Don't Miss This One (Tiny Letter #25 and the Devotion Baker)

I get by with a little help from my friends, and one of those friends that helps me get by is Preston Yancey. In the days of my own drying out, he said, "God wants good things for you too, you know." Those words have stuck with me more than just about any others. I suppose the Spirit still speaks. Preston is a Canon Theologian in the Anglican Church, which is to say he wears no dunce hat. He's written a wonderful new book, Out of the House of Bread: Satisfying Your Hunger for God with the Spiritual Disciplines, and it's available at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or wherever fine books are sold. I've invited him to co-opt my Tiny Letter, to spend a few words walking us through one particular spiritual discipline.

And now, without further adieu, please welcome Preston Yancey.

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How often do you ask Jesus what you have done well?

I wrote my latest book, Out of the House of Bread: Satisfying Your Hunger for God with the Spiritual Disciplines, after teaching a class for three semesters on spiritual practices and baking. Over the course of several weeks and several practices—several loaves of very good bread and some true disasters—we worked through and baked out different ways of approaching a life of devotion to God. At the end of each semester, I asked the cohort to reflect on what discipline had been the most significant and staying for them. Each time, people named a discipline like lectio divina, contemplating icons, or feasting. But they further named the Examen as the discipline that always stuck. While the others were appealing for seasons, useful at different times of life, the Examen felt like a continual work that could be--and should be--returned to often.

When I asked why so many people enjoyed the Examen, the answer was the same: "No one ever told me to ask Jesus what I had done well." In the church, we talk a lot about repentance, especially in the Lenten season, and we rightly should. We do ourselves and our God a disservice, however, if we don't orient ourselves in the direction of repentance with...

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Why Writing is a Spiritual Discipline

“The discipline of creation, be it to paint, compose, write, is an effort towards wholeness.” ― Madeleine L'Engle, Walking on Water: Reflections on Faith and Art

Why do you write?

It's a common enough question these days, one to which I should have a better answer. But find me at a dinner party, ask me, and I'll trip over words, bumble and blabber some non-sensical gibberish about Lewis, and Hemingway, and the greats before I catch my rambling and sum it all up with, "I just gotta write; you know?"

See my knack for language?

In early April, I was graced with the opportunity to assist in leading a mini-retreat at the Faith & Culture Writers Conference in Portland, Oregon. There, the conference attendees asked this question of me time after time, enduring my incoherent ramblings.  By Sunday morning I decided perhaps it was time to formulate a less squishy answer.

Why do I write? That's a great question. Let's explore.

I've heard some say they do not know what they feel, think, or believe  until they've hashed it out on the page. And though neither incessant talking nor incessant writing are the equivalent of thought (mull that over for a bit), I think there's some instructive wisdom here. Writing requires us to slow down and contemplate language to express the complex condition of our hearts. Intentional writing allows us the opportunity to put language to the emotions, opinions, dreams, and visions we'd often otherwise ignore.

To be clear, fire does not spark the flint, and the churning of the engine does not fill the tank. In the same way, I don't suppose  writing creates thought. But, when used in conjunction with its sisters observation, contemplation, and creativity, the written word can provide a great tools for uncovering hidden truths. It's the shovel for the treasure, the key to the chest holding the diamond of great worth. It gives gives us the ability to see experience the buried truth.

In Portland, I sat with a group of writers in a conference room at Warner Pacific College. "We're on a writer's retreat," I said, "so let's carve out thirty minutes; let's observe the world around us and write what we see, feel, or hear." We scattered into the beauty of a Northwest Spring, pens and paper in hand.

After thirty minutes, we reconvened. There, I asked if anyone would be willing to share their writing, and in a moment of silence, Velynn Brown spoke. She said it was difficult to be fully present at the conference, that she and her husband had been talking about the "Black Lives Matter" campaign just days before arriving in Portland. A black family living in the Northwest, questions swirled about how they would raise their sons, what they would tell them about the state of racism in America. She paused, looked at the  sheet of paper in her hands, and said, "outside, I walked by an evergreen, and drips of thick black sap came from its side. I looked, considered, and heard God say, ‘see? sometimes even I cry.’”

Taking a deep breath, she began to read the poem she'd written by that sap-sobbing tree. The poem explored God's lament for the recent turmoil in America, and showed God's deep solidarity with Velynn and her family. "I haven't revolved it yet," she said at the end of the poem, "but I experienced God through it."

This is the beauty of writing. Before taking her pen to nature, Velynn knew the sadness of her own heart. Writing did not create that sadness, nor did it fuel it. But, by engaging in active observation and writing with intention, she uncovered her beliefs about her relation to God, her family's relation to God, and ultimately, God's heart toward a lamentable world. What's more, she gave our retreat group a gift--the gift of understanding.

Why do I write?

If I'm honest, the ego-centric part of me hopes to craft the great American novel one day. The exhibitionist part of me enjoys showing a fanciful turns of phrase, too. But more than any of these things, I write so that I might uncover the hidden gems of the heart. I write so that I might pull thoughts from the self-mine, so that I might expose them to the light and see if their facets glow. And like Velynn, I write so I might better understand my relation to God, and God's relation to the world.

Writing is, then, a spiritual discipline.

Granted, not everyone enjoys turning a phrase on paper. But when is the last time you sat in the quiet and listened to God with pen and paper in hand? When is the last time you journaled about the anxieties that keep you up at night, the joys for which you are grateful, or those people who've impacted your life? When is the last time you incorporated writing as part of your practice of the spiritual disciplines?

If it's been too long, grab your computer or a pen and a journal, sit in the quiet, and ask yourself: "what am I hearing in my heart." Then, just write.

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[tweetherder]Consider these sample writing prompts for further direction.[/tweetherder]

1. What is your deepest source of current pain, and how is God trying to meet you there?

2. Where are you finding joy with God? Describe it in detail.

3. What does the world around you say about God's relation to you and your relation to him?

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*Photo by Mary Vican, Creative Commons via Flickr.

Spiritual Disciplines: The Point Is Presence

“How’s your soul?” John Ray tosses this inquiry across the table with an easy smile. This is John’s standing Friday morning question, and I know that he will wait in the silence until I answer. He is a patient pastor and spiritual director, one whose thirty years of ministry have shaped him into a sage listener.

I feel the gravitational pull of the question and would rather avoid it. Instead, I choose the next best option and spill superficial ramblings about morning devotions and prayer. John sees through the ruse. “Stop,” he interrupts. “Take a deep breath, consider the question, and try again.” I pause, close my eyes, and take a deep breath. But in this brief pause, my inner dialogue comes screaming into the silence.

 

*Continue reading "The Point is Presence" at The High Calling.

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In this month's Tiny Letter (my monthly subscriber-only newsletter), I'm discussing hipster idiosyncracies and artisanal theology. Don't miss it! And if you sign up today, you'll receive a FREE DOWNLOAD of the song "Train Wreck." It's a song I wrote about pain, loss, and the love of God.

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Idols of Discipline

1.

Read, pray, serve—these are the disciplines of a Christo-centric life, we are taught. So we, the children, do do do our best to carry the load. We read read read, memorize the classics: John 3:16, Romans 8:28, Psalm 1:1. We sit by early morning light and pray pray pray, rub against the notion of prayer, treat it like the bottle from which the smoke of our genie-god rises. We serve serve serve, pass out bread at the homeless shelter, protest with the oppressed community, mow the lawn of every church widow. Serving, we hope, will conjure feelings of Christ-likeness, of living in fidelity.

Read, pray, serve; read, pray, serve; read, pray, serve. Rinse and repeat for forty days, for two years, for a lifetime. 

In an honest moment, though, ask yourself—do I sense the presence of God in these disciplines?

2.

There was a season in which I was a drunk. Typing that sentence is painful, but typing this one is worse: while I was a drunk, I was a by-God reading, praying, and serving Christian drunk. I hid my addictions behind the merit badges of Christian practice. After all, if I played the part, if I looked the part, who would be the wiser?

The truth is, I’m not sure I recognized what I was doing. I don’t know whether I realized I had long since forgotten the notion of a present, abiding God. Instead, I hoped that the motions of the spiritual life would somehow save me. Brick by brick, I piled them up—read and apply a  layer of mortar; pray and add a layer of mortar; serve and add a layer of mortar. Higher and higher, brick by brick, my spiritual disciplines reached to the heavens. My, what a big altar I had built.

See what I’m doing here? Idol-making is a sneaky thing.

3.

In his book, Beloved Dust (co-authored by Kyle Strobel), Jamin Goggin writes, “[p]erhaps nothing is as subtle and deceptive as the ease with which our forms of worshipping God (reading the Bible, singing, partaking in the Lord’s Supper, serving the poor, etc.) can be used for our own self-worship.”

See what he did there? Idol-recognition is a stinging thing.

4.

In the days of my coming clean, I realized the truth of my own idol-construction. By grace and the counseling of a good therapist, I found a God that was less concerned with my acts of righteousness and fidelity. He was less concerned with my sacrifices, with my altars-turned-towers of Christian activity. Jesus, abiding friend to sinners as he was, wanted something more conversational. 

Thousands of words could be written about this experience, and this is neither the time nor place. Instead, carve out a few minutes of silence and ask yourself these questions: 

do I find the abiding, restful, friendly presence of God in the reading, praying, and serving?

Or, if I'm honest, is all this work sucking me dry; does it feel like the tiring work of monument building.

[tweetherder]If you find no life in the reading, praying, and serving, then—pardon my meddling—you are missing the point.[/tweetherder] Disciplines flowing from white-knuckled fidelity are snares waiting to spring. But when flowing from love, from broken-down and humble devotion to an abiding, present God, they don’t feel quite so much like disciplines at all. Instead, they might be described quite simply as conversational, as communal, as acts of friendship.

[tweetherder] See what we're doing here? Authenticity is a soul-searching sort of thing.[/tweetherder]

*Grab a copy of Beloved Dust. This might be the most approachable work I’ve read about experiencing the abiding presence of God in some time.

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OCTOBER'S TINY LETTER IS HERE!

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