We continue to crawl along, ever reaching…

Let me introduce you to a therapist named John Calvin.  Get ready – this Reformation icon is about to tell you that you can relax – that we’re all plagued with divided hearts and in need of integrity, but that much of the time we’re barely crawling along toward progress.  Listen:

I insist not that the life of the Christian shall breathe nothing but the perfect Gospel, though this is to be desired, and ought to be attempted. I insist not so strictly on evangelical perfection, as to refuse to acknowledge as a Christian any man who has not attained it. In this way all would be excluded from the Church, since there is no man who is not far removed from this perfection, while many, who have made but little progress, would be undeservedly rejected. What then? Let us set this before our eye as the end at which we ought constantly to aim. Let it be regarded as the goal towards which we are to run. For you cannot divide the matter with God, undertaking part of what his word enjoins, and omitting part at pleasure. For, in the first place, God uniformly recommends integrity as the principal part of his worship, meaning by integrity real singleness of mind, devoid of gloss and fiction, and to this is opposed a double mind; as if it had been said, that the spiritual commencement of a good life is when the internal affections are sincerely devoted to God, in the cultivation of holiness and justice. But seeing that, in this earthly prison of the body, no man is supplied with strength sufficient to hasten in his course with due alacrity, while the greater number are so oppressed with weakness, that hesitating, and halting, and even crawling on the ground, they make little progress, let every one of us go as far as his humble ability enables him, and prosecute the journey once begun. No one will travel so badly as not daily to make some degree of progress. This, therefore, let us never cease to do, that we may daily advance in the way of the Lord; and let us not despair because of the slender measure of success. How little soever the success may correspond with our wish, our labour is not lost when to-day is better than yesterday, provided with true singleness of mind we keep our aim, and aspire to the goal, not speaking flattering things to ourselves, nor indulging our vices, but making it our constant endeavour to become better, until we attain to goodness itself. If during the whole course of our life we seek and follow, we shall at length attain it, when relieved from the infirmity of flesh we are admitted to full fellowship with God. –  John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion

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I used to read this great quote to my Master of Divinity students in a Christian spirituality course I taught at a seminary.  Seminary students are some of the most tightly wound, internally tormented people around.  They can never do enough to please Jesus.  Most of the time for these students, a Calvin quote brought to mind how inadequate their theology was, or how tough it would be to pass an ordination exam.  It was always a comfort to them to hear from the pen of Calvin, himself, that progress on the road to the New Eden is hard, really hard…like crawling…

It’s at this point on the New Exodus road that we’re all expecting the grand finale – the tips for emerging from the wilderness unscathed, the principles for living continually close to the heart of Jesus.  But I’m about to tell you a secret.

There is no secret.  No secret message.  No secret recipe.  No hidden prayer tucked away in a remote portion of Scripture.  No 7 steps.  In fact, Calvin’s message is that a real and accurate assessment of yourself might actually be the freedom you need to get Home.

The poet Robert Browning once wrote: “A man’s reach should exceed his grasp,/or what’s a heaven for?”

Most of our lives, if we’d admit it, are a grasping.  Whether our grasp extends to wealth or reputation, transcendence in a bottle or in sex, we’re all in the business of grasping.  Calvin’s point is this:  the grasping leads to futility, and futility is an opportunity for us to recognize the truth – that we’re a mess, and that even the best attempt to grasp control will end in even more futility.

Craig Barnes says it well:  “The way of the Cross never takes us away from the limitations and hunger that are characteristic of all humanity.  It simply leads us back to the world with the strange message that our limited humanity is the mark of our need for God.  It is enough.  It is a great reason for hope.”

Our wilderness leads to dependence.  It humbles us.  It doesn’t make us super-saints.  It doesn’t make us spiritual giants.  Emerging from the wilderness, we’re not marked by halos.  We’re marked by a thorn in our side, a limp, a weakness that is a testimony to Christ’s strength.

I spent the better portion of my days after seminary trying to achieve sainthood.  I had discovered the mystics during a summer in England, and was hooked.  I am still hooked.  I was especially drawn into contemplative spirituality.  It seemed as if the Carmelite mystics like St. John and St. Teresa, or the mysterious unknown author of the Cloud of Unknowing, or Brother Lawrence lived in perpetual ‘mystic sweet communion.’  And so I tried to grasp this communion, too.  I walked labyrinths and lit candles and created quiet spaces, and did my best to manufacture the mystical.

But “union” doesn’t come in a bottle.

I’ve quoted this from C.S. Lewis before, but it bears repeating: “All joy emphasizes our pilgrim status; always reminds, beckons, awakens desire.  Our best havings are wantings.”  Spiritual union and communion, itself, will disappoint.  Our best havings are wantings, our best graspings will be mere reachings.  And each will bring a kind of grief.

I’m not a spiritual giant, yet.

Good for you.  Neither am I.  Welcome to the way of Jesus.  And as Calvin said, “Let every one of us go as far as his humble ability enables him.”  We continue to crawl along, ever reaching…

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How have you tried to “grasp” spirituality?  What books, programs, rituals, or principles have you tried to use to manufacture spiritual union and communion?

Re-read Browning’s quote.  What is this “reaching” he speaks of?

How do you relate to my own journey?

The life of the Spirit in the chaos of our day

“As soon as we feel at home in our own house, discover the dark corners as well as the light spots, the closed doors as well as the drafty rooms, our confusion will evaporate, our anxiety will diminish, and we will become capable of creative work.” — Henri J.M. Nouwen

“We must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves.” – Thomas Merton

“As soon as we are alone, inner chaos opens up in us. This chaos can be so disturbing and so confusing that we can hardly wait to get busy again. Entering a private room and shutting the door, therefore, does not mean that we immediately shut out all our inner doubts, anxieties, fears, bad memories, unresolved conflicts, angry feelings and impulsive desires. On the contrary, when we have removed our outer distraction, we often find that our inner distraction manifest themselves to us in full force. We often use the outer distractions to shield ourselves from the interior noises. This makes the discipline of solitude all the more important.”  – Henri Nouwen

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As I travelled on the light rail this morning re-enacting my everyday commute-liturgy, I felt a familiar feeling.  My iPhone beckoned with its perpetual morning whisper: Come to me, you who are weary and heavy-ladened, and I will increase your burden. My mind clasped onto its first priority – mastering the content of a lecture I needed to give on cultural engagement for our first class for the Newbigin Seminary Project.  Behind the tension was another voice.  Don’t screw up.  You can’t screw up.  We’re getting a seminary started, and good first impressions matter. My cell phone buzzed.  A call from Sara, my wife.  She has been ill for 3 days, yet pushing through it because I couldn’t miss my weekend Newbigin event and this important class.  Another voice:  You’re a bad husband for not bailing her out. Still another voice:  She ought to suck it up and get over this illness.

A sense of constriction pervaded my body and mind.  There was absolutely no room for Jesus in this cacophony of inner voices.  Some might say, “Just read a little Scripture,” or “Do the Daily Office.”  I’ve already thought of this.  One of those inner voices has reminded me, perhaps guilted me, into thinking that if only I’d more faithfully practice this discipline, I’d be free from the inner chaos I’m feeling.

The problem – there is no space inside for the words of Scripture or the Daily Office to land.  My inner room is cluttered.  It is at this moment, as Merton says, that “we must make the choices that enable us to fulfill the deepest capacities of our real selves.” Yet, choice begins with desire…a longing for space, an inner freedom.

A deeper voice within called Spirit says, “Relax.”  I close my eyes.  No one on the train has a clue what’s happening inside.  I breathe in.  A rush of air enters my lungs, filling them with air, but not merely air.  N.T. Wright explains:

In Genesis 2:7, it is said that God breathed into human nostrils the breath of life, so that Adam became a living being.  There is a strange truth here which we do not usually grasp.  If we even think about the act of breathing, we probably regard it as a purely “natural” or “scientific” phenomenon. Genesis regards it as part of the gift, to humans, of God’s own life.  Breathing sets up a rhythm that quietly gets on with the job of enlivening and energizing us.

As my lungs expand, a spaciousness ensues.  A divine de-cluttering is underway.  I begin to feel centered, aware, in the moment, awake.

The need to attend to my responsibilities does not go away.  I am still giving a lecture.  I must still respond to my emails.  I must wrestle with my responsibility to Sara.  But…a space is growing within from which I can do these things, all of these things, with greater creativity and love.  Somehow, the space which opens invites selflessness – that rare quality which moves me to begin to pray for Sara, for the participants in the seminary course, for the blank-faced commuters around me, for the coming of the Kingdom in and through real participation in the divine life of Christ.

From this place, my work becomes a joy, not a compulsion.  I am freed to live in the present.  The voices that demanded my attention retreat to the background.  Somehow, they seem content, as well.  They seem to trust that from this new and more spacious place I might even be more productive in my work and relationships.

I step off the light rail and into the rest of my day, breathing deeply of a life that only the Spirit can give.