Still (and Still Moving)

Before I had my last surgery, I spent most of the summer overseas in Germany.  During my time there, I committed myself to spending time in God’s Word each day.  I had a book about the Spiritual Exercises of Saint Ignatius and the first section had me meditating on verses that speak of God’s love each day.  Being in Germany for those couple months had given me a much needed break from our society’s busyness and consumerism.  My faith, which had felt dry leading up to the move over there, began to come alive once again.

But I remember that as the time to come back to the United States grew closer, I began to experience some anxiety about the pending operation.  There was one day where, upon reading the daily passage of Scripture, I didn’t experience God’s closeness and love.  My anxiety was too great and it was preventing me from sensing God’s presence and peace.  So, I stopped trying to force God to speak to me through the assigned passage of Scripture and started with where I was at instead.  I prayed to God, telling Him how I felt, how absent He seemed, and how I merely wanted a Word from Him to calm my soul.  At that point, I suddenly became aware that my cat had been darting around, probably in an effort to receive my attention.  It had been irritating and distracting to me up to that point, but as soon as I attended to what was going on and opened up to the situation, my cat settled by a picture that had been given to me of a ship in a stormy sea.  Below the images were verses from Scripture.  “The Lord on high is mightier than the roar of many waters, yea, than the mighty waves of the sea” and “He gives His people strength and blesses them with peace” (Psalm 93:4; 29:11).  As soon as I read those passages, I felt my heart to be “strangely warmed”.

As the above demonstrates, one of the hardest tasks of the spiritual life is developing an inner stillness that cultivates an attentiveness to what God is doing in our midst.  And yet I believe that such an inner stillness is crucial to growth in the spiritual life.  T.S. Eliot clearly thought so too, for he writes in “East Coker”, “Here or there does not matter / We must be still and still moving”.1  I believe that Eliot is referring to cultivating an inner stillness even as we are outwardly “still moving”.2  Not only is this inner stillness key to growth in the spiritual life, but it is key to hearing and discerning God’s voice.  As Scripture states rather bluntly, “Be still, and know that I am God” (Psalm 46:10 ESV).

So how does one develop such a stillness?  According to the Jesuit priest from India, Tony D’Souza, it is by awareness.  As he states, “Awareness stills [the wandering] mind, and brings this level of stillness.”3  He defines awareness as consisting of two elements: being present in the moment, and observing what is going on in the present without judgment or evaluation.4  And as my experience in being attentive to the present moment with my cat and the subsequent sense of peace I experienced demonstrates, it is this awareness that results in stillness.

In the last post, I wrote about how God is more concerned with shaping our characters so that we will be people who naturally make decisions in line with His will than in guiding the minutiae of our lives.  In saying that, I do not wish to give the impression that the role of discernment and the need to seek God’s voice and will for our lives is unimportant in the spiritual life.  It is to say that stillness is required in order to hear what God might be saying in the first place, even as we are relentlessly engaged in the tasks of daily living.  As Dallas Willard states, “Generally, it is much more important to cultivate the quiet, inward space of a constant listening than to always be approaching God for specific direction.”5  But if I might be allowed to expound on Willard’s statement, when one does need to approach God for specific direction, it is much easier to hear what He is saying when one has already developed the habit of listening for His voice.  As Jesus said, “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.  I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.” (John 10:27-28 ESV)  Jesus, as the good Shepherd, speaks to us and offers to be in relationship with us as His statement “I know them” indicates, but as His sheep we have to be listening for His voice.  

God’s voice is often manifested as a still, small voice which impresses itself quite impact-fully on one’s inner being.  And that is why awareness and inner stillness is so crucial.  It’s easy to miss God’s voice if one is not attending to the daily movements of one’s inward self.  I myself often drown out God’s voice in thoughts and ideas, busyness, anxiety, consumption of goods, image management, etc.  But I am intentional about cultivating my time with God in prayer and in His Word, and there have been times when I have received some rather specific guidance.  So allow me to close with another vignette from my life, this time in Germany after my surgery.

When I was able to travel back to Germany, I continued my daily time with God.  After several months, there reached a point where I began to seek God’s guidance on what I would do when I returned to the United States.  I prayed about what God would have me do with my life, and then one day the idea occurred to me quite suddenly and strongly that I should consider becoming a spiritual director.  The idea impressed itself on me strongly enough that I knew it wasn’t likely to be my own thoughts.  At the same time, since I don’t know of any spiritual directors who make a living just from providing spiritual direction, I knew that I would come back and engage in finding a job in the profession I had studied in and would work on providing spiritual direction part-time.  So that’s exactly what I did.  And to find out exactly how it turned out you’ll have to read the next blog post, but for now let’s just say the process led to “a deeper communion”.

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1 “Four Quartets” Wikiquote. Accessed on 27 January 2018. <https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Four_Quartets&gt;

2 Tony D’Souza Introduces Discovering Awareness, Tony D’Souza, Broadband Living Press, 2009.

3 Tony D’Souza and Bud Wonsiewicz, Discovering Awareness: A Guide to Inner Peace, Strength, and Freedom (Canada: Broadband Living Press, 2006), 36.

4 My thanks go to Leighton Ford for this small insight in his book The Attentive Life, which I read many years ago.  It’s an insight that has shaped my perspective on life, cultivated my appreciation for T.S. Eliot, and led to this blog post series.  The sentence that set me on this path is, “To walk [the] path home, and to be a companion to others on the journey, I need to learn both to be still and to go (or grow) deeper.” Leighton Ford, The Attentive Life: Discerning God’s Presence in All Things (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2008), 13.

5 Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012), 205. eBook.

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Here or There

Like most people, I wanted to be a number of things when I grew up.  I remember wanting to be an architect, a writer, a teacher, a counselor, a pastor, and a geographer.  As it turned out, I became none of those things, but in growing up one of the difficulties I faced was in knowing what God wanted me to do with my life.  My belief was that God had a specific will in mind for my life and that, if I failed to discover what that was, I would miss out on God’s best and be miserable.  Since then my understanding of God’s will has undergone some transformation.

For one thing, I have come to the conclusion that God’s will is more about living in relationship with Him.  Regardless of our circumstances, God’s will is that we daily abide in Him.  Out of that relationship, our responses to what we encounter in life will more naturally be in line what that of Christ’s.  The late Dallas Willard shaped my thinking in this area when he wrote, “Generally we are in God’s will whenever we are leading the kind of life he wants for us. And that leaves a lot of room for initiative on our part, which is essential: our individual initiatives are central to his will for us.” 1  Here, the case is made that God is not trying to dictate every decision we make in life, but trying to form us spiritually.  Willard expands on this concept by clarifying to what end God is forming us.  “God must guide us in a way that will develop spontaneity in us. The development of character, rather than direction in this, that, and the other matter, must be the primary purpose of the Father. He will guide us, but he won’t override us.” 2 God is more concerned with forming us into a people who reflect the very character of His Son, Jesus Christ.

But how does knowing this help us in our journey through life and deciding what to do?  I find the poet T.S. Eliot to be of some assistance here.  In his Four Quartets, he writes in “East Coker” that “Home is where one starts from. As we grow older / The world becomes stranger, the pattern more complicated / Of dead and living…Love is most nearly itself / When here and now cease to matter. / Old men ought to be explorers / Here or there does not matter”. 3  T.S. Eliot is not merely describing a physical exploration, although that may be implied.  Rather, life itself forces us to be on a journey.  I am not an old man, but I do believe that we all ought to be explorers, and that we have to move outward from where we are starting at, whether physically or relationally.  On some level it does not matter where we are as long as we are in the process of exploring.

Stepping out in faith and leaving home, or the place one is starting from, is risky and there are some people who, like I was, fear making a mistake and falling outside of God’s plan and purpose for them.  Regardless, we we are called to act.  In Revelation 3:15-16, Jesus is dictating a letter to the angel of the church in Laodicea when he proclaims, “I know your works, that you are neither cold nor hot.  I wish that you were cold or hot.  So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I am going to vomit you out of My mouth.”  I have often heard this interpreted as Jesus wants people to be either for God or against God, rather than be a person who is lukewarm in their commitment to Christ.  However, scholarship has placed this passage more firmly in it’s first-century context and the meaning of this passage had subsequently changed.

Laodicea was located in modern-day Turkey near two other Roman cities, Hierapolis and Colossae.  Hierapolis received warm water from nearby hot springs, which was used for healing.  Colossae, on the other hand, received refreshing, cold water from nearby mountains.  Due to Roman aqueducts Laodicea received the lukewarm mix of hot and cold water, which was not very useful for either healing or refreshing drinking.  Jesus would not want us to be against Him. 4  Rather, this passage is saying that whether we live a life of warm healing or cool refreshment, we are to act for God.  Or as Scripture makes more plain elsewhere, “Therefore…whatever you do, do everything for God’s glory” (1 Corinthians 10:31).

I’ve drawn upon the wisdom of Scripture, Dallas Willard, and T.S. Eliot, because I firmly believe that where we are at and what happens to us in life is far less important than how we choose to respond.  Before ending, I am going to draw upon the wisdom of one other individual.  I always experience a sense of excitement and possibility from the following scene in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring when Frodo is in despair at all that has gone wrong in Middle-Earth.  After learning of Sauron and leaving the idyllic Shire, being pursued and injured by Ringwraiths, and pressing onward from the haven of Rivendell toward a perilous journey, Frodo bemoans, “I wish it need not have happened in my time”.  And Gandalf responds with, “So do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.” 5 There is wisdom and simplicity in this perspective.  We can’t control what comes to us in life, but we can decide how we want to respond and choose to act accordingly.

Who we are and who we are choosing to become is more important than where we are physically located or what we are doing.  My life has taken me to places and given me experiences I never would have expected when I was a kid trying to puzzle what I should do with my life.  I’ve been an explorer, whether I’ve wanted to be or not.  And I’m all the better for it.  May you go and explore likewise.

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1 Dallas Willard, Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2012), 13. eBook.

2 Ibid., 31.

3 “Four Quartets” Wikiquote. Accessed on 27 January 2018. <https://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Four_Quartets&gt;

4 Although my first exposure to this way of interpreting this passage came from a Ray Vander Laan video, one can also read about it at the following blog: “A Lukewarm Interpretation of Hot and Cold: Revelation 3:15-16” Andy Unedited. Accessed on 12 May 2018. <http://andyunedited.ivpress.com/2014/01/a_lukewarm_interpretation_of_h.php&gt;

5 “J.R.R. Tolkien Quotes” GoodReads. Accessed on 20 May 2018. <https://www.goodreads.com/author/quotes/656983.J_R_R_Tolkien&gt;

Stammtisch

“Ich möchte ein schnitzel mit pommes, bitte.”  That was my standard order when eating out in Germany.  Translated into English it means, “I would like a schnitzel with fries, please.”  Oh, occasionally I would order something other than your usual Wiener schnitzel, such as paprika schnitzel or Rahmschnitzel, but most of the time it was the same and it was always schnitzel.  And there were certain places I enjoyed frequenting more often.  I can’t say my family and I were regulars at any place, but we showed up on occasion.

I love the way Germans, and Europeans in general, are willing to spend large amounts of time at a table or a pub, talking, eating, drinking.  The Germans even have a word for those who show up at a particular place on a regular basis: Stammtisch.  According to the handy guidebook to German culture I have, “German pubs and beer halls often have a table that is set aside for regular clients. If you as a stranger sit at it, you may be asked politely to move because you aren’t Stammtisch – regular at the table.” 1

StammtischThis habitual showing up at a restaurant or biergarten got me thinking about how this reflects our own relationship with God.  Like Meister Eckhart, that German mystic, once wrote, “God is at home.  It is we who have gone out for a walk.”  God shows up on a daily basis.  He is Stammtisch.  But the question is whether or not we will show him the hospitality he is waiting for and give him the gift of our own attentive presence.

Just recently, the great evangelist of our time, Billy Graham, passed away.  He had a simple message and it was to point people to Christ and to have them commit their lives to him.  In other words, to be “born again”.  My own conversion to Christ came in grade school when my parents were watching a Charles Stanley broadcast.  Growing up in the church I did, I was often told that to be saved I “just had to believe that Christ died on the cross for my sins”.  But the people that kept telling me this seemed to display and be communicating to me that such belief was mere intellectual assent (not a phrase I knew in grade school).  “Sure”, I would think to myself at the time, “I believe that the sun will come again each morning and that gravity will keep me on earth and that oxygen will keep me alive, but what do I care?”  In other words, what I felt I was being told was that a relationship with God is like the sun, air, and gravity – a necessary but hardly life-change, paradigm-shaking way of living, moving, and being in the world.  Stanley, however, helped me to see that I needed to invite God into my heart and my life, which I promptly did privatley after the broadcast ended.

As I’ve grown and matured in my faith, and while I still love and respect both Billy Graham and Charles Stanley, as I look back to that experience the common evangelistic language regarding salvation can still sound as though it is something we do.  To go back to my analogy of Stammtisch, their vocabulary suggests that we are the regulars at the table deciding whether we want to invite Him there with us, but I think Meister Eckhart might be closer to the truth of what is really going on.  God is the regular Presence in our lives, in our households, and at our tables.

I have a feeling Jesus would have liked the German pub culture.  He often liked to eat and drink at parties and others’ houses.  In one such encounter in the Gospel of Luke, we find exactly what I have been describing about a relationship with God being like Stammtisch.  Jesus goes to Simon the Pharisee’s house, but apparently is not treated with the hospitality common to first century Palestine.  We find this out because a woman comes along and and begins to wipe Jesus’s feet with her tears and hair and anoints his feet with oil.  Simon becomes indignant, referring to the woman as a sinner.  After Jesus roundly puts Simon in his place (with a parable no less), Jesus turns to the woman and says, “Do you see this woman?  I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she, with her tears, has washed My feet and wiped them with her hair.  You gave me no kiss, but she hasn’t stopped kissing My feet since I came in.  You didn’t anoint My head with oil, but she has anointed My feet with fragrant oil.  Therefore I tell you, her many sins have been forgiven; that’s why she loved much.  But the one who is forgiven little, loves little” (Luke 7:44-47).  Jesus is already in our lives and in our homes.  But will we respond with extravagant hospitality or will we give the cold shoulder?  Will we be like Simon the Pharisee or like an unnamed sinful woman?  Will we love the Stammtisch in our midst?

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1 Barry Tomalin, Culture Smart! Germany (Hutton Grove, London: Kuperard, 2003), 61, ebook.