spiritual discipline

Breathing and Being

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By Linda Rex

A cedar tree stands in the yard behind my neighbor’s house. Its dark green pungent branches droop a little and sway gently in the breeze. Every day that tree stands in the same place, allowing the wind to blow its boughs back and forth. The tree never seems to tire of its simple task of just being present, breathing in the carbon dioxide and breathing out the oxygen we need to survive.

In fact, as I sit here in my flimsy patio chair, the tree doesn’t seem to express any anxiety or concern about whether or not it’s doing a good job, or if it’s producing enough oxygen each day. Granted, its ability to grow to its full height and expand to its full breadth has been limited by the neighboring deciduous trees. But this doesn’t hinder the cedar from just being what it is—a cedar tree—and from doing the one simple thing it was created for—being a living, breathing contributor to the well-being of the planet, a genuine participant in God’s gracious daily provision for his living creatures.

The cedar tree seems oblivious to my neighbor talking to her plants and her spouse. It seems indifferent to my gaze as I stare and it and wonder which side of the fence it is located on. It just continues to be who it is, day in and day out, rain or shine.

I am a little jealous of the cedar tree. It doesn’t have to worry about whether it can pay the bills this month, or whether the car tires will hold out for another month or two. The tree doesn’t really have any concerns, for it doesn’t have a memory of the past, nor does it have any concept of its future. It doesn’t even know it could be cut down tomorrow—that’s not even on its radar. It’s just living right now, being who it is, doing what it’s doing in this particular moment.

The tree has this incredible capacity to just rest in Jesus. Its existence is totally dependent upon the God who made it and who supplies its daily soil, water, air, and light. And that’s okay. That’s all it needs. It doesn’t need or even know to ask for anything more.

It does me good to slow down to the pace of the cedar tree, and to silence my mind of all the myriad thoughts and concerns which consume my inner world. How hard can it be to take an hour and just be? What’s it like to just rest in the One who made me and redeems me, and to let that resting be enough in and of itself?

Five seconds into my time of silence I find this concern and that issue popping up in my thoughts. “Okay, Lord,” I think, “I’ll give these things to you for a bit. I can deal with them later.” And I can be silent again. But it’s a wrestling match with my inner self.

Silence as a spiritual discipline, as coming into God’s presence and opening ourselves up to his Spirit’s inner work, can be a real challenge for us. We often find reasons to stay too busy to stop and be silent. We know that to do so would be to open ourselves up to the possibility of having to deal with our problems, losses, or our faults. Quieting ourselves in the presence of the Living Lord may mean we have to stop running away from ourselves and the harm we have done or are doing to ourselves or others.

Yet, silence as a spiritual discipline is a real opportunity to be filled with presence and power of God in a new way. It creates an inner space for the Spirit to enable us to listen to our Abba’s heart, and the Word of Life speaking in our hearts. When we are quiet before God, that inner voice of the Spirit grows louder and our assurance of our Abba’s love grows stronger.

It seems foolish to pause in the midst of our busy schedule to just sit and be in the presence of God. And yet, I have found this is the best possible use we could make of our time. In having done so, we find a greater inner strength, a clearer vision and insight we would not have otherwise. We pause to take a deep breath of the Spirit, and in breathing out, we find ourselves participating more fully in God’s life and love.

Perhaps we are more like the cedar tree than we realize. Yes, God has gifted us and given us many opportunities and abilities the cedar tree does not have. After all, we do reflect the being of God himself. But we are still here as participants in God’s story—sharing in his care of this world and everything in it. We each have a place in his life where all he asks of us is just to be who we are—his beloved and redeemed children.

Acknowledging the simplicity of our existence as God’s beloved and redeemed children, participants in his life and love, means we can rest. We can trust God to hold all things together by the Word of his power, to care for each and every living creature. Our failures as humans do not prevent God from accomplishing anything he has intended from the beginning.

Yes, we cause harm to each other and to this world. We fail to care for what we’ve been given. But none of that prevents God from loving us and drawing us to himself through Christ and in the Spirit. Nothing we can say or do is sufficient to stand in God’s way. Jesus’ prayer stands forever hung in the air: “Your kingdom come. Your will be done.” And he did what was necessary in his life, death, resurrection, and ascension so we can be assured of the outcome—a new heavens and earth and perfected humanity in which righteousness dwells.

We can for a moment have a deeper grasp of this spiritual reality when we pause in the midst of our existence and just be in the presence of the One who made us and sustains us, and breath in deeply the living Spirit—our Breath of Life. As we are silent and present in the moment, drinking in the living Presence of God himself, we can taste just for moment the blessing of the cedar tree—our eternal rest in Christ who is our Life and our real existence in this broken world. In him we have our being—our peace, hope, and joy—our past, present, and future, for he holds all things in his hands.

So, pause for few moments, and take in a deep breath of Divine Air. Lean back, resting in the Everlasting Arms. For Abba is holding you, and singing over you his songs of joy and love. Listen carefully, and you just might hear him singing…

Abba, thank you for your love, for your gift of your Son and your Spirit. Thank you for holding us and caring for us, whether we realize it or not. Grant us the grace to rest in you and in your perfect love, Enable us to just be, as we are always and forever yours, your beloved and redeemed children, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.

“The Lord your God is in your midst, a mighty one who will save; he will rejoice over you with gladness; he will quiet you by his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” Zephaniah 3:17 ESV

It’s Tempting, But…

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by Linda Rex

Lent: In our two churches we have been considering the reality of temptation. We’ve been learning that temptation is something every human faces, especially when it comes to our relationship with God and our relationships with one another. Falling prey to temptation is part of our human condition—none of us are exempt from the lure of sin.

As we look towards Holy Week and the gift of the death and resurrection of God’s Son on our behalf, we can find comfort in the life Jesus lived, the death he died, because he faced every temptation we face, but did not sin. We participate in his perfected humanity by the Holy Spirit, and in that way we are able to endure temptation and resist the pull to sin.

It is normal for us as human beings to come up against something in our lives that tells us quite convincingly that God is not to be trusted—that he is not the loving, compassionate God he is in reality. Life circumstances, the way significant people in our lives treat us and our response to these experiences, all play a role in the way we view God and whether or not we believe he is trustworthy and loving.

What we believe about God and who he is, and about ourselves and who we are, directly impacts the way we respond to the events in our lives as well as the way we respond to the desires and pulls of our broken humanity. The emptiness we may feel at times and the hidden dark areas we push down inside ourselves because they are too painful to face often drive us in ways we don’t recognize or expect. Sometimes it seems that our behavior is beyond our control.

We may find ourselves addicted to substances or habits we’d rather not be held to, and we may find ourselves in relationships or circumstances that are unhealthy and destructive, but we don’t know how to step away from them and move on. We may hear some preacher say that we need to repent and put sin out of our lives, but sin doesn’t hear the sermon and stays in spite of all our efforts to get rid of it.

If facing temptation is a common human experience, and temptation is something that Jesus faced alongside each one of us during his life here on earth, then we need to understand being tempted to do or say or be something that does not express love for God or for others is not a sin in itself. Temptation happens. How we face that temptation will determine whether we will endure and resist it, or whether we will give in to it.

The key, when it comes to resisting temptation, has to do with our relationship with God in Christ through the Spirit. We need first to understand that God is faithful. He would not allow us to be tempted if he hadn’t first provided us with what we needed to overcome that temptation and to resist it. And he did this—he gave us Jesus Christ and the Spirit.

Jesus Christ endured the same temptations and yet did not sin, no matter how enticing those temptations were. His perfected humanity is ours through the gift of the Holy Spirit. Through the Spirit, Jesus dwells in our hearts. The “mystery of godliness” the apostle Paul said, is “Christ in you, the hope of glory.” Christ in us by the Spirit is what we need to overcome every temptation and resist it. Christ did it, and we participate in that finished work by the Spirit in us.

When we are living in intimate relationship with the Father, through Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit, in a daily walk with God that involves transparency, authenticity, humility and an acknowledgement of our dependency upon God for all things, temptations begin to be seen for what they are. We begin to see that temptations are invitations to break fellowship with God and others.

When we experience the broken relationships, alienation and separation that comes with yielding to temptation, and we face the pain that comes with the consequences of our sins, this can be a springboard to a deeper relationship with God. It is God’s mercy and kindness that brings us to the place of repentance so that we will give up our idolatries, our immorality, and our ingratitude towards God.

When we have experienced what it is like to walk in a close relationship with God, where the Spirit begins to work to transform us and we encounter Christ in a personal, intimate communion, we find that we don’t what to do anything that will mar or break that relationship. We won’t want to offend or insult or harm God or others in any way. This is Christ in us—God’s heart and mind are beginning to become ours. This is our best resistance to temptation.

Granted, we do participate in the process of resisting temptation. We do this by growing in and deepening our relationship with God. We open ourselves up to the Holy Spirit, and invite him to grow Christ in us, and we do this by practicing spiritual disciplines such as prayer, meditation on God and his Word, meeting together for worship and fellowship, reading the Word of God, caring for others, and participating in small groups.

We may need to practice a spiritual discipline which offers up to God our commitment to put away things that cause us to be tempted to do what is wrong. We may need to eliminate certain things or particular relationships out of our daily existence because they cause us to be tempted to break fellowship with God or others. We may need to stop listening to or watching things that encourage us to participate in ungodly ways of living or being.

Not all of us are strong in every area of our lives to where we are never tempted in some way. It is foolish to constantly tempt ourselves, especially when God is calling us to put off the old self and to put on our new self which was given to us in Christ Jesus. Part of our participation in Christ’s perfected humanity involves choosing to live in agreement with the King of the kingdom of God rather than insisting on being a law unto ourselves.

But ultimately, we will face temptations that seem beyond our ability to resist. We will have areas in our lives where we cannot seem to ever overcome some flaw or fault or sin. We will struggle in some areas and no matter how hard we try to resist the temptation, we fail. God will, more than once, bring us to the place where we have to recognize and acknowledge that we are incapable of resisting sin on our own. We are incapable of perfection in this life—it cannot be done by us, on our own.

God says to you and to me—accept the reality of your need for grace. Turn to Christ. He is your perfected humanity—he is your life. Respond to the gift of the Spirit God has given you. Open yourself to the work he is trying to do in you and in your life even now. God is at work in you, providing the way of escape from temptation and enabling you to endure the temptations you are facing. He is faithful. He will not stop until he has finished what he began in you—to reveal Christ in you. Praise his holy Name.

Lord Jesus, I thank you that you endured every temptation you faced and you did not sin. And thank you for sharing this perfect resistance against temptation with us by the Spirit. I pray, Father, that you will finish the work you have begun in us so that we might fully reflect the image of Christ and that by your Spirit we may live in close fellowship with you and one another. We look forward to an eternity spent in gracious loving communion with you and one another. In your Name we pray. Amen.

“No temptation has overtaken you but such as is common to man; and God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will provide the way of escape also, so that you will be able to endure it.” 1 Corinthians 10:13 NASB

Stopping the Hiding

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Ice on holly leaves and berries
Ice on holly leaves and berries

By Linda Rex

Lent: Many years ago I used to have recurring nightmares of trying to hide from scary people or events by hiding in the walls of my home or escaping over the backyard fence. This was during a time in my life where I was starting to come to understand the magnificence of God’s grace to me while also going through some very difficult personal experiences.

I began some studies related to abuse and co-dependency, but also came across some information regarding dreams and how sometimes they are related to the internal struggles we may be going through. One of these sources indicated that dreams involving one’s home of origin spoke to the need to resolve inner issues that had not been addressed or with which one is wrestling.

The idea that I had some inner issues that needed resolved was not a new concept for me. I had already concluded that I needed to bring some light into some very dark places in my life—places where I had been abused, shamed and broken. But up to that time I had never felt safe enough to acknowledge them, much less to admit to them and begin to deal with them. I was busy hiding behind all the walls I had built up throughout my life, and spent much of my time and effort escaping my problems and pain rather than facing them.

But healing of this nature does not occur until such a time as a person is willing and able to open dark places to the healing light of God’s presence and grace. Indeed, Jesus said we experience real freedom when we measure ourselves against the light of the truth of Jesus and allow him to set us free. There is an appropriate place for us to practice the spiritual disciplines of examen and confession.

First, I’m always having to remind people that spiritual disciplines are not rituals or rites. They become rituals or rites when we misapply them, using these practices as a means of trying to make things right with God or to get God to do something for us. A spiritual discipline is very different.

When a person is walking closely with God, they will sense that God is wanting them to open another area of their lives up to him for the Holy Spirit to go to work. Often he places a desire in their heart to grow up in Christ in a new and different way. Such growth only occurs, though, by the Spirit’s transforming power and work in a person’s heart and mind, and life. So, when a person feels this sense of God’s leading, they can open themselves up to a new work of the Spirit by practicing spiritual disciplines. This creates space for God to go to work.

There are many spiritual disciplines Christians have practiced over the centuries. One of these is examen. This spiritual discipline involves “discerning the voice and activity of God within the flow of the day. It is a vehicle that creates deeper awareness of God-given desires in one’s life” (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, pg 52).

An example of this practice in action would be when at the end of the day, a person would reflect on his or her experiences and consider how and when they experienced God’s presence throughout the day, and what brought, as some describe it, “consolation” or “desolation”. In examen we reflect on what was life-giving and what was life-draining, where we gave and received love and where we failed to do so.

It is an opportunity to consider our relationship with God and to invite the Holy Spirit to show us those things we can be grateful for and those things which may need to be changed, and to invite him to make those changes in us. As you may see, this spiritual discipline is a way to open our life up to God’s light and allow him to go to work. Practicing it regularly can help us to become more aware of God’s presence in our lives and in what ways we are actively participating in Christ’s work in the world and in us.

The other spiritual discipline I mentioned is confession. We often associate confession with the Roman Catholic practice of confessing one’s sins to a priest, but confession as a spiritual discipline is quite different. Self-examination is not meant to be, as Calhoun puts it, “a neurotic shame-inducing inventory.” Rather it is a way of opening up ourselves in the context of God’s love and grace so that we can in a real, authentic way, seek his transformation.

Confession carries this process of self-examination forward in a two-sided way. One is the declaration of what is true about ourselves—we are broken in some way and fall short of who God created us to be. The other is the declaration of who we are in Christ, the real truth of our being—that we are redeemed and in Christ we have and do experience renewal and transformation.

Our confession begins first between us and God. The light of God penetrates that dark place and we open up to God and agree that yes, this is true about me. But for real healing to be found and true freedom experienced, we may need to carry that confession forward to a friend, a safe person such as a counselor, or in the context of public error, there may need to be public confession. (James 5:16)

But talking about our faults and places of brokenness is not enough. We can talk about them until we are blue in the face, bemoan them, flagellate ourselves about them, but nothing will change in our lives. At least, not until we confess Jesus Christ as the Savior and Lord who did something about them. He has freed us from our brokenness and given us new life—we begin to confess that, and begin to invite others to share in that forgiveness, healing and restoration, and we will begin to experience transformation.

This is why so often God brings light into some dark place in our lives and then begins to bring us into relationship with others who are struggling with the same things. As I began to deal with the abuse I experienced, bringing it into the light by being honest and truthful about it, and by sharing this struggle with others, God began to allow me to help others along on a similar journey. And in the process we all experienced God’s grace and healing.

In my case, the dark dreams stopped. Walking in the light of God’s grace and healing meant I didn’t need to hide behind my walls any more. I could be genuine and real, and broken, and I was still loved, forgiven and accepted by God and by others. I began to recognize God’s presence throughout my days in the positive and the negative experiences of my life. And in sharing my broken places with others, I could help them on their journey of healing.

All of this occurs and did occur within the context of relationship. God calls us to love him and to love one another. It is in the light of spiritual community with God and others that we can stop the hiding and begin to live freely and joyfully, as well as transparently, and with authenticity and integrity. May God give us the courage and faith to come out behind our walls, and to quit running and hiding.

Dad, thank you that you are so tender with us when we are broken. And you want us to feel safe enough with you that we can and will open up our dark places to your light so you can mend and heal them. Grant us the grace to be brave enough to let others join with us in this journey of transformation and to respond obediently to your calls to open ourselves up to the light of your love and grace. Thank you, that through your Son we have redemption and restoration. In his name we pray, amen.

“So Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed Him, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.’ They answered Him, ‘We are Abraham’s descendants and have never yet been enslaved to anyone; how is it that You say, “You will become free”?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who commits sin is the slave of sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son does remain forever. So if the Son makes you free, you will be free indeed.’” John 8:31–36 NASB