Pastoral Series

Dr. Howell’s Emotional Healthy Spirituality eSeries

What are you missing?Faith & Mental Illness (or Mental Health)

Epiphany: the Iceberg

Emotionally Un-Healthy Spirituality

Your Deep Gladness, the World’s Deep Hunger

Scazzero, God & the Emotional Life

Repetition as Saving Grace

God’s Heart, your heart

What kind of church?

Jesus the Healer

Dementia and Gods

Forgiveness

Habits Old & New

Quantity vs. Quality

The monk within

Anxious and Stubborn

Pretending

Exhausted Superheroes

Excavating your life

Good out of Evil

The Grace of Bewilderment

Yielding Control

Acknowledging Weakness

Ash Wednesday

The Examined Life

Our Eyes are upon you

The Habit of Gratitude

False Self, True Self

Looking back on the day

Spiritual Oscillation

Fear, the Devil, and Jesus’ Beautiful Face

The Most Important Week of your Life

What are you missing?

What are you missing? Are you anxious? Out of sorts, or depressed? Do you secretly carry hurts, angers, sadness and fear? Is your life out of control? Is mental illness a reality in your circle? Where is God in our inner struggles?

In the early weeks of 2014 we will try to grow together into an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality – how to grow deep with God, and find ways to discover balance, peace, and healing. Together we will work toward emotional and spiritual maturity, and also ask What kind of Church is God asking us to be? – for each other, and for those dealing with mental health issues. Together we will learn ways to pray, and to be transformed.

Plan to be with us Monday, Jan. 13, 7pm to hear Peter Scazzero, the genius behind all this Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, and then to be in a group, read Scazzero’s book, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, follow my emails – and there will even be very brief text messages to keep us on track! Sign up for the texts! From your mobile phone, send the letters EHS to this number: 313131. And invite friends to sign up for our emails (here – or just email me) and texts!

I hope you have a safe and blessed New Year! John Wesley taught us to recommit ourselves to Christ at the dawning of the year by praying, “Lord, I am no longer my own, but Yours. Put me to what You will, rank me with whom You will. I freely and heartily yield all things to Your pleasure and disposal.” Seems like the wise way to begin 2014!

James
james@mpumc.org
Here’s the book: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.


Faith & Mental Illness (or Mental Health)

A few months ago we kept getting questions, and hearing many personal concerns, around the area of mental health and Christianity. Between now and Easter, in these emails, through programs, small groups, text messages I’ll provide you (send EHS to 313131), and a book, we will try to understand how faith matters for the struggles we face – or even provide strength of soul for all of us.

Mental illness is intriguing; words like bipolar, depression, and personality disorder give us pause, or drive us to our knees. Then there are the inner battles we usually don’t share in public: anxiety, shame, darkness, insomnia, fractured relationships, drinking, addictions – our whole emotional life. Maybe we think everything’s great – but something’s missing.

Does religion help? or make things worse? Shouldn’t we be able to pray, and Jesus will just make it all better? We will examine ways religion is actually a problem – like the idea that God is punishing me, or I’m not praying hard enough, or God is only in places where there is sweetness and light. We will see how weakness and vulnerability are not problems to be conquered, but the very openings for God’s best work in us. God did tell Paul, “My power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:7). We will ask What kind of church is God calling us to be in light of people’s real struggles?

Our program for the next 10 weeks will aim for an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality! Plan now to join us Monday, Jan. 13, 7pm, to hear Peter Scazzero – and then to be so bold as to join a group, read Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, follow the daily devotionals in The Daily Office – and get my text messages! From your mobile phone, send the message EHS to this number: 313131. And invite friends to sign up for our emails (here – or just email me) and texts!

I believe 2014 will be a marvelous year of discovery, growth, and a deepening of our life of faith. Thanks in advance for joining me in this journey.

James
james@mpumc.org

Here’s the book: Emotionally Healthy Spirituality— and Peter Scazzero himself will be with us Monday, Jan. 13, 7pm! Don’t miss hearing this world-renowned innovator who made Emotionally Healthy Spirituality a reality!

Our beautiful Christmas Eve service is on YouTube! “O Holy Night” at the opening, sermon at the 23 minute mark, Eucharist at 38 minutes, “Silent Night” (with raised candles!) at 1:08, great choral and congregational singing also.


Epiphany: the Iceberg

Usually I think of the word “Epiphany” in terms of looking up – to a star, a light in God’s immense sky; or perhaps we think of the dawn, the bright sun peering over the horizon, or a light bulb going off in your head.

But perhaps for there to be a real epiphany, a real revelation and discovery in our lives, we need to look down, deep, beneath the surface – like the iceberg, the bulk of the thing hidden, dangerous, very real even if unnoticed. Much of our life is lived on the surface – and sadly our religious life often is limited to some nice, observable acts: I go to church, say a quick prayer, volunteer once in a while, occasionally read my Bible.

But it’s only the tip of the iceberg; the bulk of my life remains untouched, submerged – and I may not even be familiar with the depth of my own life! But it’s down there. God is keenly interested in that submerged, unaddressed life. “Lord, you have searched me and known me” (Psalm 139:1).

Our goals in this series (and in life!)? To grow in emotional health, real compassion for others, to break free from destructive patterns, and be filled with grace; we can embrace weakness, accept the surprising gift of our limitations, learn to resolve conflicts, and forgive.

Our methods will be to take time to go deep, probably with others – and to utilize classic spiritual disciplines most Christians have forgotten or never heard of. Saints and other faithful followers of Jesus through history have practiced simple things like breathing, meditation, silence – slowing down, being anchored in God’s love, abandoning delusions and society’s alluring but harmful messages, serving humbly. When we learn these simple habits, our life with God becomes deeper, wider, fulfilling – and we begin to feel the ebbing away of anxiety, depression, hopelessness, and fear.

We never perfect this quest; we live in a fallen world, and our very inability to get it all right opens us up to the mercy of God, and the joy of the journey. We will learn how feelings of emptiness, or the wounds we carry, are God calling us home. Imperfection is a great gift; vulnerability is the way to life. This is the Epiphany we pray for.

James
james@mpumc.org

I have begun sending brief text messages on Emotionally Healthy Spirituality! From your mobile phone, send the message EHS to this number: 313131.
Peter Scazzero will be with us Monday, Jan. 13, 7pm! Don’t miss hearing this world-renowned genius behind Emotionally Healthy Spirituality!


Emotionally Un-Healthy Spirituality

During my lifetime, we the people have become far more attuned to healthy eating. We care about how the food was processed, how it’s prepared, and the impact on our bodies, now and over a lifetime.

So how odd then that when it comes to our spiritual life, we gobble up spiritualities that are maybe quick, readily available, easy and even cheap! There is a lot of Un-Healthy Spirituality out there – and we’ve all tried it, but it’s only made us flabby, lethargic, and prone to catastrophe.

Here are just a few of the popular but really unhealthy ideas about faith that will ruin you. Quickie piety: say a prayer, or even many prayers, and God will just magically make everything great. Guilt-driven: I done wrong, God’s raging mad, I should do better. Sunshiney-faith: since I believe in God, I’m all smiles, always. Denial of Darkness: since God is the antithesis of anything negative, I ignore my own anger, fear, sadness and pretend God will fix things.

Superhero belief: I have no limits, and can do even more than my already jammed full life since God is with me. Choiceless religion: I don’t have to say No to anything to say Yes to God. Occasional religion: if I go to church now and then and slap a few prayers onto meals, I’ll be close to God. The Evil God: horrible things happen, so the controlling God made bad things happen. Judgmental God: God must be as annoyed at people I don’t like as I am. Laid-back God: God can’t be bothered with my inner life or my daily habits. God the Butler: God exists to do me little favors. Tyrant God: I should be very afraid of God.

All these are false gods. And all of these jam spiritual cholesterol into your arteries. You need a new diet, maybe even some surgery. You need an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality. We begin by saying No to fast-food, junk religiosity, and begin to know and even be with a good God. And we take the time to dig deeply – into God, into my self, and into others. Real change most often happens in the company of other people. You may feel hesitant, or think you’re too busy – but aren’t you hungry for lasting change, and even joy?

James
james@mpumc.org

Sunday’s sermon, the 1st in this series on faith and mental health, “The Greatest of These is Myrrh,” is on YouTube.

Peter Scazzero will be with us this coming Monday, 7pm! Don’t miss hearing this world-renowned creator of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality! Need childcare? Tell Kristen@mpumc.org.

I have begun sending brief text messages on Emotionally Healthy Spirituality! From your mobile phone, send the message EHS to this number: 313131.


Your Deep Gladness, the World’s Deep Hunger

A piece of a healthy relationship with God, yourself, and others is serving – discovering that beautiful location Frederick Buechner described: “The place where God calls you is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”

We might miss this place, even when we serve God or the Church! There are unhealthy ways to do good for God! Sometimes we sign up to volunteer for less than stellar reasons: pad the resume? work off guilt? to feel better about myself? to help poor pitiful people? to earn my way into heaven? There are healthy ways to serve, to respond to God’s call – like genuine compassion, a sense of camaraderie with God’s people I don’t know yet, a sense of being in this world with a larger purpose, even the question to find my real self in God, and thus that ever elusive Joy.

Sometimes we urge folks to serve based on their strengths, their natural abilities. But to go deeper, you need to acknowledge your brokenness, the place where you have been wounded, and do something out of the box, something uncomfortable for you, so you might stretch, and realize God is most powerfully present in the broken places – yours, and others’.
A beginning point for serving in a healthy way might be this prayer we’ve put on magnets for everybody: You called people from their daily work, saying to them ‘Come after me.’

Today, may we hear your voice, and gladly answer your call – to give our lives to you, to serve your Church, to offer our gifts, and give away our hearts to you only. Bless our hopes:

the first tiny stirrings of desire, the little resolve to go forward, the small vision of what might be. Deal gently with our fears, the hesitation of uncertainty, the darkness of the unknown, the lack of confidence in our own capacity, and turn it all to trust in you.

James

james@mpumc.org

Peter Scazzero will be with us this coming Monday, 7pm! Don’t miss hearing this world-renowned creator of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality!

Sunday’s sermon kicking off this series, “The Greatest of These is Myrrh,” is on YouTube.

I have begun sending brief text messages on Emotionally Healthy Spirituality! From your mobile phone, send the message EHS to this number: 313131.


Scazzero, God & the Emotional Life

Tonight we will hear from Peter Scazzero – and he tells me he won’t just be lecturing; he designs the time so we will have an experience, and also so we will engage and interact ourselves. I like this: too often we think of religion as info about the Bible or God being downloaded into our heads. But Jesus, it appears, was not much of a lecturer. He asked questions, he probed deeply, he got people moving and involved.

Scazzero’s value is in his insights into the linkage between God and our emotional life. Sure, many Americans think about God and feelings – as in Do I feel God? Do I feel anything in worship? But God is interested in your inner emotional life, in bringing healing, and redirection to your emotions. The Bible is an intensely emotional book: the stories of complex people, the profound prayers, and even the rich swirl of emotion in the very heart of God!

If we think of depression, anxiety, and other maladies that afflict us, doctors and counselors are of much help. But a healthy spirituality is pivotal to our well-being, and to understanding the depth of God’s own heart.

In yesterday’s sermon, I spoke of the sinister messages our world bombards us with, lies about who we are and why we are here: I am a burden, a producer, I need others’ approval, I can’t make mistakes, it’s all up to me. No wonder we are anxious. Beseiged by smug, pious people, Jesus said “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick” (Luke 5:31). Hint hint: none of us are well, or not yet. We need this physician.

The way this physician heals us is intriguing: he diagnoses our brokenness, and we are glad – for we are healed, not by going faster, but by slowing to a stop, by faith, abandoning our obsession with success and failure. Jesus heals us with mercy, and we learn to be merciful with ourselves, and others, and life itself. Karen Armstrong wrote that “For grace to be grace, it must give us things we didn’t know we needed, and take us to places where we didn’t want to go.”

Tomorrow, and over the next ten weeks, we will discover the things we didn’t know we needed, and go to a new place of joy and hope…

James
james@mpumc.org

Come see Peter Scazzero at 7pm, Myers Park Methodist sanctuary – or catch his talk by Live Streaming!

Yesterday’s sermon (“You are Beloved”) on Matthew 3:13-17 is on YouTube!

In addition to Scazzero’s book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, we’re also recommending a daily devotional, also by Scazzero, The Daily Office (or Kindle), which for me is the best devotional book I’ve used in a decade or more.

Join an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality small group! This is the best and most strongly recommended way to learn and grow in this process! We’ll start the week of Feb. 3.


Repetition as Saving Grace

Peter Scazzero was great Monday night (if you missed it, see his talk here). Part of his genius is the way he has found the intersection between the emotional situation of 21st century people and the classic disciplines and spiritual practices the Church has utilized for centuries. Christianity has the goods – like being still and simply meditating (not just a Buddhist thing!). John 20 tells us Jesus “breathed on them” – and maybe he was teaching them how to breathe, how to inhale and then exhale, deeply, and feel the grace of God filling body, mind and soul. Jesus showed them how to be with other people, who also need grace, to open up, to be a church where deeply flawed people love and help each other toward healing.

To be well, we think about all our habits, like diet, sleep and exercise; we rely on our physicians, and more of us should go in for counseling – which can be wonderfully useful for the spiritual life! Kathleen Norris, who underwent plenty of therapy herself, found immense value there – and yet also realized how therapy “falls short of mystery, a profound simplicity that allows for paradox. In therapy I search for explanations, causes, and information to help change behavior. But wisdom is the goal of spiritual seeking.”

Wisdom. Mystery. Grace. This is God’s realm. We might fix anxiety or depression medically, but still feel a hollowness, a restlessness. St. Augustine prayed, “O Lord, You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in You.” Finding that rest in God is actually essential even for dealing with anxiety, depression, guilt, sorrow, and broken relationships. There is a deep weariness in the soul no vacation or napping can alleviate.

I’m riddled with uneasiness; do you have anything to take for this? How about reading the Psalms, or a breathing app on your phone, healthy prayers, listening to a hymn, joining (maybe for the 1st time) a group to grow in God? There is a spiritual malaise at the deepest marrow of your self. Building spiritual habits into your daily routine: this is the only way to complement diet, exercise, sensible habits, and whatever the doctor has prescribed.

Kathleen Norris spoke of “Repetition as Saving Grace.” No single prayer, lecture, sermon or email will do it. We are embarking upon a discovery of a committed rhythm of connection to God and others – and the very repetition itself will be God’s grace for you.

James

james@mpumc.org

Hear/see Peter Scazzero’s talk from Monday night on YouTube!

Join an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality small group! This is the best and most strongly recommended way to learn and grow in this process! We’ll start the week of Feb. 3.
In addition to Scazzero’s book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, we’re also recommending a daily devotional, also by Scazzero, The Daily Office (or Kindle), which for me is the best devotional book I’ve used in a decade or more.


God’s heart, your heart

Think about your heart – not just that fleshy engine that pushes oxygenated blood throughout your body, but that inner core of your being that desires, loves, grieves, and hopes. The Bible tells us about God’s heart – and the healthiest I can be spiritually is when I get my heart beating as closely as possible to the heart of God.

I learn God’s heart by a long project of immersing myself in Bible, worship, prayer, and conversation with others. I come to want what World Vision founder Bob Pierce spoke of – for my heart to be broken by the things that break the heart of God. An emotionally healthy spirituality involves caring about God’s world, growing up and away from self-absorption, frustrating by injustice out there, discovering what God is calling me to do, becoming a person who embodies God’s own compassion.

You may say, But I am too broken myself to do any good. Yet, your brokenness may prove to be a surprising, lovely gift. Nassir Ghaemi’s intriguing book, A First-Rate Madness, explores how great leaders like Lincoln and Churchill led brilliantly, not in spite of their bouts with deep depression, but precisely because of them. Studies show that depressed people are more realistic, and are naturally more empathetic to suffering.

Of course, we all battle something or another in our souls – and the battle is the way to compassion, and ministry to others. Rainer Maria Rilke wrote a striking letter to his young poet friend in which he urged, “Do not believe that he who seeks to comfort you lives untroubled. His life has much difficulty and sadness. Were it otherwise he would never have been able to find these words.”

So, believing in the saving grace of repetition, we pray once more (from the magnets we gave out on 1/12!), You called people from their daily work, saying to them ‘Come after me.’ Today, may we hear your voice, and gladly answer your call – to give our lives to you, to serve your Church, to offer our gifts, and give away our hearts to you only. Bless our hopes: the first tiny stirrings of desire, the little resolve to go forward, the small vision of what might be. Deal gently with our fears, the hesitation of uncertainty, the darkness of the unknown, the lack of confidence in our own capacity, and turn it all to trust in you.

James

james@mpumc.org

Join an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality small group! This is the best and most strongly recommended way to learn and grow in this process! We’ll start the week of Feb. 3.

If you missed Peter Scazzero’s talk on Monday night, we have it posted on YouTube!

In addition to Scazzero’s book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, we’re also recommending a daily devotional, also by Scazzero, The Daily Office (or Kindle), which for me is the best devotional book I’ve used in a decade or more.


What kind of church?

Perhaps the most crucial question we need to ask when moving toward an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality is What kind of church do we want to be? What kind of church do we really need? What kind of church might promote health and growth?

The saddest words I’ve heard regarding church were from a woman I saw in a store. I told her I’d missed seeing her in worship – and she replied, “Oh, I’ve been having a horrible time in my life; I’ll be back when I’m better.” Church isn’t supposed to be a place for grinning, together people to hobnob with each other; church is a hospital for broken people. We may be polite and say to one another “I’m fine!” – but church should welcome and expect struggle, confusion, and hurt. “It’s harder to feel accepted by Christ and covered by his grace when you’re hiding in the church” (Amy Simpson).

AA meetings include humble, hopeful introductions: “I’m James, I’m an alcoholic.” Church should mimic this, even if only in our minds as we converse: I’m John, I’m Susan, I’m broken, I’m a sinner, I’ve struggled this week. We need each other; we need fellow travelers on the journey; we need honesty. Too often in church we ask What are your strengths and abilities? – and that is how we will put you to serving. Maybe we can learn to ask What are your wounds? Jesus never asked In what ways do you have it all together? Show me your resume! Paul portrayed the ideal church as “If one suffers, we all suffer” (1 Corinthians 12:24) – and the truth is, we really do.

What kind of church will we be in the face of mental illness? If someone has cancer we deliver casseroles and join prayer chains. But if someone is bipolar? or borderline personality disorder? or deeply depressed? We avert our gaze, and wonder if the troubled person might be happier elsewhere. Yes, the mentally ill need medical treatment. But they also need God, and a loving church. If we cannot reach out tenderly to those suffering the most daunting emotional difficulties, we will not be able to help anybody at all, even those who smile a lot and don’t really report much difficulty.

My dream, for all of us, for all of the churches, is that we will abandon ideas that we’re the people who are doing great – but will create a climate of caring, compassion, openness, a safe haven for everything from the most profound afflictions to barely detectable anxiety. Our mantra is Grace – and grace is unconditional love, felt, enacted, a commitment to be a church that mirrors Jesus’ healing compassion.

James
james@mpumc.org
Join an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Small Group. Varying days and times are available. For questions or registration information, please contact Rev. Barbara Barden at bbarden@mpumc.org. We’ll start the week of Feb. 3.

On Monday @ 7pm, our own Minister of Congregational Care Rev. Bill Roth and Counselor Bronah Livingston host a follow-up to Peter Scazzero’s program on Emotionally Healthy Spirituality to explore the program more deeply and interactively.

In addition to Scazzero’s book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, we’re also recommending a daily devotional, also by Scazzero, The Daily Office (or Kindle), which for me is the best devotional book I’ve used in a decade or more.


Jesus the Healer

Once when someone asked me if I believed the stories about Jesus working miracles, I found myself privately musing that I almost wish he hadn’t. Of course, I’m glad he healed, and I believe he did – but since he healed, some emotionally unhealthy spiritualities have dogged us for years.

Since Jesus healed (and frankly, many of his miracles were of emotional maladies, like schizophrenia and personality disorders), we see it as God’s primary job to heal us – although healing was only a small fraction of what Jesus was about. And dreams of healing have been the ruin of prayer. The vast majority of prayer requests we receive are health related – when there are a bevy of other things (praise, gratitude, confession, wisdom, holiness) to pray about.

Jesus did heal a few people – apparently to declare something about his identity, and to make larger points; he healed the blind, not evidently just so the blind could see, but so the spiritually blind Pharisees would realize their piety was bogus. Jesus’ healings were “signs” of a new way of life with God; the majority of sick people Jesus encountered remained sick.
We might think of Jesus’ best healing, not in his miracles, but in his habits. Over and over, the Gospels tell us Jesus withdrew from the bustle of the crowd to pray; Jesus knew how to say No to increasing demands on his energy. Jesus gathered people together into a loving community that accepted everybody. Jesus was intimate with God, and embraced hurting people where they were. Jesus’ spirituality was emotionally healthy. Jesus displayed that “saving grace of repetition.”

Jesus Christ heals the emotions today through formation, new habits, and others in what really can be the Body of Christ. Jesus Christ also heals us by exposing the false gods that beleaguer us. He doesn’t scold, but he tenderly reminds us that things, money, diversions, being cool, climbing the ladder simply can’t deliver, and are perilous to the soul.

Jesus cast out demons – and there certainly are destructive spiritual presences out there, and in our own heads. We can trust that this happens for us now – and ours isn’t to pinpoint evil presences, but to keep our focus on what is good, whole, beautiful, healthy. Thomas Merton was right: the devil attention above all else – and the one who is close to Christ increasingly notices only what is good and hopeful.

James
james@mpumc.org
In this short YouTube I try to explain the Miracles of Jesus.
Join an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Small Group. Varying days and times are available. For questions or registration information, please contact Rev. Barbara Barden at bbarden@mpumc.org. We’ll start the week of Feb. 3.
On Monday @ 7pm, our own Minister of Congregational Care Rev. Bill Roth and Counselor Bronah Livingston host a follow-up to Peter Scazzero’s program on Emotionally Healthy Spirituality to explore the program more deeply and interactively.

In addition to Scazzero’s book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, we’re also recommending a daily devotional, also by Scazzero, The Daily Office (or Kindle), which for me is the best devotional book I’ve used in a decade or more.


Dementia and God

How do we think about people suffering from various forms of dementia? Where is God in their confusion or forgetfulness? Can persons with Alzheimer’s have a life of faith? How do caregivers and loved ones conceive of their lives? What kind of Church might we be with the reality of dementia in our midst?
I’ve written a blog (“Dementia, God & Christian Faith”), a little bit longer than these emails usually are. It’s about dementia – but really about how all of us think about ourselves, and what God is calling us to. I hope you’ll take some time to read it here.

James
james@mpumc.org

On Sunday, February 16, 7pm, Dr. Warren Kinghorn will explore Mental Illness from a Theological Perspective. Warren is a psychiatrist who teaches both in the medical school and in the Divinity School at Duke.

Tonight @ 7pm: EHS – the Next Step! Our own Minister of Congregational Care Rev. Bill Roth and Counselor Bronah Livingston host a follow-up to Peter Scazzero’s program on Emotionally Healthy Spirituality to explore the program more deeply and interactively.

Join an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Small Group. Varying days and times are available. For questions or registration information, please contact Rev. Barbara Barden at bbarden@mpumc.org. We’ll start the week of Feb. 3.

In addition to Scazzero’s book Emotionally Healthy Spirituality, we’re also recommending a daily devotional, also by Scazzero, The Daily Office (or Kindle), which for me is the best devotional book I’ve used in a decade or more.


Forgiveness

There can be no emotionally healthy spirituality unless we grow into forgiveness – forgiving others, and being forgiven. Society tells us to get mad, or to get even, that we have some holy right to our anger. But when I insist that I am right, that I am offended, when I nurse my rancor, it is my own soul that is corroded.

We have a deep need to forgive – but forgiveness isn’t pretending nothing happened, or putting on a happy face, or feeling warm and fuzzy toward someone who hurt you. We can say “Oh, it doesn’t matter” – but it does. Forgiveness is the arduous labor of dealing with a fractured relationship, asking Why? and What now? and doing so in the light of God’s mercy, grace, and healing power.
The goal of forgiveness is Reconciliation. “From now on, regard no one from a human point of view… If anyone is in Christ he is a new creation… This is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Corinthians 5:16). Forgiveness is an end to blaming. You get inside the skin of the other person, you recognize the hurt, you release the resentment, the bitterness, and you lift your eyes toward God’s new day.
Forgiveness doesn’t wait for the other to apologize, and forgiveness doesn’t wait for change in the other person. These may well occur – but forgiveness is love. To forgive, we begin by realizing we ourselves need to be forgiven, and for plenty. In an emotionally healthy spirituality, forgiveness is given and received because of what we know of the merciful heart of God, who cares enough to deal seriously with us, and to fashion a restored relationship with us that seems beyond mending.
We could spend an entire series just on forgiveness. If you have a few minutes, watch this YouTube of a talk I gave on the best wisdom I’ve ever learned about forgiveness, this 15-segment email series on forgiveness, or this quick 3-parter.
James
james@mpumc.org
Join an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Small Group. Varying days and times are available. For questions or registration information, please contact Rev. Barbara Barden at bbarden@mpumc.org. We’ll start the week of Feb. 3.
Check out my blog on Dementia, God & Christian Faith.
I have begun sending brief text messages on Emotionally Healthy Spirituality! From your mobile phone, send the message EHS to this number: 313131.
The picture is from Rembrandt’s Return of the Prodigal Son (1668).


Habits Old & New

We are creatures of habit. What is your daily routine? Much of this is seemingly innocuous (toothbrushing, haircombing, morning coffee); some is more intriguing (cocktail at 6pm, a weekly TV show, battling with a teenager over homework). Some of our habits are problematical; addiction isn’t just to drugs and alcohol, but to shopping, Facebook, food, critical thoughts… the list is endless.

To be close to God, to be genuinely compassionate toward others, to have an emotionally healthy spirituality, we need constructive theological habits – and to get those we must shed some other habits, which is way easier said than done. We are asking you 1. to have the courage to explore what is habitual for you, and what that might be about, and 2. to embark upon a time of experiment, eight weeks of a discipline of morning and evening reflection and prayer.
Many of us will spend these days with Peter Scazzero’s Daily Office – the best devotional book I’ve come across in many years. You’ll have to carve out some minutes, not seconds, each morning and evening, and find a quiet enough space for meaningful interaction with God.
All prayer begins, not by closing our eyes and talking, but by being still, getting quiet, and breathing. I have a breathing app on my phone that has done me more good than a shelf full of books. Sit. Breathe deeply. “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10).
Then we read some Scripture – and curiously enough, with the Bible, less is more! Don’t attempt to read 17 chapters. One verse can keep you pondering for days, and with much benefit.
And then we pray – and Scazzero and I will supply you with the words. The disciples asked Jesus, “Teach us to pray” (Luke 8:1), and he gave them words. I find that the prayers of others stretch me and help me focus, so my prayers aren’t just meanderings.
Quickie, occasional praying yields a vapid spirituality, only about an inch deep – and nothing is transformed. Commit now to a new habit, the saving grace of repetition.
James
james@mpumc.org
Get Scazzero’s The Daily Office (or Kindle) – which runs in tandem with his book we’re studying in our groups, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.
My phone app is called breathe2relax.
Join an Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Small Group. Varying days and times are available. For questions or registration information, please contact Rev. Barbara Barden at bbarden@mpumc.org. We’ll start the week of Feb. 3.


Quantity vs. Quality

While most of us need to pray, study the Bible, and serve more than we do, an emotionally healthy spirituality isn’t about quantity. Jesus had no patience for the smug, judgmental piety of the Pharisees; and when he walked into the frenzied clutter of religious activity in the temple, he was angry, and drove people out of the place (Mark 11:15-17).
Peter Scazzero’s Daily Office for this week ponders this – and also King Saul, who stayed busy doing religious things; but he didn’t listen to God (1 Samuel 15:22-23). Faith isn’t doing more, but less; faith is saying No to spiritual bustle. We slow down, and drop an anchor deep into God’s love. Mother Teresa was right: “God is a friend of silence.” We realize our friendship with God when we get quiet, ruminate over what resides deeply in the soul, and in God’s heart.
When I learn how to be present to God, to be still in God’s presence, my heart can echo what is in God’s heart. The prophet Jonah actually heard God, but refused to do what God asked of him. He thought he knew better than God; his heart was far from God. God had mercy on the Ninevites – but Jonah had no compassion. But if there is anyone for whom we cannot have compassion, then we erect a wall within ourselves against God’s mercy on us!
So we see that a mere quantity of religious activity might actually be a headlong flight away from God! Quality of devotion, an openness to God, a quiet gravitation to feel what God feels: these are the avenues to a mature, satisfying faith. Then piety isn’t pretending; I never presume my self-indulgent biases are of God. I stop talking at God, and instead I listen to God – or better, I am simply with God. I can awaken to God’s love, and rest attentively in God’s love.
Prayer (from Daily Office): “Declutter my heart, O God, until I am quiet enough to hear you speak out of the silence. Help me in these moments to stop, listen, wait, and allow your presence to envelop me.”
James
james@mpumc.org
Get Scazzero’s The Daily Office (or Kindle) – which runs in tandem with his book we’re studying in our groups, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.
On Sunday, February 16, 7pm, Dr. Warren Kinghorn will explore Mental Illness from a Theological Perspective. Warren is a psychiatrist who teaches both in the medical school and in the Divinity School at Duke.
The picture is El Greco’s “Christ Driving the Traders from the Temple” (1600).


The monk within

One of the virtues of Peter Scazzero’s Daily Office is the way he directs us to wise Christians over the centuries who can show us much about a healthy spirituality. Back in the 4th century, the “Desert Fathers” fled crowded, busy cities to live in the desert. In a way, they were mimicking Jesus, who went into the wilderness to pray, stretch, test himself, and learn radical reliance upon God his Father.
Those monks from ages past realized how easily the soul can be lost in the entanglements and manipulations of urban society. Imagine how they would have fretted over the internet, smart phones, and TV! These endless, quickie distractions shorten our attention span, and make our souls vapid and dangerously thin.
It is said that there is a monk inside each one of us – a largely unnoticed person inside who longs for solitude, peace, stillness, and a calm, settled routine of prayer. How do we discover, and give breathing space to that monk inside? How do we flee for the desert in 2014? We have to create spaces of quiet, turn off the gadgets, and get used to the fact that at first we won’t be any good at being still. But we will adapt; God will give us the grace we need to draw close to God’s own heart.
In an installment of The Daily Office, Scazzero notices how many times various people try to hurry Jesus along. But he refuses to rush; the Savior of the world moves slowly. Why are we so hurried? C.S. Lewis once said people who work really hard are actually lazy: the frenetically busy person doesn’t muster the energy to set his own agenda, but is driven by others.
Psalm 62 is a helpful prayer: “Find rest, O my soul, in God alone. He alone is my Rock and my Salvation. Trust in Him at all times. Pour out your heart to Him.”
James
james@mpumc.org
Get Scazzero’s The Daily Office (or Kindle) – which runs in tandem with his book we’re studying in our groups, Emotionally Healthy Spirituality.
On Sunday, February 16, 7pm, Dr. Warren Kinghorn will explore Mental Illness from a Theological Perspective. Warren is a psychiatrist who teaches both in the medical school and in the Divinity School at Duke.
Check out my blog on Dementia, God & Christian Faith.


Anxious and Stubborn

A remarkable incident in Jesus’ life we can reflect on forever is found in Luke 10:38-42. Martha is busy; actually, she is actively serving Jesus! But she misses Jesus himself. Mary doesn’t get as much done, but she listens to Jesus; she is attentive, she is near him.
Jesus tells Martha something he could say to most of us: “You are anxious about many things.” A couple of years ago I shared with you Lauren Winner’s idea of giving up anxiety for Lent! You can’t just stop your worrying, though; you have to replace it with something, like Scripture, or a prayer, or a gradual, hard-won peace in the soul, focused on the goodness and trustworthiness of God.
Mary chooses her place at Jesus’ feet. Jacob never wanted to be at such a place – but in the end had no other choice. Sometimes, unfortunately, we have to be broken. The Daily Office reminds us of Jacob – seriously flawed, from a dysfunctional family, stubborn, unwilling to trust anybody. He even wrestled against God! but then was reduced to nothing but hanging on to God in utter darkness.
Scazzero says, “God sometimes wounds us in our journey with him in order to move us out of an unhealthy, ‘tip of the iceberg’ spirituality to one that truly transforms us from the inside out. When these come, we can deny them, cover over them, get angry with God, blame others, or, like Jacob, we can cling desperately to God.”
Such dependence is life-giving; only when we have no place left to turn but can only cling to God are we actually free. Only when he is wounded, and can no longer win his own battles, does Jacob discover the intense wonder of God’s love.
Prayer: “Lord, I offer to you each of my anxieties and worries this day. I yield in my stubborn independence. I really have nothing worth clinging to except You. Thank You for Your strong presence.”
James
james@mpumc.org
On Sunday, February 16, 7pm, Dr. Warren Kinghorn will explore Mental Illness from a Theological Perspective. Warren is a psychiatrist who teaches both in the medical school and in the Divinity School at Duke.


Pretending

Jean-Paul Sartre famously said “Hell is other people.” But the truth is, hell is having to pretend to be somebody you aren’t. This week’s Daily Office reflects on the way our lives are driven by the expectations of others. My worth, so it seems, depends on what others (bosses, parents, friends, sometimes mere acquaintances) think of me. And so we do a lot of pretending, for we dare not disappoint those who hold our very self-worth in their hands.
Interestingly, Jesus didn’t seem to mind disappointing people. He was at peace within himself, he was entirely in sync with God and his purpose in life. He knew how to say No, and how to understand himself in light of God, not random, moody, hard-to-please people.
This doesn’t mean we could care less about others. Jesus didn’t sing (with Elvis) “I did it my way.” If anything, when we are deeply rooted in God, we can care more, authentically, with genuine compassion.
It is good to have heroes, mentors, noble people we learn from and even imitate. But at the end of the day, God won’t ask me, Why weren’t you Billy Graham? or Why weren’t you as memorable as Pope Francis? God calls me to be me, even in my flawedness, in my brokenness, and also in my beauty, in my peculiar, quirky way of being God’s child.
A prayer from the Daily Office: “Jesus, I am so grateful that you understand what it is like to feel pressure from the expectations of others. It can feel crushing at times. I invite you to cut those deeply entrenched chains that keep me from being faithful to my true self in you. In doing so, may my life be a blessing to many.”
James
james@mpumc.org
This Sunday, February 16, 7pm, Dr. Warren Kinghorn will explore Mental Illness from a Theological Perspective. Warren is a psychiatrist who teaches both in the medical school and in the Divinity School at Duke.
Check out my blog on Dementia, God & Christian Faith.


Exhausted Superheroes

I’ve been listening to our media culture lately – especially ads – and there is this message out there that you can do it all, you not only can but should have a dizzyingly full career, family life, fun times, and much more. You can and really should have it all.

What’s the costume you try to fit into? Superman? Supermom? Atlas? You’re huffing and puffing, carrying the whole world on your shoulders. Or maybe it’s the mythological anti-hero Sisyphus? – who labors all day rolling a massive stone up a mountain, only to get near the top and have the thing roll back down to the bottom. No wonder you’re tired.

Emotionally Healthy Spirituality has two key messages for weary superheroes. 1. To be God’s beloved child really is enough, and 2. You have limits. They are not problems, but God’s good gifts to you, to save your soul.

You are God’s beloved. The approval of others, your achievements, the things you possess: how can there ever be enough? But if you ever really “get” that you are God’s, just that really is sufficient, plenty even, an overflow of divine grace that never oscillates or runs out.

What are your limitations? My list is a long one – and although society or maybe lingering parental messages make you fret if you admit it, you only have so much time, so much energy, so much ability, so much self. Limits are God’s precious gift to you. God is God, and you aren’t. You can’t do it all, you can’t have it all – and so it’s okay if you don’t, it’s okay to slow down, it’s okay to chill and just be with God and others.

Love your limited self. God does. Cherish your limits.

A prayer from the Daily Office: “Jesus, you know my tendency to say Yes to more commitments than I can possibly keep. Help me embrace the gift of my limits physically, emotionally and spiritually. Then may you be glorified in and through me today.”

James

james@mpumc.org

This Sunday, February 16, 7pm, Dr. Warren Kinghorn will explore Mental Illness from a Theological Perspective. Warren is a psychiatrist who teaches both in the medical school and in the Divinity School at Duke.

My sermon from Sunday on a neglected aspect of Emotionally Healthy Spirituality is on YouTube.


Excavating your life

When I was in Israel a couple of weeks ago, we inspected quite a few archaeological sites. The labor of archaeology is a lot like the process toward an emotionally healthy spirituality: you dig down deep. There is a lot of debris; archaeologists can learn a lot about ancient people’s habits from the trash they left behind! And then there are also surprising treasures.

We all carry around both gifts from our past, but also a fair amount of baggage: pain, failures, regrets. Most of us get stuck spirituality (and in life in general!) because we haven’t engaged in the arduous labor of going back. We don’t go back to grovel in the past. We go back in order to go forward. We go back to understand, to try to leave some of the past back in the past, and to discover some healing.

In his lovely novel The Chosen, Chaim Potok wrote, “It is important to know of pain. It destroys our self-pride, arrogance and indifference toward others. It makes us aware of how frail and tiny we are and of how much we must depend upon the Master of the Universe.”

A prayer from the Daily Office: “Holy Spirit, I invite you to dig through the layers of my being that hinder my relationships and communion with others. Grant me perseverance to allow you to dig deeply, excavating out of me all that is not of Christ, that I may be filled with your presence.”

James

james@mpumc.org

Sunday’s sermon on “God’s Commandments” is on YouTube.

Some of you responded to a recent email, declaring that it was Frank Sinatra, not Elvis, who sang “I Did it My Way.” Lots of people have sung it since Sinatra, and for me, Elvis (who did sing it, and quite often!) provided the deepest pathos of “self” is his rendition (view/hear him here).

In the photo, Shimon Gibson explains the UNC Charlotte excavation on Mt. Zion.


Good out of Evil

Perhaps the most emotionally powerful of all the Bible’s stories is found in Genesis 37-50. Joseph is Jacob’s favored son. Enraged, his jealous brothers sell him into slavery, and lie to their father, claiming he’d been killed. More intrigue ensues – but in the end, Joseph not only is reunited with his father and somehow forgives his brothers, but he also declares that God took all their dishonesty, brokenness, venom, plotting, secrecy and woundedness and brought something good, wonderful and beautiful out of it all.

Genesis doesn’t say God caused the evil. But God was mysteriously engaged, behind the scenes, mostly unnoticed, weaving all the darkness and colorful behavior into a lovely tapestry of hope and healing. The spiritual life isn’t a matter of trying harder, gritting our teeth and striving valiantly to be pious. An emotionally healthy spirituality owns our hurts, admits our own complicity, doesn’t hide secrets, and then waits on God.

We can’t fix ourselves; but we can look eagerly to see what healing might be in store. We notice what God might be engineering through it all. We trust God’s loving, strong presence, and confess that we are held securely in God’s hands.

A prayer from the Daily Office: “Lord, you are good. Help me trust you – for the good as well as the difficult, the successes and the failures, the joys and sorrows of the past. I surrender to your voice that whispers to me, ‘All is well, and all will be well.’”

James

james@mpumc.org

Dr. Warren Kinghorn’s talk on Mental Illness and Faith from Sunday evening is now on YouTube.

On Monday, March 3, 7pm, I will lead a session on How to Have a Spiritual Life. We will talk about spiritual disciplines, ways to pray and grow, and simple habits throughout the day to maintain focus and peace.


The Grace of Bewilderment

Little messages sound inside our heads, causing us to shudder – and we draw the wrong conclusion about them every time! Message like “I am bewildered,” or “I don’t know what God is doing,” or “I am angry,” or “I am sad,” or “God is a mystery to me,” or even “God, why have you forsaken me?”
We infer that if we think such thoughts, we must be spiritual losers, very far indeed from God. But we forget that all these messages are voices many times in the Bible, and even by our greatest saints, and Jesus himself. To be bewildered, for emotions to be surfacing, when we are uncertain and vulnerable: these are punched through openings in the crust of our hard souls, windows that make space for God’s light to shine in.
I wonder who concocted the notion that the best spirituality is one where we are settled resolutely in faith, where we have God figured out, where it’s all light with no shadows? Emily Dickinson wrote, “The unknown is the mind’s greatest gift, and for it, no one thinks to thank God.” We thank God for mystery, for being a bit out of kilter, off balance, out of control – for then we may just fall into the hands of the living, loving God, and learn and grow into some truer and more beautiful.
Earlier in our series I mentioned Kathleen Norris, who found immense value in therapy, but also suggested that even the best therapy “falls short of mystery,” that instead of figuring everything out we hang in there with paradox, that we find joy in the seeking itself, that our deeper goal isn’t knowledge and fixing things but wisdom itself, a relationship with the source of all life.
A prayer from the Daily Office: “Father, teach me to trust you even when I feel alone. Awaken me to the treasures that can only be found in the darkness. Grant me grace to follow you into the next place you have for me in this journey called life.”
James
james@mpumc.org
On Monday, March 3, 7pm, I will lead a session on How to Have a Spiritual Life. We will talk about spiritual disciplines, ways to pray and grow, and simple habits throughout the day to maintain focus and peace.
Dr. Warren Kinghorn’s talk on Mental Illness and Faith from Sunday evening is now on YouTube.


Yielding Control

When asked what they fear about growing older, many people answer, “Becoming dependent,” or “Losing control,” or “Not being productive.” Of course you’d prefer to avoid being a burden on those you love, and it’s a good thing to be an active contributor to the world. But isn’t it intriguing that what we most want to avoid are basic spiritual virtues: dependence upon God (and others!), yielding control, being defined by grace and mercy, not what we achieve.
The Bible constantly recommends an attitude of “waiting.” “Wait for the Lord” (Psalm 130:5); “For God alone my soul waits in silence” (Psalm 62:1); “Those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength” (Isaiah 40:31). We hate waiting. We want to keep moving, we want it to happen now, we want to seize control. To be stuck in traffic, or a long grocery line, checking the time for an appointment that hasn’t shown up, sitting in the doctor’s waiting room, or hanging on through the long weekend wondering if it’s malignant or benign: we cannot stand to wait, we want to get on with things, not to squander minutes needlessly, to fix things – now.
What are we waiting for, anyhow? My prince to come? The next big deal? Some dramatic turn of fortune? A quick resolution? Feeling better in five minutes? What would really satisfy? What is worth waiting for – if we could learn to wait? on the Lord, that is?
The one thing we surely learn as we grow older, if we come to some wisdom, is that we cannot engineer our lives according to plan. Anne Lamott wryly suggested that if you want to make God laugh, tell God your plans.
But this isn’t a problem! God is free. We not only can’t control our destiny, we don’t need to do so. How liberating! To realize this is the beginning of new life, the end to much of our exhaustion, and a deep relationship with God, and even the other people we’d thought we could manage.
A prayer from the Daily Office: “Grant me courage to embark on the unique journey you have crafted for me. By faith, I surrender my need and desire to be in control of every event, circumstance, person I meet today.”
James
james@mpumc.org
On Monday, March 3, 7pm, I will lead a session on How to Have a Spiritual Life. We will talk about spiritual disciplines, ways to pray and grow, and simple habits throughout the day to maintain focus and peace.


Acknowledging Weakness

Probably the single most intriguing truth about all the Bible’s best characters is that they do not have stellar resumes; in fact, almost all have glaring weaknesses, and downright embarrassments that should preclude you getting hired, much less being a key player in God’s plan. Moses couldn’t give a speech, Jeremiah was depressed, and Hosea’s wife had multiple lovers. Elijah was burned out, Noah got caught drunk, Jacob lied habitually, Peter betrayed Jesus, and Abraham was just plain too old.
Acknowledging weakness and limits – to God, to others, and even to ourselves – isn’t surrendering on the life of faith; saying “I’m broken too” provides God the opening needed to use you. God is less enamored with ability than with availability – and if we decide to be available to God, part of what we have to offer is our inability. God doesn’t say “Oh, I’ll fix that.” No, God smiles. Inability, weakness, lack of capacity: these are God’s strong suits.
God said to St. Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” So Paul concluded, “I am glad to boast gladly about my weaknesses, so the power of Christ may work through me” (2 Corinthians 12:9).
Prayer: “Lord, here are just a few of my weaknesses: ….., ….., ……, and ….. I may hide them from others, but I offer them to You, because I know You want all of me, and You may just be true to Yourself and use even my weaknesses for Your good. I cannot see how; but I believe You can, and will.”
James
james@mpumc.org
Tonight at 7pm! I will lead a session on How to Have a Spiritual Life. We will talk about spiritual disciplines, ways to pray and grow, and simple habits throughout the day to maintain focus and peace.
Sunday’s sermon, An Invitation to Lent (on the Transfiguration, Matthew 17), is on YouTube.


Ash Wednesday

Ashes on the forehead represent mortality, grief, and loss – and thus a new way of thinking and living, and hope.
Our culture has a way of handling grief and loss. We pile on kind expressions of sympathy – and then we move on, and hope to grieving one moves on also. Lingering grief – or worse, an ongoing sense of loss – is unbearable. We want our sympathy to “work,” to make the other person feel better. We want to feel better when we suffer loss, and soon.
The Bible, oddly, seems to seek out grief, stirs it up, invites it, even expects it. The vast majority of the Bible’s prayers are laments, expressions of sorrow, rage, grief. We are even invited not merely to mourn our own losses and those close to us, but the pains of strangers in other places, and even to let our hearts be broken by whatever breaks the heart of God. It’s as if the spiritual entails some daily sorrow.
Fascinating thing about tears: they cleanse us inside, something bottled up is released; in the Bible, tears are an open channel into the heart of God. Perhaps it is only as we grieve that we open ourselves to true joy. Suffering reduces us to who we really are, the fake, surfacey stuff molts away, and we sympathize with others; our minds change. Suffering is inevitable – and God is there.
In a letter to Dorothy Day, Thomas Merton wrote that life with God “isn’t a matter of getting a bulldog grip on faith and not letting the devil pry us loose from it. No, it is a matter of letting go rather than keeping hold. I am coming to think that God loves and helps best those who are so beat and have so much nothing when they come to die that it is almost as if they had persevered in nothing but had gradually lost everything, piece by piece, until there was nothing left but God… It is a question of his hanging on to us, by the hair of the head, that is from on top and beyond, where we cannot see or reach. What man can see the top of his own head?”
Prayer from the Daily Office: “Lord, I have spent much of my life running from pain and losses, medicating my pain and quickly moving on to the next project. I ask for grace to embrace all of life – the joys and the sorrows, the births and the deaths, the old and the new.”
James
james@mpumc.org
Our Ash Wednesday services are at 11am and 7pm.
Sunday’s sermon, An Invitation to Lent (on the Transfiguration, Matthew 17), is on YouTube.


The Examined Life

Socrates was right: “The unexamined life is not worth living.” The depressing vanity of our culture is that we just seem to live thoughtlessly, bouncing from one experience to the next, too busy to stop and wonder about the Why of it all.

Everything we read about Socrates indicates that (1) he was exceedingly wise, and that (2) he almost never explained the right answers to people; he asked questions, and then more questions. Sounds like Jesus, actually: the spiritual life isn’t having all the answers, but asking good questions – the right questions.

St. Ignatius devised a daily Examen, questions you ask yourself throughout the day: What am I grateful for? Where do I need light? Can I find God? Do I trust God is with me, even and especially when I fail? What might I avoid? A good question to focus on this week could be: can I recall how God was present? and how the Spirit guided me?

John Wesley required the early Methodists to ask these questions every day: Can I be trusted? Am I a slave to dress, work or habits? Am I self-pitying? Did the Bible live in me today? Do I pray about the money I spend? Am I critical, irritable, touchy? Is Christ real to me? Am I creating the impression that I am better than I really am?

Jot down a few questions that speak to you, and challenge you to stretch. Stop mid-morning, after lunch, on afternoon break, and before bedtime, and examine your life.

A prayer: “Lord, ask me hard questions. I may not have any answers. I may have even more questions. I trust that when You and I ask each other about things that matter, we will grow closer, and I might get in sync with Your vision for my life.”

James

james@mpumc.org

A new Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Group is forming, to begin March 19!

Last Monday’s session I led on “How to Have a Healthy, Robust Spiritual Life” is on YouTube.

Learn more about St. Ignatius’s Examen, and the full list of Wesley’s Questions.


Our Eyes are upon you

In a way, one of the most emotionally healthy prayers in the Bible is the one offered by obscure King Jehoshaphat: under attack, about to lead his people into a difficult battle, the King prays, “Lord, we do not know what to do; but our eyes are upon You” (2 Chronicles 20:12).
The life of faith isn’t about having all the answers, or never questioning; in fact, the deeper we go with God, the greater the mystery. Sometimes we have no clue what to do; but we can relax, as not knowing can be a hopeful dependence upon God alone. “Lord, we do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon You.”
How do we keep our eyes upon the Lord? Too many of us wait until there’s a crisis; then desperately we wonder, Where is God? It is so much better, healthier, and more satisfying to know where God is all the time – and the way to live near God is by spiritual habits, practices, disciplines. Time must be blocked out for prayer, reflection, reading – and these set times must be inviolable. If praying can be postponed this time, it can be next time – and pretty soon you aren’t praying at all.
In our emails this month we will suggest some practices that may prove helpful to you. They aren’t easy; we won’t feed you delicious little morsels of inspiring, cross-stitchable witticisms. Physically, we don’t get healthy but eating sweet little candies; it takes a well-rounded diet, saying No to the sweets, exercise, a whole new life.
The first, essential commitment is to say I will keep my eyes upon the Lord; I will relax and be attentive to God. With so many distractions, and so much busy-ness, you have to carve out time, and a place – and decide this will be the year God becomes not just another thing, but the big thing.
And so as Lent is underway, together let’s find our way to God, not merely in a crisis, but today, tomorrow, this afternoon, tomorrow evening.
A prayer from the Daily Office: “Father, I know how often I am carried away by too many concerns and demands. Deliver me from this whirlwind around me, and in me. Heal my tired, weary spirit, allowing the wisdom that comes from rest in you to flow deep within me.”
James
james@mpumc.org
A new Emotionally Healthy Spirituality Group is forming, to begin March 19!
Last week’s session I led on “How to Have a Healthy, Robust Spiritual Life” is on YouTube.


The Habit of Gratitude

In C.S. Lewis’s clever satire imagining the devil talking with his henchmen on how to undo us, Screwtape consoles Wormwood, who’s grieved because the guy he’s been working on converted to Christianity: “There is no need to despair; hundreds of these adult converts have been reclaimed after a brief sojourn in the enemy’s camp and are now with us. All the habits of the patient, both mental and bodily, are still in our favour.”

Unfortunately, our habits are not in our favor – or much in sync with God. The way to a healthy spiritual life is to weigh our daily habits, and ask what helps us toward God and what lures us away from God. John Wesley kept an “exacter diary,” where he scribbled notes each day on whether, in the past hour, he had been faithful to God, or done anything holy – or unholy.
The spiritual life grows as we become attentive to what we say, what we eat, whether technology consumes us, where we drive, whom we invite into our homes, whether we are hospitable toward others.
And then there is gratitude. St. Ignatius’s classic daily Examen’s 2nd probing inquiry is about the habit of gratitude. Everything in our culture runs counter to gratitude: we complain, we blame, we feel entitled, we think we’ve earned what is rightly ours. But the spiritual life is about gratitude to God and others, realizing our dependence, the varied ways we are great debtors to God and others for life, love, breath, responsibilities, joy and hope.
Can we cultivate a deeply-ingrained sense of gratitude? This is more than good manners! We don’t just write the obligatory thank-you note. We write the unexpected note; we seek moments to be grateful for – and we surprise others by sharing our thanks. Make it a habit: I will write 3 thank-you notes every day. Actually, if you begin to be attentive, you won’t be able to keep up with all the thank-yous you’ll want to share.
When we are grateful, we are less anxious. When we are grateful we are more hopful. When we are grateful, we have fewer regrets. When we are grateful we are kinder, gentler. When we are grateful, people around us are blessed. When we are grateful, we draw near to the heart of God.
Prayer: “Lord, make me grateful. Show me how blessed I am, and who all has been good to me, or has done something lovely. I promise to develop good, energetic habits of gratitude.”

James
james@mpumc.org
Last week’s session I led on “How to Have a Healthy, Robust Spiritual Life” is on YouTube.
Learn more about St. Ignatius’s Examen.


False Self, True Self

Lent is a season in which we ponder our sinfulness, a focused time to repent and amend our ways. Yes, we sin – in the sense of hurting other people, living self-indulgently, and failing to do what God asks of us.

But what is at the very heart of sin? In his lovely book, Immortal Diamond, Richard Rohr says “Sin is a mistake about who you are, and whose you are.” If we could keep straight in our souls who we really are, and to Whom we belong, sin would shrink.
Rohr explains that we all have a False Self that takes over, and our True Self gets buried or forgotten. The False Self isn’t evil, it’s not a bad self, but it’s thin, too small to deliver what we crave. The False Self is your job, clothes, money, car, house, success, friends, the trappings of your ego. It’s fine, but it’s a house of cards, and resists change.
Your True Self is eternal, woven into the marrow of your soul by God; your True Self is who you are in God’s eyes, and in the eyes of others who can peer deeply into who you really are. Your True Self isn’t too busy; the True Self is wise. “The True Self always has something good to say. The False Self babbles on, largely about itself.”
Lent is about the abandonment of sin. Yes, we avoid some self-destructive behaviors, we shy away from what we know isn’t pleasing to God; and we embrace, and courageously do what God calls us to do. But we also abandon the sin of forgetting who we are, and that we belong to God. Lent then becomes the discovery, or rather, the recovery or your True Self, the You God created, knows, loves, and never abandons.
A prayer from The Daily Office: “Lord, I now take a deep breath and stop. So often I miss your hand and gifts in my life because I am preoccupied and anxious. Grant me the power to pause each day to simply rest in your arms of love.”
James
james@mpumc.org
Your True Self isn’t realized until you become a servant; help us pack 200,000 meals this weekend for Stop Hunger Now! Sign up here.
Sunday’s sermon, on being “born again” (John 3), is on YouTube.
Last week’s session I led on “How to Have a Healthy, Robust Spiritual Life” is on YouTube.


Looking back on the day

St. Ignatius’s Daily Examen understood something essential about the human psyche: the time of our lives is cropped into units called “days,” and toward the end of the day we inevitably look back and assess how that one went. If we look back deliberately, weighing not just how I felt about the day, but how it went with respect to God, then this exercise alone can yield a good bit of spiritual growth.
Mother Teresa suggested that at day’s end you look at your hands and ask, “Hands, where have you been today? What did you do?” You might look into a mirror, and ask What were my motives today? my rough patches? my moments of being buoyed by others? When were there opportunities for growth? What chances to do good did I bumble right by without stopping?
Who was I all day, anyhow? In a wonderful book I’m using for morning prayer during this Lenten season, I read a lovely reflection by Julian of Norwich: “God does not despise anything that he has made. As the body is clothed in cloth, and the bones are clothed in the flesh, so are we, soul and body, clothed in the goodness of God.” Maybe somebody despised me today; but God does not despise me, because God made me. And what clothes did I wear today? and what will I wear tomorrow? Can I envision myself clothed in the goodness of God?
Julian marveled at God’s care: “How tenderly our Creator loves us! God wishes to be seen, he wishes to be sought, he wishes to be expected, and he wishes to be trusted.” Ponder those four: God, eager to be seen, and sought by us, trusted – and even expected! God wants us to expect that God will show up, and be palpably present to us!
Prayer: “God of love, wrap me in your love today, and hold me always close with that divine mercy in which my body was formed and knit together in your image. Give me grace to live this day seeing, seeking, expecting, and trusting you. Amen.”
James
james@mpumc.org
Learn more about Julian of Norwich through this blog (with photos) I wrote! The devotional book I’m using is 40-Day Journey with Julian of Norwich.
Last week’s session I led on “How to Have a Healthy, Robust Spiritual Life” is on YouTube.


Spiritual Oscillation

Sometimes I pull out a piece of paper and sketch out a little chart of how I’m doing in terms of being at peace and trusting God, versus being anxious and fearful. The word “oscillation” comes to mind: there are ups and downs.

These ups and downs are pretty common. There can be whole seasons of life, several months or a few years, that are up, or down. Then again, more often I find that the oscillations, the ups and downs, are all day long. I can read a devotional, or hear a song, or be in a beautiful place, and I am at peace; but then it doesn’t last. A situation emerges, and I’m cast headlong into a dark, jittery place.

We want more of a straight line – or do we? Those hospital heart monitors: the straightline means you don’t have a pulse any more. It’s the oscillating, the pulse, blood rising and then falling, that proves we’re alive. The ups and downs of the spiritual life simply mean we are, we exist, we are real.

Julian of Norwich observed herself, how she could be wholly at peace – but it lasted only for a time; then she felt “abandoned to myself, ruing myself.” God gave her comfort – but then later there was more pain, “one, now the other, again and again.” Her conclusion? “And so we remain in this mixture all the days of our life. What breaks the impasse is that Christ wants us to trust that he is constantly with us,” in the ups and downs, even of your spiritual mood.

Faith isn’t a mood, and God’s tender care certainly isn’t a mood. In this life we will have the oscillation. When you notice it, give thanks to God, and see it as an invitation to trust Christ constantly.

James

james@mpumc.org

Serving God, especially during Lent, brings balance to the spiritual life – so join in Outpour! First time mission volunteers, and veterans, are coming together for a week (March 30 – April 6) of engagement with 15 of our partner agencies. Find a project and time, and get involved!

Sunday’s sermon on Jesus’ thirst (and ours), Jesus’ knowing us, and thoughts on 3 tragedies we faced last week is on YouTube (and downloadable via podcast or in print).

The session I led on “How to Have a Healthy, Robust Spiritual Life” is on YouTube.


Fear, the Devil, and Jesus’ Beautiful Face

I love Psalm 27’s opening thoughts: “The Lord is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The Lord is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid? When evildoers assail me, my adversaries and foes shall stumble and fall. Though a host encamp against me, my heart shall not fear.”
Of whom shall I be afraid? Who are my adversaries and foes? What circumstances, challenges, and problems are encamped around me?
For many of us, there is a malicious, evil being in the cellar of our souls: the devil, lurking around corners, ready to pounce, whispering lurings into my ear. Whether you believe there’s a real, vile person, The Devil, or if you’re a bit more philosophical about it, as in There are evil forces out there, we’d best be wary of an evil that is very real, and profoundly personal.
Julian of Norwich had a vision in which Jesus instructed her to take not of the devil’s malice – but then to understand that in light of Jesus’ power and love, that devil is actually impotent, really a big zero in God’s eyes. This made her laugh – and there is a long tradition of great saints who believed it wisest to laugh in the face of temptation’s wiles.
The question to ask is, What ‘adversaries,’ what ‘foes’ oppress your life and threaten your well-being? What ‘hell’ are you enduring? or are others enduring? Can you come to the assurance of Psalm 27 that we need not fear? that the Lord really is enough Light to banish darkness?
Thomas Merton advised us not so much to dare to laugh at trouble, but actually not to stare at it and obsess on it so much. We focus so much on what separates us from God, we fixate on the adversaries and foes – and yet what if we could refocus our gaze and become far more attentive to God’s love, to God’s holy mercy and power? The simple shift of attention might free us a bit, and overwhelm much that is dark in us and our world.
Psalm 27 suggests a way to fresh, joyful life even in the thick of difficulty: “One thing have I asked, that I may behold the beauty of the Lord. He will shelter me in the day of trouble – and now my head shall be lifted up.” Decide this day that when trouble rears its head, when danger presses on your soul, you will turn your head and think on the beauty of the Lord, on Jesus’ kind, caring face – and perhaps smile, or laugh a little.
James
james@mpumc.org
I sent out a 3-part email on Psalm 27 last year; it’s archived here.
Learn more about Julian of Norwich through this blog (with photos) I wrote! The devotional book I’m using is 40-Day Journey with Julian of Norwich.
My sermon from Sunday on how God sees, and how we listen to God (on 1 Samuel 16) is on YouTube.


The Most Important Week of your Life

How do you prepare for the most important week of your life? Sometimes you know what’s coming. Next week I learn if I get into NCState or not, next week I take the bar, next week I’ll ask her to marry me, next week we learn if it’s malignant, next week I retire… We can be anxious, or divert ourselves to avoid fixating; we might study, practice, pray hard, rehearse.
Oddly, what turns out to be the most important week of your life you never saw coming. The phone rings at 2am, news shatters you to your core, she’s gone, he’s leaving, You’re fired, the doctor says There’s nothing we can do – and in your numb agony you feel fully Santayana’s words, “And I am grown much older in a day.”
Next week is Holy Week, theologically the most important week in human history. How would you prepare? You aren’t likely to get anxious about it, but you could study (read over Matthew chapters 21 thru 28). You might practice being quiet, shutting down your technology for a while each day. You can pray, and ask God for next week to be a time of enrichment, growth, and compassion.
You can also gather up those important weeks in your life, the shattering, painful ones, those you’ve already endured, and those you know are inevitable… and begin to look for the ways Christ enters into your weeks the way he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, the way he did not shrink from sorrow but united his soul with mine and yours so we’d never have to endure anything alone, and finally the way God could not bear leaving him in the grave but raised him up. And so, there is hope, all will finally be well.
Begin today to prepare for the most important week of your (and everyone’s) life.
James
james@mpumc.org
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