The Power of No: Freedom and Self-Will

When we assume that freedom means doing whatever we want, whenever we want, we become slaves. By allowing ourselves to go with the flow of internal and external promptings, we find ourselves driven by the capriciousness of self-will, the blind dictates of emotion, the tyranny of compulsions, and the despotism of mere routine. A life unrestrained by critical reflection and the ability to tell ourselves “No” quickly becomes a life of hardship and anguish.

As unchecked selfishness and pride lead to misery and darkness, some eventually reach a point of surrender. A desire to renounce willfulness is born out of pain as we long for a transcendent power to liberate us from ourselves. This is the first and most important step in spiritual transformation, which is accompanied by a life-giving insight: there is a difference between self-will and genuine freedom. True liberty is the power to say “Yes” to the good, the true, and the beautiful, but it is also the power to say “No” to the seductions of the selfish, the counterfeit, and the destructive. If you cannot say “No” to yourself, you are not free. Unrestrained freedom is simply another form of slavery.

Challenge: Meditate on Romans 6:15-23.

[This reflection emerged from lectio divina on Thomas Merton, New Seeds of Contemplation,  Chapter 26: “Freedom Under Obedience.”]

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Loving People in Pain: Humility and Compassion

Sometimes we are impatient with the weakness of others. When those closest to us exhibit neediness, it’s easy to recoil in judgment. Their vulnerability triggers our fear: fear of being blamed, fear of unreasonable demands, and fear that our own neediness will become visible. The result is distance, leaving the other person feeling abandoned in their pain. While this reaction may provide a fleeting sense of control, over time it erodes trust and makes intimacy more difficult.

When people experience weakness, their soul cries out for compassion and support. They need trusted loved ones to draw close, to empathize and tell them that they are still loved. Deep down inside, most of us want to offer these gifts, but fear and pride compel us to withdraw. If this results in shame, we can justify our callousness in the name of tough love or healthy boundaries, thereby increasing the disconnect and adding insult to injury.

The cure is humility.

Humility is a misunderstood virtue in our culture. It is usually associated with impotence and confused with humiliation, but nothing could be farther from the truth. Genuine humility is about self-awareness. It’s about knowing, showing, and embracing our strengths and weaknesses, our beauty and brokenness. It’s an affirmation of our common humanity (our imperfection), which counteracts the tendency to elevate or degrade ourselves in relation to others. Humility teaches, “The weakness that I see in you is the weakness that resides in me.”

When clothed in humility, our response to neediness can be supportive. Instead of compulsively withdrawing in fear and judgement, humility empowers us to connect with the pain of others through empathy, and in this way humility is the gateway to compassion.

Contrary to popular opinion, humility and compassion require enormous strength. It is easy to react in fear, defensiveness, and judgment, leaving others feeling abandoned and bereft. It is difficult to enter someone’s pain and hold them there. In fact, we cannot muster enough courage to love in this way without drawing on a power greater than ourselves, without grace.

So, let us pray for that which makes love possible: humility, compassion, and patience. And let us practice these virtues as others trust us enough to show their weakness and pain.

My Morning Prayer

Lord, grant that I may greet the coming day with spiritual tranquility. Grant that in all things I may rely on your holy will. Whatever news may reach me today, teach me to accept it with a calm soul, knowing that you are always with me, that you will never give me more than I can bear in the power of your Spirit, and that you are working all things together for my good because I’ve been called according to your good purposes. Empower me to die to self and be emptied of ego so that Christ may fully reign in and through me. Forgive me of my sins and give me the courage to accept my acceptance. Teach me to live as one who is truly forgiven. Fill me with your Holy Spirit. Direct my thoughts and feelings in all of my words and actions. Bend all of my desires to your will, teaching me to love what you love and want what you want. Grant that I may deal firmly and wisely with all in my care, speaking the truth in love without unnecessarily provoking or hurting anyone. Help me to see my life, with all the joy and all the sorrow, all the faithfulness and all the failure, as a gift given by you to be received in gratitude and celebrated with others. Remove all fear from my heart, teach me to trust you in all things, and give me a sense of peace I rest in your presence today. Teach me to make good use my time, creating gifts that point to you and freely releasing them into the world without expectation. May I focus on faithfulness not outcomes. Teach me to pray, to hope, to be patient, to forgive, and to love. I pray these things in Christ’s name, who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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I have been writing, rewriting, and editing this prayer for years. It began with a prayer written by the Fathers from the Orthodox Monastery of Optimo, but I changed it over the years to fit my own spiritual journey.

To Thine Own Self Be True: The Path to Lasting Joy

“Franciscan alternative orthodoxy doesn’t bother fighting popes, bishops, Scriptures, or dogmas. It just quietly but firmly pays attention to different things-like simplicity, humility, non-violence, contemplation, solitude and silence, earth care, nature and other creatures, and the ‘least of the brothers and sisters.’ In Francis we see the emergence of a very different worldview, a worldview that is not based on climbing, achieving, possessing, performing, or any idealization of order, but a life that enjoys and finds deep satisfaction on the level of naked being itself–much more than doing or having.”

This quote by Richard Rohr gestures toward my own Lenten focus this year.
What are the things that give you deep joy? What activities make you feel alive and energized? What deepens your sense of meaning, value, and beauty? What are your natural abilities and spiritual gifts? What are you passionate about? What are the things you have always known how to do without having been taught?
As you patiently ponder these questions and answers emerge, you will discover your gifts to the world–things you can offer that add value to the lives of others and provide a deep sense of belonging. You will discover your purpose and unique contribution to life. These are birthright gifts that no one can take away, gifts that you can enjoy and share wherever you are, regardless of your circumstances. And if you build your life around these things, you’ll be empowered to develop what Henri Nouwen calls a “holy indifference” to the wavering opinions of others.
Remember, most people in the world form opinions of you based on how you conform to their expectations. Since everyone has a different set of expectations (that vary in degrees of spiritual and emotional health), it is impossible to make everyone happy all the time. So allowing other people to define you and tying your happiness to the approval of others is like playing a rigged casino game–you will always lose.
In contrast, the path to lasting peace, joy, and love is figuring out who you really are as a beloved child of God and living in that truth come hail or high water. “To thine own self be true,”  and let the chips fall where they may.
“What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” -Jesus

Meditating in the Presence of a Three Year Old

For the last ten years I have lived as a single man in a big house, and my only constant companion has been Aslan, my German Shepherd Dog. For longer than I can remember, my daily routine has been fairly consistent. I wake-up slowly at 8:00am, make lots of coffee, and spend two hours in complete silence, praying, studying scripture, reading spiritual classics, and meditating on what I hear from God during this time. After devotions, I use the first part of my day to write sermons, lectures, Bible studies, and articles. In order to be at my best, I need more . . . you guessed it . . . uninterrupted silence. Unless there is something pressing, I usually do not enter the busy world of meetings, classes, appointments, and visits until around 1:00pm. This discipline of devoting the first half of my day to devotions and creative projects has made an incredible difference in my quality of life and leadership, and I have come to cherish this time.

However, on August 8th I became the joyful husband of Emma and proud “2Pop” (stepfather) of Isaac (5) and Evie (3). This week has been unique because we are at the tail end of summer break and Emma had to return to work early for new teacher training at McKeel Academy. In order to save $150 in childcare expenses, I decided to stay home with the kids and work around structured times of fun with them. This has created some challenges in practicing the routine mentioned above, and it is precisely through these challenges that God spoke to me.

This morning I asked the kids to give me one hour for devotions, and I intentionally exercised patience and prayed through the noise coming from the living room. For the first time in a long time, I was finally doing what I had been asking moms to do for years in my sermons on prayer. It’s not that I was completely unprepared to be Mr. Mom for two weeks. After all, I raised two little boys myself, Jobe and Jackson, and had already had several conversations with Emma about what it would be like to co-parent small children again under the same roof. The fact that I love Isaac and Evie as my own children make this adjustment a joy, but it is still an adjustment.

During my meditation time, I had a powerful insight: My first responsibility as a pastor is to be a decent human being. Just as soon as I started pondering this insight, I heard a knock at the door. I remained silent. The door opened, and I heard 10 small feet walking all around me. It was Evie with two dogs in her wake. Amidst the jingle of collars and the sounds of panting and scratching, I heard a voice, “Mawk, I’m tirsty.” God said, “Be a decent human being,” so with my eyes still closed I gently put my arm around Evie, smiled, rubbed her back, and said, “Give me just a few more minutes until my meditation timer goes off.” She said, “Ooook” and walked away leaving me with two excited dogs and an open doorway where sound could flood in without restraint. I thought about yelling across the house, “Evie, shut my door,” but again I heard a still small voice say to me, “Be a decent human being in this situation without trying to change it.” God was calling me in this moment not to be a decent human being as a pastor but as a father, and I was obedient. After my timer went off, I did ask Evie to close my door so I could say my final prayer. Halfway through, right after I uttered the phrase, “Lord, empty me of myself,” she came barreling in again. I slowly opened my eyes and saw her beautiful, innocent, yet mischievous face, and all I could do is chuckle as my heart smiled. God helped me to see that I was meditating for Evie and Isaac today.

This is the fruit of meditation: it empowers us to be decent human beings to whoever we meet, including those that we love and get frustrated with the most. The spiritual giants of ages past help us to see the importance of setting aside a specific time each day for meditation, because it is here that we experience a much needed emotional and spiritual clearing. For a brief time, we detach from the world, surrender all distractions, and die to self in a recreating silence. But all of this is for the purpose of intimate communion with God so that the peace, love, and joy we experience in His presence can become a way of life in service to others. When we open our eyes after meditating, we see our children, spouse, friends, coworkers, neighbors, and even strangers in a new light. When we leave our prayer closet, we enjoy new resources that empower us to love more deeply, forgive more empathetically, endure more patiently, and live more wisely. Indeed, meditation helps us to become better human beings.

God gave me a chance this morning to practice the gifts of meditation in very real and concrete ways. I was taught once again how to be a decent human being, even when things don’t go according to plan. I was taught how God can children to eradicate all remnants of selfishness in sacrificial love. I was able to be a little more like Jesus who said, “Let the little children come unto me.” These are the gifts that come with the challenges of meditating in the presence of a three year old.

Hold on . . . I hear her again . . . “Come wipe my butt!” I have to go practice the fruits of meditation again.

Stages of Growth in Prayer: Moving Beyond Magical Thinking to the Gift of Contemplation

We often hear about the importance of prayer in the life of faith, but few receive significant teaching on this subject. As a result, some longtime Christians experience the limitations of an immature prayer life. In an effort to address this challenge, I think it is helpful to think about prayer in terms of three different stages.

Stage One: The “Me” Prayer of a Child

The operative image of God in stage one is a heavenly Santa Clause, and prayer is mostly a monologue in which we present God with a long list of requests and demands.  Our goal is to persuade God to use his power to change our external circumstances so they will conform to our internal yearnings. This often leads to magical thinking that does not align with reality. The gift that we receive in this stage is a growing desire to pour our hearts out to God with childlike humility, and growth is evidenced by a gradual shift away from a Christmas list to an authentic sharing of our interior life.

Stage Two: The “We” Prayer of Conversation

Sharing with God from the heart helps us to get in touch with our deepest needs as human beings, and this generates a growing desire to hear back from God. Brief moments of silence create the possibility of hearing a word from the Lord as a salient insight, keen intuition, strong conviction, or deep sense of peace. For those of us who inhabit a therapeutic culture, the operative image of God in stage two is a divine therapist, someone who listens to all our problems and gives us sound advice. In a way analogous to a therapy session, prayer starts with us doing most of the talking, but periodically we pause to seek guidance from God. This is the beginning of a genuine conversation.

Since this is a transitional stage, our expectations about what should change as a result of prayer are often conflicted. On the one hand, we still want God to use his power to make our external circumstances conform to our internal desires. While this might not entail the Christmas list of stage one, our desire to hear from God is still driven by something we hope to gain: we seek advice that will empower us to continue doing what we are already doing but with better results. We pray in hopes that God will help us to realize the kind of life we envision for ourselves. On the other hand, the very practice of prayer leads to destabilizing experiences that upset our expectations: sometimes God answers our prayer in unlikely ways and sometimes God does not answer our prayer at all. These unsettling experiences raise important questions. Is there something more to prayer? Am I praying for the right things? Should I uncritically accept everything my heart desires as God’s will? Maybe instead of asking God to change my circumstances, I should ask God to change the way I am responding to my circumstances so I can live more faithfully, even in unfavorable seasons. This line of thinking leads to a new kind of prayer: “Lord, teach me to pray.” As prayer matures in and through stage two, more questions than answers are generated, which is exactly what is needed to enter stage three. Before this happens, we have to surrender the desire to leverage God’s power and wisdom to realize a life of our own creating. When we stop asking, “How do I get what I want?” and start asking, “What does God want?” we discover that what God wants is simply to spend time with us.

Stage 3: Prayer as Contemplation

In quiet moments that emerge by pondering of difficult questions, we hear a whisper say, “Be still and know that I am God” (1 Kings 19:12; Ps. 46:10). If we are obedient, the Holy Spirit can use this divine silence to utterly transform our prayer life. In stage three, we experience a growing awareness of the greatness of God, which explodes all the categories of human thought and language. We try to grasp more fully what it means for God to be the Creator, the ground of being, or the giver of the power-of-being itself. We contemplate God as the Spirit of life in whom we live, breath, move, and have our being. God becomes the mystery of the world that explodes all of our images of the divine and leaves us speechless. We sit in silence—awestruck, reverent, worshipful silence—and the “me” in prayer almost entirely vanishes. When we finally find our tongue, it breaks forth in spontaneous worship and praise.

What we expect to change in stage three is the “me” that is praying. I change. My understanding of God changes. The way I pray (and what I ask for) changes. What I expect to change itself changes! No longer do I try to leverage God’s power and wisdom to give me the kind of life that I want, because what I want more than anything is simply to be in the presence of God. We still come to God with childlike humility and a deep desire for intimate communion, but we let go of all expectations and wait upon the Lord in silence. It is in this stage that we begin to understand what Paul meant in 1 Thessalonians 5:17 when he tells us to pray without ceasing.

Conclusion

The stages mentioned above are not intended to be taken literally as a prescription for prayer. If you literalize this interpretive scheme and imagine that growth in prayer proceeds in strict linear fashion from one stage to the next, it can actually narrow and distort your understanding of prayer (which is the opposite of my intended goal). In our lived experience, we might find ourselves praying in different “stages” on any given day. Indeed, it is possible to find all the stages reflected in a single prayer. As mentioned at the beginning, all such interpretive schemes have their limitations. However, if we understand this approach as one model among others and resist the temptation to push it too far, it can be helpful in expanding our understanding and practice of prayer.

If you are interested in learning more, check out the sermon on which this article is based:

Self-Discovery and the Journey to God: What the Wizard of Oz Teaches Us About Finding Our Way Home

During the summer months, the Cobb Theater in my hometown offers free movies in the mornings on Tuesdays and Thursdays. This is a gift to families who are trying to find kid-friendly entertainment that doesn’t break the bank. Last week, I was able to get away for a couple of hours to see The Wizard of Oz with my children. The last time I really watched the movie was in elementary school, and I was struck by something I had never realized before. Dorothy and her three traveling companions actually possessed the things for which they were so desperately looking.

The scarecrow thought he need a brain, but turned out to be one of the smartest characters. The tin man thought he was missing a heart, but showed strong emotions, sometimes evidenced by tears. The lion thought he lacked courage, by like the others was able to face his fears, successfully make the journey to the Emerald City, and save Dorothy from the wicked witch in the process. This insight is confirmed at the end of the film when the wizard, instead of giving them the virtues they were seeking, gave them symbolic objects that functioned to confirm the qualities they already possessed. And of course Dorothy was trying to find the means to get back home, only to realize that the ruby slippers she wore the whole time was all she needed.

What seems clear to me is that this film is about self-discovery. It’s about leaving home, transgressing boundaries into unexplored territories, and returning home with an expanded consciousness. It is about our compulsion to look for wizards who can deliver us from danger and give us magical (i.e., quick and easy) solutions to complex problems so we don’t have to travel the long and painful road to maturity. It is about helping us realize that we have within us the things we so desperately look for in others, but also how evil can gain the upper hand by exploiting our insecurities and convincing us to believe lies about ourselves. It’s about realizing that everything we need to get home, everything we need for salvation, has already been accomplished and deposited in us as a gift. And it’s about the importance of discovering all of this for ourselves in the midst of life’s storms and the grief that comes with saying goodbye.

As I pondered these insights about the Wizard of Oz, I began to see parallels in the church’s teachings on the Holy Spirit and salvation, especially as interpreted by the contemplative and mystical traditions. The biggest temptation of fallen humanity is to look for salvation in other people or things of this world. By looking outside ourselves, we try to secure our own existence with created things, which inevitably leads us down the path to idolatry. We are particularly tempted to seek salvation in other people: a romantic partner, a therapist, a pastor, an inspirational author, or even a friend that we put on a pedestal as a spiritual giant. Anytime we are looking for someone outside of ourselves to “fix” us we get in trouble because the answers lie within.

I am not suggesting that we save ourselves—only God saves. But the Bible teaches that with the sending of the Holy Spirit, the triune God comes to live in us. (In addition to passages referencing the image of God in human beings, see Philippians 2:12, Colossians 1:27, Galatians 2:20, Romans 8:11, 1 Corinthians 6:19). And if God lives in us, then finding or drawing close to God points to the inward journey of the heart. As Richard Rohr says in Everything Belongs, we are “circumference people” who live at the edges of our existence, and the path to God is the movement from the edges to the center. The biblical metaphor for the center of our existence is “the heart.” The journey to God is also the journey of self-discovery. These two kinds of knowing happen together. 

Furthermore, if the very power and presence of God lives in us, then in a certain sense we lack nothing. Some of the most entrenched problems of human existence come from the idea of scarcity—the fear of not getting enough or being enough. We often assume that we are missing something really important for a life of joy and contentment. This compels us to search outside ourselves for what we think we lack, and this outward focus often leads to the comparison trap. We gaze upon the idealized persona of others generated by projections of a charmed life on social media and the material signs of success (wealth, good looks, and influence). Then we compare ourselves to this illusory ideal and find our fears confirmed by thoughts such as, “I wish I had it all like her,” or “I wish I had it all together like him.” The comparison trap intensifies our anxiety and sometimes leads to depression as we struggle with the entrenched suspicion that we are really not good enough and lack the solution.

But the Bible teaches that God has given us everything we need for abundant life and has deposited this treasures in our hearts through the sending his Holy Spirit who lives in us. Just like Dorothy wore the slippers that could take her home all along, so God has given us the means for divine, intimate communion. All we have to do is close our eyes and (instead of clicking our heels three times) call on the name of the Lord (Romans 10:13). The way home is the path of prayer. That is what this message is all about. I hope it blesses you!

Phrases for Meditation: I am accepted. I lack nothing, The Spirit of God lives in me.