WHAT WE NEED IS HERE:
REFLECTIONS ON THE CHRISTIAN LIFE
In these reflections, I am using the idea of “encouragement in life” to be roughly synonymous with “spirituality.” My assumption is that when our spirituality is vital, we will be finding encouragement. When we find encouragement, in some sense that has to do with a healthy spirituality.
I have referred several times to my problems while I have been a Christian with different standards of “spirituality” put before me. I am thinking of in the old days, when spirituality meant cold-turkey evangelism at the county fair, intense devotional Bible reading and rigorous petitionary prayer. I am also thinking of the newer days when spirituality has meant journaling and regular meditation and being centered. None of these has worn that well for me. I began these reflections on spirituality wanting to see if I could think about an approach that accepted the reality of life as we live it (at least as I live it). I hoped to find within life here and now, regular, concrete life, bases for spiritual encouragement.
These reflections have helped me to feel more comfortable looking at that which nourishes my soul in my regular life as my “spirituality.” I feel more comfortable saying that I do not find special disciplines and activities which are new and different from my regular life attractive as the pathway to spirituality. Rather, I am much more attracted to an approach of respecting my life as it is. I want to identify ways in which I already find encouragement, and – through this process – nurture that which already encourages me.
I have tried to avoid speaking of principles and proposals of what other people should do. I have tried to speak honestly from my own experience. What has encouraged me? I have reflected on six ways I have found encouragement. I have had several reasons for doing it this way. I did this to help me understand better my own ways of finding encouragement. Some of the traditional approaches have not been meaningful to me, but still I see myself as being fairly alive. So I have tried to think about what it is that helps me feel alive, and to think of that as the bases for my spirituality. It has been good for me to do this.
Another reason for this approach, though, is to make a more general argument. That is, I have wanted to test an approach to reflecting on spirituality. I have focused more on understanding spirituality as already a part of our regular life rather than as something we need to import in. My idea is that what we need most to do is understand how it is that we already find encouragement and nourish that. That will be more helpful than looking for transformation, drastic changes, or totally new approaches to life. We should give ourselves more credit and look for growth within the context in which we already live.
A third reason for the way I have approached this topic of spirituality is to try to provide stimulus for you to think about what is encouraging in your lives. I have given examples from my life. I read somewhere that it is risky for preachers to use personal illustrations. In part this is because listeners tend to say to themselves, Oh, that’s nice for him or her, but it has nothing to do with me. I know that none of you grew up on the Umpqua River in Elkton. When I talked about my relationship with the river that was my personal, unique experience. However, I hope that story helps you to think about your relationship with nature, and how nature has shaped your life in encouraging ways.
I have reflected on six themes under this general rubric of sources of encouragement: my interaction with the Bible, my experience of worship, the idea of listening as one form of prayer, my experience with nature, music, and friendship. There is nothing scientific or even organized about this list. It is pretty diverse. Some encouragements require other people. Some are purely individual. Some are overtly religious, others pretty mundane, even at times profane. However, I have thought of ways they fit together, how they have combined to help me get through life.
These various ways of finding encouragement all help me to discover and to be myself. They all help me to enjoy life. They challenge me to grow at times, and at times help comfort me in my present state. They help me to connect with others. They also encourage a healthy and creative tension between moving toward realism with life while also remaining idealistic. These items for encouragement, as a rule, are all a fairly natural part of my life. They generally fit with who I am and how I live. They are not imported activities or so-called disciplines which require drastic changes. They are pretty concrete and earthy, not mystical or otherworldly.
As I thought of that which provides spiritual encouragement, I thought of elements of life which energize me, calling forth my creativity and interest, and enlarging my soul. I thought of how it is that I feel most comfortable, most at home, most alive.
As I think about this now, I do hear a nagging question. What if I can not actually trust myself? To look for spirituality in how I actually live might be foolishness if my life is selfish, lazy, greedy, or overly ambitious. If my life is headed the wrong direction, maybe to look for spirituality there will separate me from the power to change my life and go a different direction. Maybe spiritual disciplines and practices are necessary to move us away from where we would naturally go. Maybe they move us toward the narrow path of true discipleship which none of us would choose were we left to our own devices. However, I do not think so.
Maybe I am too optimistic. However, as a profound psychological thinker once said to me, “we’re all pretty much doing the best we can.” I believe much more in carrots than sticks as motivating tools. Most all of us want genuine encouragement, most all of us want to experience hope and creativity. We tend to gravitate toward that which give us these, though we do so clumsily and tentatively at times. There are forces in the world that do not want us to find encouragement, hope, and creativity. Some of these forces even live within our own selves. We are a mixture. So we need help. We need growing insight. We need other people for accountability and even confrontation. At times, we even need a kick in the rear end.
Guy Clark sings of seeking professional help because of his discouragement with how his life was going. “Doctor, good doctor, I’m grabbin’ at loose ends and I haven’t felt like I used to since I don’t remember when. Yesterday got past me, today is all the same. And tomorrow really scares me. I just can’t play the game.” The doctor tells him what he needs to hear. “He said quit whinin’. He said straighten up and fly right. He said life is not a piece of cake.” Guy concludes that his was money well spent.…Perhaps we all need such a response at times.
Still, generally, we are all trying pretty hard. The help we need most of all is a sense that there is encouragement to be had. We forget at times the meaning we do find, the hope we do catch glimpes of, the creativity that is part of our experience. So, I have found it helpful to think more consciously about what does help me to go on.
(1) I have experienced the Bible as a resource that contains a message of life, of vitality and creativity. Recognizing the human aspect to the Bible is helpful to me. The Bible records genuine people struggling with meaning and spirituality and hope amidst brokenness and pain. The message of life in the Bible speaks of life lived here and now, life lived as a combination of brokenness and wholeness. The Bible does not witness so much to a great king in the sky who fixes all our problems and makes everything work out just fine. More so, the Bible witnesses to a tenuous but persevering power of compassionate love that effects little and occasionally big resurrections and that survives wars and crucifixions and betrayals. The Bible speaks out of the heartbeat of real life, presenting failure and success, anchoring its hope in God’s mysterious and frail faithfulness and compassion. God’s continuing healing power, which faint as it may appear at times, simply cannot be quenched.
(2) I have found the two hours which I spend on Sunday morning in communal worship also to be a resource for life. This is a time which somehow, at times almost in spite of our feebles efforts to create something meaningful, helps me to make better sense of life. This time helps provide perspective and even inspiration to face the rest of the week more hopefully.
I referred to four parts of worship. The emotional, especially our singing, transcends the limits of linear logic and even language itself. It touches our hearts and evokes something from our hearts. It soothes a hurting soul and helps a joyous soul to fly. The intellectual, found in sermons and discussions, contributes to the renewal of our minds, what Paul calls “spiritual worship” (Rom. 12: 1). We have our thinking reinforced at times and at times challenged. Both processes serve to enlarge our minds. A third part I called the social. In our conversations, in our pleasure of sharing life together, we sense that we matter, we are not simply faces in the crowd. Others share our beliefs and values. We care for others and others care for us in this community. The fourth part of worship, the meditative, is when we stop for a moment and are quiet together – face to face with God and with our own silence. This is also nourishing. This is when we may appreciate our peaceful worship space and when we may experience a brief respite from the hurly burly of life in our dog-eat-dog culture.
(3) I was surprised in my reflections on prayer. I felt uneasy about this theme until I realized how closely in my experience I associate prayer with listening. Listening has to do with respect, even reverence. When we listen, we give up on control. We step back and in our receptivity, find nourishment for our souls.
This is certainly true in our interaction with other people. Listening is a creative force. When people truly listen to us and we truly listen to others, our internal fountain begins to work. We have creativity called out of us. To experience the love of a listening encounter, when we genuinely hear and are heard – in this, we experience the presence of God.
I do not deny the value of the spiritual discipline of self-conscious listening prayer, where we seek to hear God. That’s not a central part of my experience, though. What I have in mind is more a general listening attitude. This is where we expect to hear something which will encourage us wherever we turn. We listen to a loved one, to a new acquaintance, to music, to the creation around us, and certainly to our own heart. In all these ways, we will also hear God. All sincere listening is prayerful – and encouraging to our souls.
(4) In reflecting on my connection with what we call the natural world, I recognize that I am somewhat alienated from it. This separation certainly stifles spirituality. I realized, though, there are ways that I have a deeper connection with creation than I have been aware. This is centered on the place of the river in my life. I grew up on the Umpqua River, and the sound, the motion, the life of that river remains part of my soul.
My experience of the beauty of that part of creation has helped to understand life as good, if also dangerous and beyond my control. I realize I receive nourishment from the river – its aliveness. This is an important part of how I have found encouragement to go on in life. I connect the river with comfort during probably each of the times of significant loss in my life. I am glad I came to realize this more clearly.
(5) When I listen to the music I like, it touches my heart and deepens my soul. It helps me to cry, to laugh – that is, to feel. As a pretty emotionally reserved person, I realize more all the time how good that is for me. Singing and hearing songs of grief have brought forth my grief, putting words and sound to it. Musis has also given voice to joy, even beyond what I could describe by talking about it. Music can provide encouragement for my resistance to expressions of the spirit of death which are so common in our world today. Music helps to protect and foster my heart and spirit. That is, it serve as a major source of encouragement to go on in life, and to go on creatively and compassionately and hopefully.
(6) Finally, friendship, which I think is probably the most important one of these six themes in my life as a source of spiritual encouragement. Friendship helps me better to be myself. Friendship helps me to laugh. Friendship helps me to experience compassion from others and toward others – in this way placing us very close to the heart of God. Friendship helps me to move onward toward living out my deepest beliefs and dreams as I share them with true friends.
Reflecting on “spirituality” is a helpful part of my process of coming to terms with myself and the religious part of my life. Since I became a Christian over 30 years ago, I have usually felt somewhat uncomfortable with it all. I have always wondered some if I was not maybe just a little bit of a phony. I could never fully relate with the spiritual experience of many Christians I have been around. I could never honestly use much God-talk or talk much about my piety. I never have been able, in truthfulness, to say the Lord told me anything, at least not directly.
I still have these feelings some, but I think I am getting over them. I am finding it easier to affirm the spiritual experience I have had and am having. The encouragement I find to nourish my soul is integral to who I am as a person with a spirituality. My spiritual experience is okay, maybe even good. It feels life-enhancing. That, I believe, is true for just about all of us.
Questions for reflection and discussion. How do you feel about the Bible? I am saying that what I think is crucial about it is that it is human and historical, part of the same reality as us. Others argue, to the contrary, that what really matters about the Bible is that it is above history and supplies a clear and trustworthy message directly from God. Its reality is different from ours. Where do you come down regarding these two views? What makes the Bible spiritually encouraging for you?
Might we make the Bible a more helpful resource for our corporate spirituality? How?
Of these four components of worship I mentioned (emotional, intellectual, social, and meditative), which is most important for you? Why?
How important is Sunday worship to your spiritual health? What would make it more important?
Am I too optimistic? Is my sense of life as good naive? How do we weigh magic and loss? Can we be “realistic” and still positive?
What about this notion of listening? What hinders you from listening? Can we live in a listening mode in our modern world? How to do it better?
Do you have something in your life comparable to the river I discussed? How is it related to your soul?
Do you find being outside spiritually encouraging? In what ways? How is this encouragement hindered?
What kind of music do you most enjoy? Have you ever connected enjoyment of music with spiritual encouragement?
How important are words to your experience of music? Does music without words also elicit emotion from you?
What about your experience of friendship has been most encouraging? Most discouraging? Have you ever associated friendship with spirituality?
In general, what are things which you find encouraging to you in helping you keep on in life? Do my thoughts fit in with yours regarding thse encouragements? How can we find more encouragement? And what about discouragement? Life is hard, we do know all too much about brokenness and suffering. Can we find honest encouragement without hiding from or denying the hurt which all of us experience?
 Guy Clark, “Doctor Good Doctor,” from the album Old Friends (Sugar Hill Records, 1988).