Friday, January 20, 2012

Creating Space

I have really enjoyed reading and discussing Sacred Companions by David Benner with some dear friends back in Tianjin. After I joined them by skype last month, Charly picked up the book and was struck by this quote in the Preface:

 “If you are making significant progress on the transformational journey of Christian spirituality, you have one or more friendships that support that journey. If you do not, you are not. It is that simple.”

It prompted him to take the book along on our three day getaway a week later so we could discuss the idea of spiritual companionship and how we can grow in this area together. Our marriage has been greatly blessed as a result of that much-needed getaway and by the space we created (and are continuing to create) for each other.

David Benner says, “The supreme gift that anyone can give another is to help that person live life more aware of the presence of God. Sacred companions help us remember that this is our Father’s world. They help us hear his voice, be aware of his presence and see his footprints as we walk through life. They accompany us on a journey that is made sacred not by their presence but by the presence of God.”

“Spiritual friendship is a gift of hospitality, presence, and dialogue.”

“The essence of hospitality is taking another person into my space, into my life. This is also the essence of being a soul friend.

Soul hosts prepare for their gift of hospitality by cultivating a place of quiet within themselves. This is the place where they will receive others. If I have no such place within myself, I am unable to offer myself in a gift of soul hospitality. But when I have begun to be a person with a quiet, still center, I can invite others to come and rest there. It is out of this place that soul friends offer their gifts of presence, stillness, safety, and love.

“If I am to have a place of stillness at the core of my being, it will only be because I have learned to offer hospitality to the Spirit. The Spirit, then, becomes the source of my soul hospitality as I make myself available to others.”

“I cannot really be present for another person when my inner world is filled with preoccupations and distractions. This is one of the biggest challenges I face in being present for others—being still within my own soul… If I have no such still inner place, I cannot really be present for others.”

“Soul hospitality is also a gift of safety…Soul friendship is the gift of a place where anything can be said without fear of criticism or ridicule. It is a place where masks and pretensions can be set aside. It is a place where it is safe to share deepest secrets, darkest fears, most acute sources of shame, most disturbing questions or anxieties. It is a place of grace—a place where others are accepted as they are for the sake of who they may become.”

“Love is the motive for the gift of presence that the soul host offers others…Apart from real love for real people, we will always be dealing with secret (or not so secret) impatience, judgmentalism, disgust, resentment, envy, or anger. Real people require real love if we are to give a gift of genuine presence.”

“Presence begins with attentiveness. This demands that I focus on the other person and his or her experience…I must therefore set aside all the things I carry with me in consciousness all day long—my planning for what comes next, my evaluation of how I’m doing and my reflection on what is presently transpiring. These are noises that drown out silence. These are distractions that keep me focused on myself and make it impossible for me to be present to another person.”

“The most important thing I can do is help the other person be in contact with the gracious presence of Christ.”

We create space within our hearts and lives for God, for our spouses, and for others to be able to enter into. I love what Henri Nouwen said about marriage:

“Marriage looked upon from God above is creating a new communion between two people, so that through that visible and tangible communion a new sign will be present in the world to point people toward God’s love…It is a relationship that looks like two hands that fold in an act of prayer. The fingertips touch, but the hands can create a space, like a little tent. Such a space is the space created by love, not by fear. Marriage is creating a new, open space where God’s love can be revealed to the “stranger”: the child, the friend, the visitor.”

This quote makes me think of a special radiant bride who is getting married this weekend and her beautiful reflections about The Wedding to Come while making room for her Bridegroom.

One of my favorite Christmas songs is Joy to the World, and most especially the line “Let every heart prepare Him room.”

Creating space for God and for others to enter in.

What distractions and preoccupations are currently blocking the way?

The boys created space away from each other during our sightseeing day in London last summer!
(This picture of “Creating Space” is not really what this post is about, but it makes me laugh J)

Thursday, January 19, 2012

The Elder Son

Henri Nouwen wrote The Return of the Prodigal Son about the impact of Rembrandt’s painting on his life. He identified with the younger son, the older son, and then the father in the painting, seeing himself in a new light within each character of the powerful story. I woke up this morning thinking about his reflections on the elder son (to the far right in the painting) and his need to be found, forgiven, and set free from his own self-righteousness.

He said, “For my entire life I had been quite responsible, traditional, and homebound. But, with all of that, I may in fact, have been just as lost as the younger son. I suddenly saw myself in a completely new way. I saw my jealousy, my anger, my touchiness, doggedness, and sullenness, and most of all, my subtle self-righteousness. I saw how much of a complainer I was and how much of my thinking and feeling was ridden with resentment. For a time it became impossible to see how I could ever have thought of myself as the younger son. I was the elder son for sure, but just as lost as his younger brother, even though I had stayed ‘home’ all my life.” (p. 20-21)

“I had stayed home and didn’t wander off, but I had not yet lived a free life in my father’s house. My anger and my envy showed me my bondage.” (p. 70)

The elder son “did all the right things. He was obedient, dutiful, law-abiding, and hardworking. People respected him, admired him, praised him, and likely considered him a model son. Outwardly, the elder son was faultless. But when confronted by his father’s joy at the return of his younger brother, a dark power erupts in him and boils to the surface. Suddenly, there becomes glaringly visible a resentful, proud, unkind, selfish person, one that remained deeply hidden, even though it had been growing stronger and more powerful over the years.” (p. 71)

Can the elder son in me come home? Can I be found as the younger son was found? How can I return when I am lost in resentment, when I am caught in jealousy, when I am imprisoned in obedience and duty lived out as slavery?  It is clear that alone, by myself, I cannot find myself. More daunting than healing myself as the younger son is healing myself as the elder son. Confronted here with the impossibility of self-redemption, I now understand Jesus’ words to Nicodemus: “Do not be surprised when I say: ‘You must be born from above.’” Indeed, something has to happen that I myself cannot cause to happen.” (p.76)

“Is there any chance for me to return to the Father and feel welcome in his home? Or am I so ensnared in my own self-righteous complaints that I am doomed, against my own desire, to remain outside the house, wallowing in my anger and resentment?” (p. 79)

He said it is “very plain that God does note love the younger son more than the elder. In the story the father goes out to the elder son just as he did to the younger, urges him to come in and says, “My son, you are with me always, and all I have is yours.” (p. 80)

When we refuse to come inside the house, and into the Father’s light, “sins cannot be confessed, forgiveness cannot be received, the mutuality of love cannot exist. True communion has become impossible.” (p. 82)

“It often seems that the more I try to disentangle myself from the darkness, the darker it becomes. I need light, but that light has to conquer my darkness, and that I cannot bring about myself. I cannot forgive myself. I cannot make myself feel loved. By myself I cannot leave the land of my anger. I cannot bring myself home nor can I create communion on my own. I can desire it, hope for it, wait for it, yes, pray for it. But my true freedom I cannot fabricate for myself. That must be given to me. I am lost. I must be found and brought home by the shepherd who goes out to me.” (p. 82)

I must “let my heavenly Father be the God whose unlimited, unconditional love melts away all resentments and anger and makes me free to love beyond the need to please or find approval.” (p. 83)

God, bring each of us into your encompassing light to experience true freedom and find new life. We need to be found and brought home.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


God has been convicting me recently about pride and selfishness. And I have been challenged by reading and reflecting on Gary L. Thomas’ Not the End but the Road, especially the chapter on Humility.

 “The truth is this—pride must die in you, or nothing of heaven can live in you.” (Andrew Murray)

“The irony is, the more we experience the character of Christ, the more natural reason we’ll have to become prideful. If we’re not careful, spiritual growth can sabotage itself. Perhaps that’s why the great reformer John Calvin calls humility the “sovereign virtue…the mother and root of all virtue.” And Jonathan Edwards, the renowned 18th century American preacher, names humility the “most essential thing in true religion.” (p. 16)

Andrew Murray says that humility is “the displacement of self with the enthronement of God.”

“Humility is the disposition that makes us available to be blessed by God. The Psalms seem obsessed with God’s eagerness to reach out to the humble: God saves the humble, guides the humble, sustains the humble, and even crowns the humble. Everything flows from God to the humble servant. Pride seeks to reverse this. Pride is self-reliance and self-dependence. Arrogance seeks to obligate God instead of receive from him.” (p. 17)

Humility is thinking less about yourself, not thinking less of yourself.” (Peter Kreeft)

“The inner discipline of humility acts like a filter, saving us from the tyranny of grossly unrealistic expectations that everyone and everything should bend our way. Self-forgetfulness also means that way we are liberated to serve others at God’s direction, rather that trying to impress them. The ultimate picture of this is Jesus washing the feet of His disciples.” (p. 18)

“The humble life is a life in which deep joy and profound appreciation—both for what God has given us and for what we in turn can give others—become a daily occurrence because the wellspring of that joy isn’t limited to our own personal happiness or good fortune. We can appreciate others without feeling diminished because they have skills we don’t; we can revel in the beauty of a landscape without feeling envious that we don’t own it; we can be fed by a well-preached sermon rather than fretting over the fact that we’re not behind the pulpit. Selfless living is liberated living.” (p. 19)

“Arrogance can never be satisfied; you will never become God. Humility can never be disappointed; if you want to serve someone you can always find someone to serve.” (Gary Thomas)

This week our family started listening to Tim Keller’s series on the Gospel in Life. I thought his message on Sin as Self Righteousness was the best I’ve ever heard on the story of Jonah! He said that to turn to Christ we must first repent, but that the last idol to go in our hearts is always that of self-righteousness. Jonah was wrestling with this hidden sin, which was as repulsive in God’s eyes as the gross sin of the Ninevites. Even though Jonah felt superior to these wicked people and didn’t want to see God extend compassion to them, in reality, Jonah was no better than they were. God exposed Jonah’s self-righteous heart and challenged him with his lack of love for the city of Ninevah.

I’ve felt challenged by the question of how much I really love people and how much of my energy and focus is actually on myself, like it was for Jonah. I want to live self-forgetful-ly, to have the “wellspring of joy that isn’t limited to my own personal happiness or good fortune.” I don’t want to carry around unrealistic expectations of people and of God “to bend my way” and to meet my needs. As I think less about myself, I want to “serve others at God’s direction, rather than trying to impress them.”

We finished listening to the audio version of The Christmas Carol last week, and I was touched at the end when Scrooge wanted to buy the biggest goose available and have it delivered anonymously. The dreams of Christmas Past, Present, and Future had completely changed from “being a scrooge” to finding real joy in giving, such that receiving credit for his gift was not even in his thinking. I want to be like this “Transformed Scrooge.”

“Not to us, O LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness.” (Psalm 115:1)


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