How Do You Approach God?

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When Sue read my book Return to Our Sensesshe told me she was at first stunned, horrified and appalled by my suggested approach to God. I talked about an intimate, loving relationship which seemed indecent and inappropriate. She had been taught that God was almighty, all powerful, and holy and in humble gratitude she felt she needed to grovel at God’s feet.

She told me that she slowly realized that she had a distorted view of God that was loveless and legalistic. It had placed her in a miserable cage, a self imposed prison from which she is slowly being unravelled.

Unfortunately Sue’s experience of God is not unusual. I grieve for the many sincere Christians who have been taught that God is holy but not loving, powerful but not caring, forgiving but not really forgetting. And as a consequence we live in fear of a God who judges our every action and always finds us lacking.

Part of my grief is because I too grew up with a legalistic and very austere God. My own journey toward belief in a loving, compassionate God was slow and at times painful, painful only because I had to allow God to transform my own hurts and insecurities to make room for the love and compassion God wanted to reveal in my life.

First my participation in a caring Christian community in which love was practiced. I continue to be inspired by the healing power of community. In spite of our imperfections which often mean that Christian community seems less loving than we would like it to be, we still experience more healing together than we ever will as isolated individuals. Second reaching out to help others. In healing others we often discover our own healing. Third, a willingness to change. Probably the most challenging step in discovering that God is loving and caring is admitting that our rigid, legalistic view of God is wrong. A God who makes lots of rules may not be easy to love but is much easier to follow than one who allows us the freedom of discovering and setting our own boundaries.

So how do you approach God? What has helped you to recognize the God who is love?

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Return to Our Senses – Englewood Featured Review

Return to Our Senses - front cover

Return to Our Senses – front cover

I am delighted to be able to share with you the review that Austen Sandifer just wrote for Englewood Review of Books on Return to Our Senses: Reimagining How We Pray. I am delighted with the response this book continues to receive and the interest it has raised. If the book has impacted you I would love to hear from you too.

It was with the thought of bridging the rhetoric of mindfulness and prayer that I picked up Christine Sine’s new book, Return to Our Senses: Re-Imagining How We Pray. I expected it to be about engaging our senses in full awareness of the omnipresence of God in creation and in our daily moments. I was not disappointed; this volume is filled with prayer techniques that focus on honing such mindfulness and wonder. Indeed, many of the methods that Sine suggests are ways to increase awareness of our spiritual journeys and the presence of God through the visceral experiences of our bodies. In a book that is accessible to a wide audience, Sine clearly explains and mixes traditional contemplative prayer methods, like Ignatius of Loyola’s Awareness Examen, with Christian mindfulness techniques, like breathing as a practice of engaging both breath and spirit (the Hebrew word ruah and Greek pneuma are single words indicating both meanings), with love and generative aspects of God consciously made part of every breath-cycle. Read the entire review.

 

 

One Size Does Not Fit All – Teaching Spiritual Formation in the Midst of Diversity.

Overseas Minsitry Study Center New Haven CT

I am currently in New Haven Connecticut at the Overseas Ministry Study Center where I teach a course on spiritual renewal each year. This is one of the most enriching and challenging teaching situations I am ever involved in. My students come from across the globe. Methodist ministers from Myanmar and Korea sit together with Anglicans from Kenya and Ghana. Catholic sisters from the Philippines rub shoulders with Pentecostals from India and Brazil.

How do you teach in the midst of such diversity I am often asked? How do you help each student find renewal that suits their needs?

I must confess it can be a challenge. What one student finds refreshing another might find offensive. What is acceptable in one faith tradition is anathema to another. What renews and enriches my spiritual journey may do nothing for someone else.

I learn something new each year not just about how to renew faith in the midst of this kind of diversity, but about how to approach spiritual formation in any context. I thought that you might appreciate some of the insights I have learned.

1. Learning to see with fresh eyes and to hear with unstopped ears. Probably the most important skills we can teach people is the ability to look and listen, not telling them what to believe but opening their eyes and ears to perceive what God’s spirit wishes to communicate through their encounters, their activities and their interactions with God’s created world..

2. One size does not fit all. Whenever I see a piece of clothing that advertises “one size fits all” I know I am in trouble. It will definitely not fit me. Similarly with spiritual practices – one size does not fit all.

I often feel that my purpose in spiritual formation is to provide a rich smorgasbord of spiritual practices and ideas which participants can taste and experiment with. Many of the practices I talk about in my book Return to Our SensesLectio divina, vision divina, prayer walks, breathing prayers, exercises in gratitude and thankfulness, labyrinths and prayer flags are just a few of the tasty dishes that God gives us to choose from. Allowing people to choose what suits their palates without expecting them to eat everything on the table is a liberating and faith strengthening process for all of us.

3. The power of story. In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer talks about using stories that encourage people to come at the truth slantwise. What he means is that we can use stories effectively to draw the truths that the Spirit of God is stirring within a person’s soul. We can use a person’s own story. We can also use as stories that sometimes seem on the surface to have no relationship to what we are discussing yet trigger thoughts and understandings in peoples’ minds.

Jesus used parables in this way. Often they had many possible interpretations, all of which could contain Godly truths and so might speak to people from a broad array of backgrounds. No wonder what Jesus said excited not just Jews but also Greeks, Romans and other nationalities.

4. Enabling people to ask the right questions. I once heard British theologian John Stott say The answers we get depend on the questions we ask. And it is true. New experiences, new encounters, new reflective exercises all raise new questions in our minds. Our purpose in spiritual formation is to give people the freedom to ask the right questions. Not so much why does God allow this to happen but rather what is God doing in the midst of this situation?

These are only a few of the tools that can assist any person’s spiritual journey. We are meant to lead gently from behind, encouraging the footsteps of our followers along the pathway God has chosen for them.

Noticing by Kathy Escobar

Today’s post in the Lenten series Return to Our Senses is written by Kathy Escobar, co-pastor at the refuge, an eclectic beautiful faith community in north denver. She juggles 5 kids & an awesome husband who has a bunch of jobs, too.

She’s an advocate for friends in hard places, a trained spiritual director (one who’s a little on the loud side) & loves to teach and facilitate events, workshops, and groups.  She writes a little, hangs out with people a lot, and teaches college classes online because missional living doesn’t pay the bills. This post was originally published on her blog as formation friday: noticing

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twice a month at the refuge we have a gathering called “refuge advocates”, a time for learning, training, encouragement, and soul care for people who journey with people in hard places.  i love this group!  it is not just for refuge advocates but for friends from other churches & ministries, too, to come and have a space to process and learn together.  this past week we did a neighborhood prayer walk as part of lent & being more aware of what’s going on around us and inside of us at the same time.

oh, it was so pretty, what can happen with intentional quiet space and a little guidance.

it was also really hard, seeing what maybe we hadn’t seen before in new ways. the area where the refuge is located is in the suburbs but it is the ghetto of our town, on the other side of the railroad tracks, and the contrast between it and other parts of broomfield is really evident.

the exercise made me think of christine sine’s new book, return to our senses: reimagining how we pray.  i hope you’ll get a copy (i gave some as christmas presents this year. it is so good!) .it is centered on opening ourselves up to diverse and meaningful ways of connecting with God.  i love what she says in the book about prayer:

“Prayer is not about finding the right words to say to God, it is about becoming alive to the loving presence of God in each and every moment. It is about waking up to the fact that the love of God shines through every act, every object and every conversation. The speaking of words can become rote and repetitive, even boring at times, the developing of relationship requires flexibility, creativity and constant willingness to change and to grow. Anything that connects us to the love of God, or expresses our love for God is an act of prayer. Sights, sounds, tastes, smells, textures can all be acts of prayer that draw us into deeper intimacy with God.”

i love this reminder that anything that connects us to the love of God, or expresses our love for God, is an act of prayer.

we started our walk with this prayer:

God, help us see.

help us feel.

help us taste.

help us smell.

help us hear.

help us listen.

help us understand.

help us love. 

for our walk, we used the beatitudes as a guide and had some reflection questions to consider (yep, i’m a broken record). each one had a personal reflection in addition to what we noticed in the neighborhood as we were walking.  i thought i’d share it here today for formation friday and for those of you who might want to try it, even if in the comfort of your own home, as a practice of “noticing” and tuning into our hearts and what we are wrestling with and also what’s around us in prayer.

blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness ,for they will be filled.
blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God.
blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
– Matthew 5:3-10

as you walk, notice:

spiritual poverty. practical poverty. // consider places where God’s presence is needed.

  • what are some ways we are spiritually poor?
  • what are some ways this neighborhood might be?

places of pain and grief. // consider what’s going on behind certain doors, up certain streets.

  • what are things we are grieving right now?
  • what are some things that people around here might have lost?
  • who is comforting them in their pain?

dry and hungry places. this can be practically or spiritually. 

  • what does it look like, feel like there?
  • what are we hungry and thirsty for right now?
  • what do you think others out here are hungry and thirsty for?

places that need healing, mercy. // imagine some of the things people around here struggle with: broken relationships, job loss, divorce, depression, shame, abuse, struggling kids, addiction, mental illness, chronic pain, physical illness, immigration.

  • what are some areas of your life that need God’s healing & mercy?
  • how do you think God’s mercy shows up here?

places of beauty. // notice God’s beauty.

  • where are you seeing it in your own life right now?
  • where do you see it today?

places in our heart that are hardened and judgmental. // notice our hearts as we are walking. 

  • what are our hearts hardened to right now? 
  • how are we judging others in our own life?
  • how are our hearts hardened to the needs around us or protected by our judgmentalness?

places in need of peace. // think of God’s shalom–wholeness.

  • how are you finding greater peace & wholeness in your life right now?
  • what would God’s shalom look like for this neighborhood?

places of persecution. // consider how people here are persecuted for all kinds of reasons. 

  • how do you maybe feel persecuted in your life right now?
  • what are some things people who live here might be persecuted for?
  • what would it look like to be persecuted on others behalf, for doing what’s right no matter the cost?

as you walk, keep asking yourself these three questions, courtesy of my dear & wise friend from mile high ministries, ryan taylor:

  • what’s the struggle?  
  • what’s the hope?  
  • what’s the invitation?

God, we don’t want to miss you.  we want to notice you in new ways, creative ways, beautiful ways, hard ways. may our hearts & eyes & ears & mouths & hands be open.  

This Place of Grace by Kimberlee Conway Ireton

Today’s post in the Lenten series Return to Our Senses is written by Kimberlee Conway Ireton who has embarked on a Year of Prayer. To help hold her accountable to this commitment to live more prayerfully, she promised herself (and her blog readers) that she’d write about (some of) her prayer experiences.

Until three years ago, the glass of my life was always half empty with a hole at the bottom where everything leaked out. Then, during Advent that year, I began to make a gift list. Not a list of gifts I wanted, a list of gifts I already had—and for which I was grateful. At the time, this list was a way to cope with a whole lot of professional disappointment and an unexpected pregnancy.

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The list turned out to be a whole lot more than I bargained for. It has taken my glass-half-empty view of the world and upended it: my glass has never been half empty; it’s always been filled to overflowing. There wasn’t a hole in the bottom at all: it was spilling over the sides.

But until I started counting the gifts, I simply couldn’t see that. I fixated on my problems and never noticed all the ways God was meeting me in the midst of them. I fixated on what I wanted that I didn’t have and missed the many gifts I did have, gifts I took so for granted that I didn’t even notice them.

I now see the error of my former ways. The problem with someone like me entering into a practice like this is that it can make me smug and judgmental: people who are still stuck in the cultural mindset of more, more, more sometimes strike me as pathetic and annoying.

They whine too much. They complain too much. They don’t see how good their lives are. They don’t see that the way they work/spend their time/spend their money/parent their children/view the world is making their lives harder than they need to be. If only they could be more like, well, me.

Luckily, God is hell-bent on destroying my smugness, and into the midst of my judgment and gracelessness he sends these words from William Willimon:

The first word of the church, a people born out of so odd a nativity, is that we are receivers before we are givers. Discipleship teaches us the art of seeing our lives as gifts. That’s tough, because I would rather see myself as a giver. I want power—to stand on my own, take charge, set things to rights, perhaps to help those who have nothing. I don’t like picturing myself as dependent, needy, empty-handed.

The words are a smack in the face of my smugness: “we are receivers.” All that I have learned and become—any spiritual health and whatever wisdom is in me—it’s all a gift. It’s all grace from the hand of God. The only thing that separates me from anyone else is that somehow, by God’s grace, God got my attention, shook me by the scruff of the neck, hauled my eyelids up, and said, “See!” And—again, God’s grace—I saw.

I can take little credit for this—it is God’s work, God’s grace working in me. My only role is Mary’s: “Be it done to me according to your word.” That is all. Perhaps I could even manage to feel smug about saying yes—but how many times have I said no? How many times have I refused to see God’s grace, refused to receive God’s grace, refused to give thanks for God’s grace, God’s gifts?

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Oh, Jesus, thank you for this reminder that it is all grace, that even my yeses are gifts from you, the grace to receive your grace! Forgive my arrogance. Forgive my gracelessness. Help me to see and believe and live the truth that even my desire to say yes to you comes from you, much less the ability to open my lips and proclaim your praise. Help me to inhabit this place of grace, of gift, of receptivity, of open-handedness, of submission. Help me to live and write and think and speak and parent from this place of grace.

Lenten Retreat is Over

Breathe out - empty yourelf
This last Saturday we gathered at the Mustard Seed House for our first Lenten retreat ever. We began with an exercise in breathing, adapting several of the prayers from Return to Our Senses, as a process that drew us into the love of our creator God. This exercise became the focus of my own reflections during the rest of the retreat and continues to shape my thoughts as I journey through Lent.

Good breathing habits do not come naturally to most adults. A baby’s torso expands like a balloon with each breath. Her belly puffs up, and her ribs swing out. It’s efficient, it’s effortless, and you can’t help but relax while watching her. But somewhere through the years we lose this ability. Stress, physical tension, chronic pain, insomnia, and even the constricting clothes we wear, transform us from powerful belly breathers into shallow chest gaspers. We need to be taught to breathe properly again.

One question that rose to the surface during the retreat is: What does the breath of God look like for you? One person mentioned the ocean, the surge of water crashing onto the beach and then being sucked back into the vast expanse created a wonderful image of the breath of God for her. Having spent twelve years of my life living on a ship on the ocean, this resonated with me too. Lying on my bed surrounded by the lapping of water on the hull is a very soothing experience. Imagining that sound as the breath makes it even more profound.

Another question we grappled with is: What constricts or diminishes the breath of God? What comes to my mind is pollution which I think is an affront to God. On Saturday, however we talked about other confining influences that prevent us breathing in the breath of God to our full capacity. Anything that restricts the freedom of the spirit in our lives diminishes the breath of God within us.

Interestingly, generally speaking, women use less of their lung capacity then men do. High heel shoes, corsets and other constricting clothing diminish our ability to take a deep breath. Spiritually too women are often more restricted then men. Their God given abilities are often confined by regulations that prevent them fully expressing or breathing out, the gifts God has placed within them.

Breathing is at the core of who we are both as physical and spiritual beings. So as you continue your journey through Lent, stop and reflect – when was the last time you took a full deep breath of the love of God and when was the last time you breathed that out in compassion and care into our world?

Experiencing God in the Created World – Steve Wickham

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“The heavens declare the glory of God,

and the sky displays what his hands have made.”
— Psalm 19:1 (GW)
From creaking crickets to massages and bubble-gum ice-cream,
Experiencing God is beyond senses and what’s seen.
From travel to babies and the eventual dentures,
Having access to God is not limited to adventures.
From thoughts to libraries and what’s learned at college,
God is in life much more than knowledge.
From dreams to planning and inspirational indemnities,
God extends us past the plain making of memories.
From enjoyment to grief and all emotion between,
God’s in even more than every hard-bitten dream.
From novelty to the veteran and the appreciative skill,
God’s into growth beyond the extent of our fill.
From wonders to signs and the miraculous too,
God’s in all of it—in everything true.
The Scope and Extent of the Created World
We’re not just talking about a physical place; the world—the cosmos—is a system.
There is no limit to the extent of how we might worship God by enjoying his Presence. And each of us has our own ways in which God reaches us to connect our souls with that revelatory truth that transforms us unto growth in Christ.
I find transport—being on trains and buses and planes, and even on my bicycle—gives me inspiration as to the Divine working in my world. And I could extend it to walking; a two or three mile walk, at brisk pace, on a bright sunny day, or in the cool evening moonlight, brings warmth to my soul or an equivalently stark, yet reasonable, inspiration. Noisy cafes, also, but just as much the experience of a meandering stream.
Experiencing God in the created world is a gem of majesty that is limitless in design. For all the seven-plus billion souls on this earth, there would be just as many fragments of divine revelation to be had, for each one, regarding the things of heaven to be enjoyed on this earth.
Within this worldly system we exist in we see God revealed tremendously, from every angle, and through every experience, no matter how we feel.
As we reflect on this Lord of Glory who has begotten us, asking him to make himself known to us in our everyday, we see his glory magnified, resplendent, and dutifully portrayed in all divine faithfulness.
Whatever We Experience In Reflection, God Is Bigger
Of course, we know that we cannot ‘box’ God, though we try, such as our thinking’s limited. As there is no limit to the divine scope for creation, there is equally no limit to our enjoyment of the divine, at any time we choose—in both blessing and want and all between.
As we consider a sunset, a sunrise, the wonder in an insect, or the phenomenon known socially as of this day, we hear God speak through our experience, perhaps in ways only perceptible for us, alone. Of course, we are stoically encouraged when others see what we see, but the point of reflection, the point of honing in on the Spirit as it is present in our moments, is the unique gift of divine light given us, that ingenious moment.
God is infinitely bigger than we can imagine, and the beauty in that thought, in the present discussion, is our reflections catch us by surprise if we are free enough to be caught reflecting, which brings us to a point of fresh wonder.
The limit of God’s awesomeness is a lie. There can be no limit.
When we open ourselves up in awe of God, to the extent of seeing things anew, in new ways, within the broader spectrum of life, the Lord shows us the wonder enfolded in such a gorgeous investment.
It is ours to enlarge our God-consciousness through spiritual reflection.
The world awaits!
© 2013 S. J. Wickham.
This morning’s post in the series Return to Our Senses in Lent comes from fellow Australian Steve Wickham, author of “Grow In GOD” eBook (Proverbs) He holds Science, Divinity and Counselling Degrees and ministers actively in Cyberspace. His social media links: Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/stevewickhamauthor and http://www.facebook.com/steve.j.wickham and Twitter: http://twitter.com/SJWickham
Steve Wickham