I’m currently reading through Ruth Haley Barton’s Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership. Occasionally, I’ll post reflections on my reading.
One big strength of this particular book on cultivating one’s spiritual existence is that it’s focus is entirely on the spiritual life as a response to what God has been doing. Most books focus more on the stuff you’re “supposed” to do. Some slightly betters ones spend their time unpacking and expressing the “beauties of the Gospel” (as they pretty narrowly, individualistically, and Evangelically define it) and then trust that these intellectual ideas and truths woo us and turn our “affections” to God. These are the same people that often see “preaching the Gospel to yourself” as the panacea for everything, be it doubt, fear, confusion, theological questions, or mental health issues.
Barton, however, comes at it from a different angle. She uses the story of Moses as a picture and type for the dance that exists between God and his people. And at each stage of Moses’ life and deepening of his calling and relating to God, she shows how God has actually been at work to, for, and with Moses long before this moment ever came.
So it’s not, “God died for you, so you can live for him!”, or, “See how beautiful God is and all the things he’s done for you! Now doesn’t that make you want to engage with him? (And if it doesn’t, there’s something fundamentally wrong with you.)”
Rather it’s, “Before you ever came to this moment of crisis, beauty, importance, or the mundane, God has been for you for his world; he has drawn close to you and woven his call and very Life within your soul. Now how will you respond? And no, God’s active movement towards you will not change based on your response.”
Is that not a beautiful, balance way of putting it? Doesn’t it blow apart the whole “free will vs. sovereignty” question and turn it on its head? God has sovereignly drawn near you apart from your actions and “goodness”; and yet, you still have a free and conscious responsibility to respond.
It reminds me of Augustine’s summary of the Christian faith: Ama Deum et fac quod vis–“Love God and do as you please”.
I say all of this because I’ve been in a season of “recalibration”, it seems. As I’ve bemoaned throughout the life of this blog, I’ve never really found a “rhythm” to my spiritual life that has “stuck” for any sustained period of time. I’ve kind of bounced from thing to thing to thing for a few days or weeks at a time. It’s only been recently that I’ve seen how most of my spiritual life has been based on those first two approaches mentioned above.
When I was younger, spiritual disciplines (or rather, “quiet times”) were the sole measure of one’s spiritual health. They were seen more as an act of “obedience” than anything else, and so to have trouble engaging in them was seen as “wrong”, “sinful”, and “disobedient”. Of course, trying harder and harder didn’t actually change anything.
Through college until more recently, I had been steeped in the “if you just ‘got’ the Gospel you’d just naturally do these things” camp. I realized how unhealthy the “quiet times” obsession is, and so I’ve pursued many other “practices” that also haven’t been consistent. I’ve fallen into a more laissez-faire attitude where I just sort of lived my life, thinking that once I “had my affections stirred enough” then these disciplines would sort of just “click”. And so, the past few years have been me waiting for the Sovereign, Hyper-Calvinistic God “zap” that would “inspire” me to pursue him.
Yeah, that didn’t work either.
Anyone that’s followed this blog over the years knows that my blogging frequency has plummeted to a degree it hasn’t seen since it’s earliest days a decade ago. I’ve gone from blogging 3 to 5 times a week to having only posted 3 to 5 posts in the past several months.
My self-talk in response to my lack of spiritual disciplines has been something like “I have no structure in my life” or “I’m incapable of doing anything with any sort of rhythm and consistency that others don’t force me to do”. Through counseling and other self-work, I’ve seen that this is wrong. I do have lots of patterns and rhythms that are consistent and self-driven. And one of those has been blogging. I’ve had a drive where I had to get a blog post out or written. I would stay up late or get up early to craft posts and pour myself into writing, thinking, and sharing.
And so I stopped. I’ve had to “detox” a little, and it’s been good. Ironically, while people used to comment a lot on my prolific blogging output, no one at all has commented on my lack of blogging. It’s humbling and freeing all at once to know that others don’t have the same expectations of me that I have for myself.
And with the emotional and temporal space to decompress, I’ve begun to recast my spiritual engagement in a far more helpful way–the way that Barton talks about in the book. I’ve been able to see these spiritual rhythms not as a “duty” or even a “fruit” by which to judge my faith.
Instead, it’s a freedom. But while freedom removes some tyranny, it adds a lot more responsibility.
The encouragement to me, though, is that it’s a freedom I’m not alone in. God is also free. And this God has exercised divine freedom to move towards me and relate to me–in spite of my action or inaction. The question of how I will respond then becomes of secondary importance, not primary. It is not the question around which my spiritual existence revolves.
And with the space to simply live in God’s initiation, I’ve begun the baby steps of building an infrastructure in my life that might be the early stages of a spiritual “rhythm”.
In the morning, on my commute, I listen to the daily podcast Pray as You Go. It is meditative music, followed by a Scripture reading, and then guided prayer. It’s really helpful for centering me in the morning. In the evening, every few days, I’m engaging in the Ignatian Examen, an ancient way of going over one’s day.
In addition to that, I’m helping my church’s weekly home groups by writing up a two-page commentary of sorts on the biblical text from the sermon. This means that I’m sitting with one biblical text throughout the week and looking into it in depth, turning these words and the realities of biblical scholarship behind it into a language that can lead one into a deeper engagement with God.
Lastly (as part of seminary internship with my church), I’m still trying to find one more piece to add into my week. I’m trying to find one simple, regular thing I can do each day. A devotional of some kind? I’ve been testing out getting back on my Bible Reading Schedule I was doing a few months back, or being more regular with MorningPrayer.is.
But either way, my pursuit of these things is, for perhaps the first time in my life, not overladen with anxiety, shame, frustration, and a frenetic pursuit of the approval of God and others. It’s a restful, intentional, contemplative process, in which I feel free to continue responding to the prior act and presence of God towards me, to taste the Presence and know intimacy with the Divine.