Spiritual Practices: Wings or Weights?

Spiritual practices should give believers wings to fly. That'll be different for everybody. What may be a weight to one person will give wings to another.

I recently met a delightful 80-some-year-old lady. It wasn't long into the conversation when I realized we had kindred spirits, so much in common. She ran consistently until she turned 70. She loves growing things, loves to work in the yard. She has such a positive and generous spirit, so others-oriented. I fell in love with her from the moment I met her smiling face. She walked just short of a mile to meet us for lunch. She even has a Fitbit and tries to get in 10,000 steps a day. I was impressed!

As we got to know each other, I discovered one thing that we don't have in common. She's a morning person, most likely daily in her life rhythm. She sets her alarm for 5:05am every night before she goes to bed. Up early, she finds her morning time with the Lord a great start to her day. That would be a burden to me, a weight that bogged me down with it's routine and repetition, not to mention a 5:05am alarm. But for her it's exactly the opposite. She loves the routine, the familiarity, the consistency of the every day. Those early morning times in the Word give her wings to fly. 

I, on the other hand, don't do mornings. I'd rather find time on any given day (not necessarily every day) to sit for a while to journal, to read scripture with an accompanying commentary or book. My intellectual side (Sacred Pathways, Gary Thomas) likes to study, ponder, research, and ask questions (within myself and in community). 

Currently, I'm beginning a study on the book of Romans. I've pulled Barclay's commentary off the shelf to read along side the passages of scripture. I'll read it in other translations, paraphrases. I'll discuss it with others. It will give words to my prayers. Taking time to understand the context, why Paul wrote what he did for the people of the time will give me understanding in the present day application. It will inspire my spirit, motivate me to live with a heart for the good news, and teach me how to extend my love to others in Jesus' name. 

That's how it works for me. Not everybody connects with the Scriptures in this way, but in my seasonal way of doing things, I camp for a season in the same place. Let me sit here for awhile and take it in.

This is a spiritual practice that gives me wings to fly.

 Photo credit: Dina Horne (thanks Dina!) 

Photo credit: Dina Horne (thanks Dina!) 

I don't know how long I'll be in the book of Romans. It took me a year and a half to memorize and study the book of Ephesians. I camped out six months in the book of James. And, though I won't read Romans every day, I'll be mulling over the words in thought, in the reality of my life, and in the spirit of my heart. This is my seasonal/yearly rhythm at play in my spiritual formation. 

What lifts your spirit? What gives you joy? What carries you in difficult times? For so long I attempted to follow a formula that was dragging me down, a heavy weight of expectations. Once I was free to engage with the Word and God in a way that fit my seasonal lifestyle, I gained wings to fly, to soar above the dutiful expectations I tried to live within too long. 

Are you weighted down by your current spiritual practices? Then, consider what practices will give you wings to fly.

What spiritual practices give you wings? 

 

Intentionality

Perhaps it's more about intentionality than discipline when it comes to spiritual formation. A welcoming word for this seasonal/yearly person. :)

I must admit, since my last season–January through April–I've been in a seasonal slump. Not feeling terribly productive (thus the lack of blog posts), but I am enjoying the lazy days of summer, spending time with grandchildren, and maintaining the flowers surrounding our house as they grow, bud, and bloom. 

Last season ended with hundreds of people cheering on runners as I ran the final 13th mile of the Indy Mini, the largest half-marathon in the country. Hearing the shouts of my kids (who finished ahead of me) as I ran the final mile was rewarding, but I didn't have any extra energy to "give it all you've got." I was giving it all I had, and was happy to cross the finish line. 

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Intentional training, building up to several long runs in the last month before the race, contributed to my performance and the ability to finish. 

 

Whether you fall into a deliberate daily routine,

or find yourself focusing on a purposeful weekly/monthly goal,

or creating a theme that matches your current season or year,

intentionality is necessary to spiritual formation. 

 

In this new season, I've chosen a word for 2018: FAVOR. It came to me in May (yes, May, not January) while my husband and I were on a much-needed vacation in Yosemite National Park. We've had some not-so-great vacations over the past couple years for one reason or another, but this one was different. I sensed God's favor as we hiked the trails, enjoyed time reading in the lodge, or taking in the beauty in the High Sierras. And, just like that, "favor" became my theme for the rest of the year. 

 Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

Since then I discovered Steve Moore's book, The Top 10 Leadership Conversations in the Bible. His first chapter is simply called, "Favor." Moore gains understanding on favor from the life of Joseph. He summarizes the "favor principle" like this:

There is a difference between the favor of God, and the power of God. The power of God moves in or through us to impact others to advance God’s kingdom. The favor of God moves in or through others to open doors for us to advance God’s kingdom. 
— Chapter 01 - Favor, pg. 18

Knowing Joseph's life, I realize that God's favor did not always mean living in an ideal world. Joseph was sold into slavery by his brothers, falsely accused, and thrown into prison, but even there he gained God's favor. I'm looking forward to diving into this word deeper, and experiencing his favor in 2018. 

For the LORD God is a sun and shield; the LORD bestows favor and honor; no good thing does he withhold from those whose walk is blameless. LORD Almighty, blessed is the one who trusts in you.
— Psalm 84:11–12

In what ways are you being intentional in your spiritual formation? 

Four Big Questions: #4 What opportunities do I have to demonstrate God's love to others?

This is where the rubber meets the road.

If our spiritual practices and tools are not impacting the world around us - where we live and do life with others - then what good are they? Yes, we grow in our own relationship with Christ, but it doesn't end there. As Robert Mulholland writes in his book, Invitation to a Journey,

a believer is "conformed to the image of Christ for the sake of others within the body of Christ and for the sake of others outside the body of Christ." 

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I think the greatest question we can ask when it comes to the fourth Big Question is this: What would love have me do today, this week, this month, this season, this year? It's a question to ask when we're engaging with fellow believers, as well as others, no matter religion, faith, gender, age, race, or culture. 

So now I am giving you a new commandment: Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples. – John 13:34

 

 

Four Big Questions: #3 What practices or tools can assist in my growth?

While I grew up on a farm, my husband grew up around construction and carpentry, as his dad was a builder. Three out of our four grown children have picked up the woodwork side of the family and each has their own local business ranging from children's toys to wooden bowls and lamps to furniture

They all have hand and power tools specific to their creations. While one uses a saw for cutting small intricate curves to make children's toys, another uses a power machine to plane large slabs of reclaimed lumber to create a dining table. Still another uses a lathe to create a round lamp or a bowl. 

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The tool matters to the desired outcome. 

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Just as there are specific tools necessary to create a bowl, a table, or a toy, there are practices and tools available to participate with the Spirit’s work in our lives.

The Spirit does his part deep within (transformation) while we do our part (engaging the practices and/or tools). Together we work to bring about wholeness, the way God pictured us from the beginning, wholly his. (Philippians 2:12-13)

The answer to the first Big Question to Experiencing Wholeness - where is God leading me to change - should be the determining factor in choosing what tool or practice makes sense.

What is the desired outcome? What’s in your toolbox that can assist you? 

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Everyone’s toolbox has the Bible and prayer available for any situation you find yourself in. They are the essentials. God’s Word’s has authority to convict, equip, and empower towards wholeness. Prayer is the heart connecting with God, whether seeking guidance, rejoicing in gratitude, making an appeal, expressing grief, celebrating in joy, calling for protection, giving thanks, or seeking forgiveness. The Word and prayer are two powerful tools, both offensive in warding off the enemy's tactics. 

There are also other tools that strengthen the Spirit's work:

time away to focus • solitude • connecting in community • offering hospitality • loving the marginalized, lonely, and hopeless • confessing sin to God and another • writing out thoughts to process life • rest • creative drawing • abstaining from certain foods or beverages for a season to give more focus to connecting with God • scripture prayers • giving of time, finances, or service • choosing trust rather than doubt • putting off fear • developing faith and trust • acknowledging and renouncing the lies of the enemy • choosing to believe and live out truth • developing a fruit of the Spirit • shared experiences • worship • reading Spirit-led books • scripture memory • walking in nature • centering prayer • creative writing

What other tools have you used on your journey of growing in faith and wholeness?

If a certain practice or tool is not producing wholeness and Christlikeness, then consider setting it aside and ask God to highlight a different tool that will assist you in participating with His transforming work in your life. 

Tools are only tools. They have no value in and of themselves. 

Their value is in what they produce.  

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Tools assist us on the journey, but it's only God who transforms us into beautiful creations. 

Listening to the Spirit's voice, surrounding ourselves with community, and utilizing the tools available to grow are all important towards wholeness, but there's one more question that fleshes all this out. Next week we'll take a look at the fourth Big Question to Experiencing Wholeness. Transformation is not only for our sake, but for the sake of others. 

Four Big Questions: #2 Who can join or help me in growing spiritually?

Last weekend I went back home to Pennsylvania where I grew up and lived until I went off to college. My whole family still lives there. I'm the only one who ever left county, state, and country. 

I had the privilege to share at what was my home church during my teen years, and I was reminded once again how significant community is to our wholeness. 

Ono United Methodist, was, and still is, a thriving, community-centered church, surrounded by rural Pennsylvania farmlands; the village of Ono consisting of about 30 houses situated along old route 22. Just a couple miles up the road from the farm I grew up on, even now, many who attend are those with whom I went to elementary and high school. Now their kids and their grandkids go to Ono UM. 

The year I graduated from high school was the same year the church started the IF group. IF stood for Intermediate Fellowship. There were a number of young people who no longer fit the youth group age. Many of us were in-between high school and college, others were home from college, and still others had graduated from college. Some didn't have plans to go to college, choosing a farming or vocational career instead. It was a timely beginning for me, and I've not experienced anything like it since. 

 I'm taking the picture. :) This is some of our group.  Two from this picture have passed on when life was yet young.  

I'm taking the picture. :) This is some of our group.  Two from this picture have passed on when life was yet young.  

At the same time one of my classmates had a sister returning home following college graduation. Even though there was four years difference in age, Karen and I quickly became best of friends, and were an integral part of the IF group. I think we were able to offer each other something we both needed at the time. I needed to be stretched and challenged. She needed spiritual grounding. I needed her encouragement and high belief. She needed a place to belong, a safe place to grow in her walk with Christ. 

Within a mile of the church was a wooded area we called the “church grove.” Sunday School picnics were held at the grove each summer, among other activities. The IF gang camped out at the church grove just about every weekend and almost every month of the year. Sleeping around a campfire in our sleeping bags in the dead of winter. Someone would bring a guitar, we’d sing, we’d share, we’d laugh, we’d pray. It wasn't unusual for all of us to walk into church on Sunday morning smelling like campfire smoke, still in our camp clothes. Every Thursday night we’d meet up at someone’s home for Bible study. 

We’d serve together; raking fall leaves for the elderly, serving hot coffee to truckers at a roadside rest stop on Interstate 81, and leading worship for Wednesday night prayer meetings. 

In the summer, on Sunday afternoons, you could find us meeting at Jennie Wentling’s house (grandma to some of the IF'rs) to play volleyball in her big side yard.

We truly did LIFE TOGETHER.

I’m not sure that I can fully comprehend what those IF years did to shape my life. I'm pretty sure I would have never had the courage and belief that I could make it in college without the support and encouragement of Karen and the IF group.

Though there were defeats and challenges in those years, we were there for each other, and my spiritual growth took on a fresh level of exuberance and confidence. I could write another book on just those years alone!

If we think we can live this life as whole beings without relationship, we are kidding ourselves. Since those IF years, God has provided friends, mentors, spiritual directors, small groups, and counselors, who have invested in my well being, not only spiritually, but physically, emotionally and intellectually.

Even now, I meet with a friend who I just happened upon at a local Starbucks. One of the baristas, neither of us knew we both lived in the Indy area.

Terry? Gwen? We almost simultaneously said, What are you doing here!? 

Terry use to mentor my two oldest when they were a part of the youth group at our church in Michigan. Now, years later, after having both lived in numerous places, we get together weekly. We process life together (important for a seasonal person:), encouraging each other in our marriages, sharing what it is to have grown children and grandchildren, and spurring each other on in our faith. 

Community is an integral part to experiencing wholeness.

Processing life and faith, asking the deeper questions, encouraging each other, motivating personal growth, and giving hope and affirmation. We were meant for relationship. 

A couple questions to think about as you consider the community aspect of your life:

Who has been a significant person in my life?

Who can join or help me in growing spiritually?

The third Big Question to Experiencing Wholeness has to do with the spiritual practices, one element to our spiritual formation.  There are a variety of practices to choose from according to how you answer the first big question: Where is God leading me to change? Spiritual practices are" tools, not rules," according to Larry Osborne, author of Spirituality for the Rest of Us. Choosing the appropriate tool will enable you to participate with the Holy Spirit's work in your life.

Eastering

There would be no spring if there wasn't a winter. Seeds lie dormant in the ground. Buds have been waiting dormant all winter to begin their growth, blossoming from the warmth of the spring sun. To easter is to rise up out of the dimness of those things that are shaded or difficult to see due to darkness. 

The world began in darkness until God spoke life and light into every galaxy. 

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Spring breaks forth after the cold, gray days of winter. 

Chicks hatch out of eggs incubated by the warmth of the mother hen. 

Plants shoot up from seeds germinated in fertile ground. 

Tulips, daffodils, and crocuses announce the beginning of spring after bulbs lie in the dirt over the cold, winter months. 

Life gives birth after 39 weeks of darkness in the womb.

A butterfly slowly emerges after weeks of darkness inside a cocoon.

Spiritual renewal often comes after a dark night of the soul.

Jesus resurrected after three days in a cold, dark tomb. 

We wait in darkness. It is out of darkness that eastering happens.

Eastering. The act of becoming new. The hope of what is to come.

Conviction vs. Condemnation

Before I go on to the second Big Question to Experiencing Wholeness, I think It's important to understand two things when it comes to listening for God's voice when we ask: Where is God leading me to change? So, this is a bit of a Part 2 when considering the first question.

First, knowing the difference between conviction and condemnation is essential. The enemy likes to pull the wool over our eyes, making us think it's God that is condemning us. No, God never condemns (Romans 8:1), he only convicts, and there's a big difference between the two.

Conviction is always done in love, never in judgment. Conviction comes from the Father's love, to protect, to transform, to change for the better. He doesn't overload us with a long, laundry list that overwhelms us to the point that we don't even know where to begin. He gently leads us in one or two things, and then doesn't leave us to do it on our own. He comes along side of us to accomplish his purposes in our lives. His Spirit empowers and enables us to change. 

Condemnation is pointing the long, bony finger of accusation and judgment, bringing shame and disgrace to the one being charged. Condemnation stems from the evil ones plans to kill, steal, and destroy. (John 10:10) The enemy's native language is lying. How many of us walk around believing lies straight from the pit of hell? (John 8:44) Deceit is the most subtle of the enemy's tactics. You're not good enough. You're not adequate. You're stupid. These were lies I believed for years. Recognizing his lies is the first step towards freedom. Once I acknowledged the lies as lies, I could begin to renew my mind with God's truth.

He sees me as his beloved child, competent and worthy. He is proud of me and chose me to make a difference in the world where I live, work, and play.

Understanding the distinction between these two words will equip you to walk in the freedom and love of God's grace. 

Back in the day when my kids were just beginning to seriously date, I read a book, Choosing God's Best. For me (since I had already chosen God's best for me:), the big takeaway from the book was Chapter Eight: Recognizing God's Voice. In this chapter, author Dr. Don Raunikar, includes a chart entitled, God's Voice, Satan's Voice. I've shared this so many times with friends, and I'll share it with you, because sometimes it's difficult to know whose voice you are following. 

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God's voice...

stills you, leads you, reassures you, enlightens you, encourages you, comforts you, calms you, and convicts you. 

Satan's voice... rushes you, pushes you, frightens you, confuses you, discourages you, worries you, obsesses you, and condemns you.

 

 When he has brought out all his own, he goes on ahead of them, and his sheep follow him because they know his voice. But they will never follow a stranger; in fact, they will run away from him because they do not recognize a stranger's voice. –John 10:4-5

Whatever your life rhythm, you'll find the question - Where is God leading me to change? - to be pertinent to your spiritual growth. Listen for his reassuring voice of high belief, grace-filled love, and companionship. Know you are loved! 

Don't let condemnation pull you down. It's not from God. Run, run, run!!! Run away from the stranger's voice, the condemning spirit of the enemy. 

God did not mean for us to walk this life alone. Community is an important element to our spiritual formation. Next week we'll be focusing on the second of the Four Big Questions: Who can join or help me in growing spiritually? 

Four Big Questions: #1 Where is God Leading me to Change?

The first of the Four Big Questions to Experiencing Wholeness has to do with:

  • Life Reflection
  • Self-awareness
  • Truth
  • Humility
  • Transparency
  • A teachable spirit
  • Transformation

It all boils down to this one question:

Where is God leading me to change?

If we don’t know the answer to this, then it’s difficult to move forward towards wholeness in the discipleship journey.

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In his book, Failing Forward, John Maxwell provides a helpful insight into the reasons why people change. 

People change when they hurt enough that they have to, learn enough that they want to, and receive enough that they are able to.

In the first decade of our marriage, we launched a church plant in Houston, Texas. We call them our character-building years. During our Houston days, this farm girl felt like she was in a foreign country. On top of that, the church plant we felt God had called us to was slow in coming. Often we felt like we were spinning our wheels, getting nowhere. 

One day reading in James, chapter one, the beginning verses hit me:  Let perseverance finish its work, until you are mature and complete, lacking in nothing

I realized I was right in the middle of those verses, right in the middle of the troubles and trials that James was referring to. God felt silent in those years. Nothing we did seem to make a difference, but we never look back on those years with regret. We know God was doing his good work in us. I learned to lean into the adversity to learn the lessons God had for me, for us.

For the believer, it is a test of faith. How will my faith make a difference when things aren't as they should be, could be, or hoped to be. Often, adversity is the most fertile ground for growth and change. 

We have an overabundance of ways to grow and learn today in just technology alone. Google search. Wikipedia. Hey Google! Siri. Last night after attending a C.S.Lewis Society gathering, I asked Google assistant (she sits on our fireplace mantle) what year Lewis died. Nineteen sixty three, would you like to know more? 

Hey, google, sure! She gave me more details about Lewis' life. It's amazing how much access we have to information. 

Of course, there's always books, the Bible, classrooms, podcasts, conversations with others, but knowledge doesn't change us unless it turns into an ah-ha moment of understanding. It's the I-get-it factor. Wisdom comes when knowledge meets understanding, when what we know is put into action. We can eat all the junk food we want until the doctor informs us that our cholesterol levels are over the top, then we learn enough (maybe hurt enough, too) to change our dietary habits to become a healthier person. But, even then, do we face the reality enough to change!? 

Hurt enough, learn enough, receive enough. . .  but we need to get to a point where we either have to, want to, or we're able to. 

In reflection, what have been the change agents in your life, those circumstances or means by which God transformed you more into his likeness? 

Where is God leading you to change now? Perhaps it's an area that needs to be reshaped or retooled? Perhaps it's an area that needs to be renewed or refreshed? Maybe it's a barrier in your life that keeps you in bondage, like a bungee strap that never lets you get ahead, but always pulls you back, keeping you in defeat.

Ask: God, where are you leading me to change? Listen for the voice of his Spirit.

As C.S. Lewis wrote in his book, Mere Christianity, God isn't about "mere improvement, but transformation." He makes us into new creations!