred. Pastors can help others see that teaching, office work, running a business, cleaning, laundry, organizing, creating art, music, poetry, non profit work, are all sacred tasks and God is working through all of it. It also brings God a lot closer. God is not a distant deity that sometimes acts in extreme circumstance, but is present in every thing and working in all.

Obviously these are just a few ways, and many of them are related. A process informed pastor can meet the real needs of people when they are hurting and broken because they understand that that a persons loss or pain was not caused by God. A pastor can walk through these difficult times, even if they cannot give absolute reasons why they were caused, and help bring healing and wholeness to the lives of those around them.

I think many people are in need of a different way of seeing God and a different way of understanding how God interacts in the world. The more traditional ways of seeing God are not working and process theology gives us a great way of understanding a God that not only makes intellectual sense to many, but can also be helpful and healing to those who have struggled or are struggling with more traditional ways of understanding God. A pastor does not need to mention the word process or go into the ins and outs of the specifics of process theology. Being pastoral is providing care and guidance to people, especially in difficult times. Process theology can have a very positive influence upon those providing this care as it provides a way to engage in the world that makes sense to many modern people.

 

 

Stages of Spiritual Growth

Roughly 5 years ago I began a process that took me into a deep internal struggle. The worldview which was handed down to me no longer worked and as I was pursuing ministry, involved in leadership at my church, and finishing up my undergrad degree in Biblical Studies. It became more and more apparent that the ground beneath me that once seemed so solid was quickly falling.

This experience lasted for more then several years, and if I’m honest I am probably still journeying through bits of it. It was a faith crises of sorts, and through this struggle I have discovered a deeper, but very different way of being a person of faith and spiritual conviction. Along the way, I learned about the stages of faith. Both James Fowler and Psychiatrist M. Scott Peck have written about this spiritual developmental theory. My only regret is that I did not discover it sooner. M. Scott Peck gives four simple and important stages to spiritual development. These stages are as follows:

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Stage I: Chaotic – antisocial.

As an infant we enter into this life thinking the world revolves around us. We all begin in stage I. It is a time of chaos or lawlessness in that we are not sure what is true, good, or right. At stage I we are selfish and seek our own self interests. Some have suggested that prison is a stage I institution in that it places limits on those who don’t or can’t control themselves as part of a larger society.

Stage II: Formal – institutional.

As we grow, we begin to seek stability and a sense of security. This stability is most often given in the form of large institutions and/or a person(s) of authority. We seek to know what should be, what is true, right, and good. We often learn this from religious organizations (or other places such as the military). This stage is helpful and necessary in spiritual development, but unfortunately most religious people and institutions remain at stage II.

Stage III: Skeptical – individual.

While many remain at stage II, some begin to question the institutions, structures, and those in authority. This is often reflected during the teenage years as this person begins to question their parents authority and their rules. Religiously, many who enter into stage III begin to question the doctrines, dogma, and beliefs that have been handed down to them. Many who enter into stage III believe this to be the last and final stage. The college or university are often associated with this stage.

Stage IV: Mystical – communal.

Few people enter into stage IV. One enters into stage IV when they continue to seek out the sacred and walk through the skepticism, questions, and doubts of stage III. People in stage IV may be religious or may not, but they all share some form of deep knowing and appreciation for the divine or sacred as Great Mystery. Instead of clear answers and black and white thinking as seen in stage II, people in stage IV value questions, experience, mystery, and the journey toward discovering more. While often in stage II we are very closed off and dogmatic, in stage IV people are open to experiencing new and different things and working with those who do not see things the same way. They realize that no creed, doctrine, dogma, book, or religion can fully capture the Sacred. Often they are deeply committed to their own particular wisdom tradition, but they are open to learning from others. While stage III people are more individualistic, people in stage IV see the great value of community.

Some thoughts:

Looking back, I can see that five years ago I was pushing back against a stage II environment. I was questioning, wrestling, and struggling – the “institution” (i.e., church) was not giving me answers that worked or made sense to my experience, thoughts, and beliefs. The journey from stage II to stage III often brings a crisis of faith, and many never recover or move past stage III for one of two reasons: either they are sick and tired of the whole “religious” thing and are over it entirely (they chuck it all out or see it as only a crutch), or they have no idea that there is a stage IV and have never encountered anyone who lived at this stage. Often many people at stage III associate religion or spirituality with stage II because often there experiences reflect this.

Some people are at stage I and the traditional forms of religion at stage II are exactly what they need. I believe this is why churches are growing in certain parts of the world – it is a necessary and important step in spiritual growth. But, many in the western world are at stage III and they see much of religion at stage II. In other words, it feels like a step backwards.

What I hope to be growing into (I don’t claim to be there yet) is stage IV. I have struggled with being a pastor because much of what I have known has been stage II religion. I realize that being at stage IV means that you may speak some of the same language as people at stage II, but mean different things. Thus, there is a tension because people at stage II will see you as a threat and people at stage III will often think you are at stage II because of your language.

I believe we are in desperate need of stage IV leaders, pastors, CEOs, business people, parents, counselors, teachers, etc. Our world will grow when those at stage IV have the courage to step out, speak, and lead. These people may be misunderstood, seen as a threat, or even seen by some as naive, but many of the great movements of history have been lead by people who took this risk. Stage IV people are sometimes called the mystics – they see beyond what most can see.

We need people who can see what most cannot. We need people who can help teach others to see beyond stage II or III and into another, more deeper way of being human and brings the heart and the mind together and works toward a more just and generous world.