A few months ago I was asked to teach about spiritual practices at the Embrace Women’s Conference hosted at my home church. I wasn’t really sure where to start! There are so many different practices–reading the Bible, praying, silence, solitude, meditation, confession, giving, worship, serving, and discernment just to name a few. How was I supposed to faithfully teach these women about all of these practices in less than an hour of meeting? As I was wrestling with this, I felt God asking me to do something that I—quite frankly–was more than a little uncomfortable with. I sensed God was asking me to be honest about my journey with these practices and, in particular, to confess some of the ways I have gotten these practices really, really, really wrong. Maybe that would have been easy for some of you, but friends–I am a recovering perfectionist who has to actively and constantly remind myself that my value and worth are not diminished by my flaws. So…I argued with God more than a little bit, “Come on, you don’t really want to ask me to do that. I am supposed to be presenting as some sort of expert on this subject, not as some mixed up, messed up person who is still trying to understand what she is talking about.” However, as He typically does, God won. I shared with these beautiful ladies some of the many ways I have misunderstood and misused these practices, as well as how far I still have to go in grasping how God powerfully works through them in our lives. It was freeing for me to recognize (once again) this journey I am on with God. I don’t have it all figured out, but that’s okay. God has and is and will lovingly guide me from discovery to discovery.
Over the next three blog posts, I thought I would share with you the misconceptions about these practices I talked with the women at the Embrace Conference about and give you a different practice to try out each week. Five years from now I may look back and shake my head at how little I knew or laugh at how off-base my thoughts were today, but this is part of the journey for me. I would love to hear what God has been teaching you wherever you are in your journey as well, and so please feel free to share what you have been learning or experiencing in the comments as we go along.
MISCONCEPTION #1: Spiritual Practices are MUSTS
For most of my life I have viewed spiritual practices as MUSTS. The message I often heard growing up in church went like this: “You have been saved by grace through faith. There is nothing you can do to earn your salvation…BUT…to be a ‘good’ Christian, you MUST: read the Bible every morning, pray every day, go to church each Sunday, give 10% of everything…” and so on and so forth. If you’ve been a part of the church for any length of time, I bet you can add a few more practices to the list. Of course, I wanted to be a “good’ Christian. I wanted to please God, and so these practices became like a checklist for me–a checklist of what I MUST do to ensure God’s love for me. I came to believe that when I did these things, I was good and God was happy with me. At the same time, I came to believe that when I did not do these things…well…I was bad and God was kind of mad. I came to believe that somehow God’s love for me was contingent on how well I performed through these practices.
Now–I have a feeling I’m not alone in this belief, and I would venture to guess a good number of us have found ourselves caught in this way of thinking. However, here’s the reality I want you to know today: there is nothing you can do to make God love you anymore than He already does in this very moment, and there is nothing you can do (or NOT do) to make God love you any less. Yesterday, today, and forever, you are completely and constantly, fully and forever LOVED by God. Period. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. God is crazy about you, and He wants to pour out His love into your life.
And THAT is what these practices are all about. They are not MUSTS to please and appease God, but rather they are MEANS. They are means through which we receive God’s love that He is always and everywhere extending to us. They are these ordinary channels God has given us through which His grace can flood our lives. They are these things we can do that open us up so that God can do in us what we cannot: grow our love for Him and others.
I think this is the most important misconception about the practices to clear up because as long as we look at these practices as MUSTS, they are going to be a very heavy burden for us to bear. They are going to wear us down and wear us out; but when we begin to see them as MEANS…as being about receiving God’s love…these practices become light and life-giving for us.
EXPERIENCING THE PRACTICES: The Ignatian Method of Reading Scripture
Where are you needing to receive God’s love in your life? Said another way, for what are you longing? Our lives can be so busy and loud and chaotic that we often say, “I can’t even hear myself think!” If that is true–if we aren’t even sure what is going on in our heads in the crazy of it all—then how in the world are supposed to be aware of what is going on at the deeper level of our souls?
Today, I want to invite you to engage in a practice designed to help you get in touch with how you are longing for God and His love for you. This is a way of engaging with Scripture that I learned from Ruth Haley Barton’s book Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation. Often when we come to the Bible, we come primarily with our heads, wanting to dissect a passage and figure it all out—and there is a time for that. Other times we engage with Scriptures with our hearts through practices like Lectio Divina, which guides us to pray the Scripture and listen for what God wants to say. However, the Ignatian method encourages us to approach the Scriptures in yet another way: with our imaginations. It encourages us to place ourselves fully within a story from the Gospels, and so let me invite you to enter into the story of Bartimaeus from Mark 10 today. Perhaps it is a practice you will connect to and want to practice again or maybe not, but let’s give it a try together.
Get in a comfortable position. Breathe in an awareness of God’s presence with you, and breathe out any anxiety or fear. When you are ready, enter into this story from Mark 10:
46 Then they came to Jericho. As Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving the city…
Picture yourself there with Jesus as a part of the crowd. What do you see, what do you hear, what can you feel and smell?
a blind man, Bartimaeus (which means “son of Timaeus”), was sitting by the roadside begging.
Can you see him there? What does he look? What is he asking for? How does his voice sound?
47 When he heard that it was Jesus of Nazareth, he began to shout, “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me!” 48 Many rebuked him and told him to be quiet, but he shouted all the more, “Son of David, have mercy on me!”
Can you see and hear and feel his determination and desperation…as others try to quiet him?
49 Jesus stopped and said, “Call him.”
Imagine Jesus face and eyes as he requests this. Allow yourself to hear his voice.
So they called to the blind man, “Cheer up! On your feet! He’s calling you.” 50 Throwing his cloak aside, he jumped to his feet and came to Jesus.
Can you imagine his anticipation and expectation? Now hear Jesus say: 51 “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus asked him.
Let the question ring in your ears and echo into your heart. While Jesus has spoken the question directly to Bartimeaus, imagine now that Jesus is asking this question directly to you. In this moment, you have his full, focused attention. Allow yourself to hear him asking you with invitation and love: “What do you want me to do for you?” What begins to stir in your heart? What do you begin to feel?
The blind man said, “Rabbi, I want to see.”
What do you say to Jesus today? What is it that you are longing for? What is it that you need or want most from Jesus in this moment? I’d encourage you to take a moment to jot down your thoughts so you can revisit them. As you encountered Jesus, what words, phrases, prayers seem to most consistently capture your sense of longing for God right now?
My prayer is that you will let God love you today and that your eyes will be open for the ways He is moving to meet or reshape this longing of your heart with His love.