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Suffering and Happiness – the Physical, the Spiritual, and the Small Stuff February 16, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Uncategorized.
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I’ve been thinking a lot this week about the connection between the state of our physical bodies and our emotional and spiritual mindset. We may be spiritual beings, but how our bodies feel can greatly effect our emotions, how we act, even how we view God. If we’re cold, hungry, tired, or in pain it’s very difficult to act in a godly fashion towards others or to think about praising God. Of course we’re always told to rise above such things, and it is important to be able to do that when necessary. But what if it’s not necessary, because the source of discomfort is something extremely fixable?

I enjoy reading Gretchen Ruben’s blog “The Happiness Project“, which is her journey to try and create for herself a life which is, on the whole, happier than it had previously been. These sorts of books, projects and blogs are extremely popular right now, and I am very ambivalent about them, as I think many Christians are. The idea that happiness is something you can achieve on your own or create for yourself runs against all Christian ideals, which hold that God is the source of all joy and happiness. And yet, some of the tips and tricks offered are helpful and effective in making many aspects of life easier, more fun, or more pleasant. It’s hard to argue with that.

One of the things frequently mentioned on the Happiness Project Blog is to identify your problem. In other words if you are cranky or sad or anything else, try to trace the source of that feeling back to it’s cause and look for a simple solution. This worked for me earlier this week when I found myself in a state of high anxiety, near a panic attack, really, for several days on end. My heart was racing, I was sweating and nervous. I had several reasons to be anxious, but none of them warranted such an extreme or persistent reaction. I spend a lot of time praying for God to relieve my stress and anxiety, but nothing changed.

Finally, I took a look at my behavior and realized that I had recently changed my beverage habits. In addition to my normal tea, I had added morning coffee and been drinking soda with dinner. Plus, I had run out of advil at work and brought in a bottle of Excedrin which contains tons of caffeine. In short, I wasn’t under spiritual attack, per se: primarily, I was just over-caffeinated. I cut out all caffeine and today I feel fine. All the same stressors remain, and I am appropriately concerned about them, but not to the point where it effects my ability to function or trust God.

God, of course, could have magically lifted my anxiety and physical symptoms and calmed me. But that wasn’t really the problem. It wasn’t a lack of faith so much as that I had, through inattention, put myself in an unhealthy physical situation, and I needed to fix it. Praying certainly helped me think about the problem and find the answer, but the source wasn’t spiritual or emotional – it was purely physical.

The Bible has a lot to say about suffering and sacrifice. Jesus tells us if someone tries to take our coat, give it to him, and our sweatshirt too! Paul tells us of all the things he has suffered to bring the Gospel to the corners of the Earth. Many people are martyred for Christ. However in every instance that suffering or sacrifice is discussed in the Bible, whether it is something we are doing willingly or something God is leading us into, it is always for the benefit (physical or spiritual) of someone else, to spread the Gospel, or as way for us to grow and depend on God more. Despite what certain sects of monks have said over the centuries, the Bible is not big on suffering for no reason.

Going without a coat in the winter because you gave it to someone who needed it an can’t afford a new on is a form of suffering for another’s benefit, and trying to rise past the physical discomfort to still have a good attitude and relationship with God is a noble goal. But going without a cold in the winter because you forgot it and were too lazy to go back for it has no purpose and will probably not result in anyone’s growth or benefit. Fasting to grow closer to God is laudable; skipping lunch because you’re busy and then feeling terrible all day is not. In fact, your discomfort is more likely to make you snappish and unpleasant towards others. Christ is not served and the Gospel is not spread by you taking out your bad mood on friends, family, co-workers, or strangers.

In fact, I would say that needless discomfort is actually a kind of sin, if it ends up negatively effecting you, those around you, and your relationship with God. We are all extremely influenced by our physical bodies, and while learning to not let your mood, attitude, or actions be solely determined by how we feel is a valuable spiritual lesson, there is no point in learning to rise above a feeling that didn’t need to exist in the first place. When suffering has a goal or purpose it is much easier to get perspective on the situation and let God be our comfort and joy. But when you are miserable for no reason, it’s difficult to overcome because you also have to add the annoyance you feel at being miserable for no reason and you know there is no greater purpose to the suffering.

I am guilty of this often. I get very cranky when I am hungry, and I get very sleepy and lazy when I am cold. Often to the extent that I am not even in a frame of mind where I want to pray to get beyond those feelings and instead just give into them. And yet I will wait too long to eat or opt not to bother to go to the trouble of putting on a sweater, even though if I stopped to think about it I would realize that those simple actions would improve my physical and emotional state greatly in a very short time.

The world throws enough unavoidable pain, trouble, and discomfort our way in life, and still more we may choose to help others or to preach the Gospel. Making our lives harder for no reason only depletes the emotional resources we need to deal with actual, inevitable hardship and is a form of ingratitude. We have a hard enough time maintaining a close relationship with God, treating others well, and having a good attitude without putting up more barriers for no good reason.

It is important to know ourselves and know how we react to various situations so we can avoid the things that we know make us susceptible to sinning towards God and others. Just like we would consider it wrong to not seek treatment for a disease, we have to remember that we have a responsibility to ourselves and those around us to take care of ourselves as much as possible so that we are able to sacrifice for others when need be, instead of being a burden on them through bad attitudes, complaining, and ungodly thoughts and actions.

So in terms of happiness projects and self-improvements, I would say that they can hugely beneficial to us as Christians, as long as we aren’t counting on them to provide true happiness where there is none or to make fundamental changes in our hearts that can really only come from God. What these sorts of tips, tricks, and systems can do is help us get rid of habits or problems that turn into unnecessary barriers between ourselves and a full spiritual life. Being a Christian and putting God and others first doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be practical or problem-solve basic things on your own. Rather it means we should do everything we can to help ourselves focus on God and to help others, including not allowing problems to exist that really don’t need to.

Quote of the Day – February 8th, 2011 February 8, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Environmentalism, Heart Condition, Heaven, Lies, Quote of the Day.
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Once the Creator was removed from the creation, divinity became only a remote abstraction, a social weapon in the hands of the religious institutions. This split in public values produced or was accompanied by, as it was bound to be, an equally artificial and ugly division in people’s lives, so that a man, while pursuing Heaven with the sublime appetite he thought of as his soul, could turn his heart against his neighbors and his hands against the world.

Wendell Berry

Liturgical Prayer Challenge Update – Day 2 February 8, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Uncategorized.
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It is day two of my experiment of praying, both freeform and from a prayer book, seven times daily. The past two days have been an unrelenting shitstorm of opposition. From trouble at work to trouble at home to physical illness to anxiety attacks to unfavorable weather, everything seems designed to prevent me from making my prayer time a reality and to make me give up on wanting to do it at all.

I can only assume this means I am doing something right.

Quote of the Day: February 7th, 2011 February 7, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Nature of God, Quote of the Day, Sin.
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My own sin
will not hinder the working
of God’s goodness.

Julian of Norwich

Value in Liturgical Prayer? February 7, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Books, Change, Identity, Prayer, Sectarianism, Worship.
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I grew up a non-denominational Evangelical Christian, and have attended many churches for over the course of my 26 years. This means I have not been subject to many (or any) consisten religious traditions in my life. Evangelical churches tend to set themselves up in direct opposition to Catholics, Episcopalians, and other “mainline” denominations, and as such have almost a pathological avoidance of standardized ritual, rite, or prayer. Even the things that are fairly standard such as baptisms, the taking of communion, the lighting of the advent wreath have taken on wildly different forms depending on the church I was attending.

This is something that I both love about the Evangelical church and that frustrates me. I adore the fact that we don’t tie being a Christian to certain objects or ceremonies. I understand that it’s very easy when you have a ritual to replace God with it, to have it lose all meaning, and to lose God in the ritual entirely. At the same time, I often find myself longing for a bit more structure to help guide me along when I’m foundering.

In hopes of this, and for other reasons (gay rights, women’s rights, and views on evolution), I briefly attended an Episcopalian church. I liked the prayers, loved the reverend, and enjoyed her homily. But I was baffled by all the robes and ceremony, standing and kneeling. The music bored me and all the people were much older than I was. I didn’t feel at home at all, and I didn’t feel like the church was alive in the Spirit or growing.

So when I read Shane Claiborne and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove’s article in Relevant Magazine about liturgical prayer I was intrigued. They’ve compiled an updated prayer book, based on the Book of Common prayer used by the Episcopal church for many decades. They make a compelling case for the value of prayers prayed in common by the body of Christ, prayed regularly, and prayed often. It’s an argument I’ve heard before, and have been interested in, but whenever I get my hands on a prayer book I am completely confused about how to use it and what to pray when, and I usually give up almost immediately.

I do realize there is a danger in rote prayer, in that it is easy to just end up repeating the words without meaning. It is easy to put the act of repetition itself on the altar instead of Christ and have our Christian lives become dry and soulless. And I certainly don’t think pre-written prayer should be the only way we talk to God.

However, I’m starting to agree that there is also a value to set, daily prayer (or the “daily office”, as it is called, which includes also songs and Scripture readings). First, it doesn’t allow us to pick and choose just what is on our minds at the time. It is a well balanced program of praise, confession, thanksgiving and supplication. The readings take us through the Bible in a coherent and rational way, and don’t let us skip the parts we don’t like, as we all tend to do when reading on our own. And having a set appointment with God helps keep us regularly in touch with him.

Written prayers take us out of ourselves and remind us to reaffirm what we believe on a daily basis. How often on my own do I remind myself of Jesus’ identity or sacrifice, or pray the Lord’s prayer in earnest. Almost never. And lastly, a pre-written prayer will sometimes allow me to express what is in my heart better than I could have on my own. Sometimes I avoid my quiet time when I feel frustrated and aren’t sure what I want to say, but if I have a set prayer waiting for me it takes the pressure off and allows me to get in God’s presence and reach the point where I can speak what’s on my heart, in my own words.

Again, I don’t think that a liturgy should be our only, or even primary, means of talking to God. There is such value in being able to approach him as friend and Father with our personal concerns and fears. But there is also value in approaching him with a sense of awe and wonder and formality that I feel I have lost along the way. And for someone like myself, who is so easily distracted and so terrible at maintaining a regular prayer time, having a written text to follow can focus my thoughts on God and allow me to commune with him more effectively than I could if I was struggling to find words and keep my mind on track.

With this in mind, I’ve decided to give daily, written prayer a try. I’ve found a website that each day lays out the daily office for morning, noon, evening, and bedtime prayer, without requiring me to fumble through a prayer book I never learned how to use. The prayers are good, scripturally based, and change with the day and season. I’m actually going to try to pray seven times through out the day for the rest of February.

I’m going to try praying as soon as I wake (which I already typically do, even if it’s just “Father, help me get through today!”), when I get to work, mid-morning, noon, midafternoon, sunset, and right before bed, using the written services for guidance at the main times, and in between just talking to God on my own. I’m not going to limit myself to the written services and prayers – if I want to keep praying afterwards then of course I will. But I am going to try to follow them and see if this kind of liturgical prayer as a discipline will help me tame my spiritual ADD and be more consistent about my time with God.

I started this morning. It was hard to sit down and go through the praise, reading, and prayer first thing – before I even checked my email or clocked in, but I felt so much better going into the day. It reminded me to glorify God first thing, instead of just thinking of my own desires and presenting them to him in a laundry list. It reminded me what the focus of my day was. I read Psalms and scripture passages I often skip over, but they were short enough for me to contemplate them instead of just skimming to be done.

Saying the Apostle’s Creed (which I did NOT grow up with in any capacity) helped me remember what the core beliefs of Christianity are, and that even though I often feel like an outsider, my liberal views and politics actually have nothing to do with what really makes me part of the body of Christ. And finally, I took great pleasure in the fact that other people around the world were praying the same prayers at the same time as me. It felt like my prayers were powerful and that I was truly part of a community, which is a good feeling for someone who feels so out of place even in her own church. In short, it was an amazing experience for me. I felt really, truly fed by God.

One of the prayers particularly really summed up what I want to start the day with, far more eloquently than I could have on my own: “Drive far from us all wrong desires, incline our hearts to keep your law, and guide our feet into the way of peace; that, having done your will with cheerfulness during the day, we may, when night comes, rejoice to give you thanks; through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.”

It will be an interesting experiment. Will I continue to grow and find the liturgy uplifting and revelatory? Or will the novelty wear off, leaving me just mouthing the words and feeling suffocated by the repetition? I don’t know, but I’ll report back in March and talk about what my experience has been like, and whether I’m going to continue fully or in part.

Quote of the Day: 1/28/11 January 28, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Humility, Intimacy, Quote of the Day.
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True intimacy with God always brings humility.

Beth Moore

Dichotomy: Rigidity and Flexibility January 27, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Church, Fitness, Grace, Infinite, Lessons, Questions.
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Our God is a God that is comfortable with contradiction. Or at least what may appear to be contradiction from our earthly, 3-dimensional perspective. He is 100% just and 100% merciful. He is love but he hates sin. Christ told his disciples he would not be always with them, but he promised to always be with them.

Some of these dichotomies arise from the limits of the language and some from the limits of our human understanding. For some of them, we understand what is meant even if words fail us, but others remain a greater mystery. Rather than finding these contradictions of my faith frustrating, I find them reassuring. If it were easy and logical and completely comprehensible, it would be something a person could have made up, because we like things to be simple and plausible and easily explainable. The paradoxes and implausibilities that stretch my understanding as far as it can go and beyond are where I find the Divine in the religion that so often has a man-made structure around it.

God built a lot of paradoxes into this life, and we ourselves are paradoxes. We are God’s good creation, made to be like him but we are fallen sinners. We can be redeemed and restored and forgiven but we still will always sin.  Many of the problems in our lives occur from us partaking in things that God made to be good, but applying them in the wrong way or to the wrong extent.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about lately is the need to be both rigid and flexible. I’ve been trying to develop better habits as I look for a job, get in shape, and be more intentional about my relationship with God. I’ve noticed that when trying to form a new habit, particularly at the very beginning, you have to be very rigid in your application of it or it’s far too easy to let it go “just once” and then end up not doing it at all.

Exercise x amount every day, at the same time. Eat no desserts whatsoever. Clean one room of the house thoroughly every day. Once the habit is ingrained you can be a little more flexible – if you skip a day or have one cookie it’s fine because you know you will go right back to the good habit. In fact not only is flexibility okay, it’s vital for maintaining a good habit in anything and a good relationship with God.

You can pledge to read your Bible every day as soon as you as get up, just as you can make a promise to go to the gym every day after work. You can apply that rule without fail to your life and really see the results you want to see. But here’s the thing: it’s not going to happen every day. No matter how much of a priority you make reading the Bible every single morning at six am, there will be some days that it just will not work. The alarm won’t go off, you’ll have a sick kid, you’ll be travelling and have to catch a plane.

If your time with God (or any other habit you want to develop) is unbendingly fixed to a single set of parameters, it’s going to hit a circumstance that will make it break if it can’t bend. If you have such a rigid mindset that if you miss that appointment you miss your window for the day, then you will end up missing out on that time with him entirely. It’s better for me to work out at home in the evening if I can’t make it to the gym after work than to just give up on getting exercise all together. And it’s far better to make time with God later in the day than to just forget about it entirely, especially on a day where your routine has been broken – you probably need that time with with him even more than on a day where all is going normally.

So too, our faith itself requires rigidity and flexibility. We need to be firm and unyielding when it comes to believing that God loves us and will take care of us. But if our belief is tied to a specific set of circumstances, any change in those circumstances can lead us to doubt him. We need to be unwavering about following God’s will for our lives, but soft and malleable regarding what that looks like at different points of our life or we may find ourselves forcing our way down a path that we should have turned off long ago. We need to strong about what we believe about our faith (and about right and wrong), but give grace to others and be flexible (to a point) with them and allow for the fact that they may not interpret God’s Word the same way we do, as well allowing God room to change our minds and hearts if we are in the wrong about how we are seeing things.

It makes me think of yoga. To do yoga you need a certain amount of flexibility, and much of the point of yoga is to develop even more flexibility. But it also develops strength, and many of the positions require you to be very strong and to keep your muscles quite rigid in order to hold them. Following Christ is like that. We have to be strong in our faith, we have to be strict and disciplined about pursuing him. But we also need to be flexible about where he is leading us and allow him to change and grow our faith, otherwise we can end up following a Christ of our own making and going by our own wisdom, instead of his. If we are not flexible, we may miss the opportunities he has for us or the ways in which  he wants us to grow because we are so firmly set on what we think he wants from us.

Wednesday Links for 1/26/11 January 26, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Censorship, Church, Emergent Church, Funny, Happiness, Homosexuality, Links.
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Revealing: Rachel Held Evans compares the recent attempt to “sanitize” Huck Finn with her own discomfort over the more troubling parts of the Bible and desire to not deal with them, a tendency I share (Rachel Held Evans)

Awkward: The pre-emptive meet-and-greet at church. The only thing more awkward is the actual meet-and-greet when you don’t know anyone there and they all know each other (Stuff Christians Like).

Radical: A new way to pray – That’s very, very old.  The editors of a revised Book of Common Prayer on why community worship and liturgical prayer are not out-dated but as important as every (Relevant).

Shocking But Not Surprising: Gallup poll finds that among all faiths the more religious are happier than the less observant, and that highly religious Jews are happiest of all. That’s not the shocking part – Protestant Christians across the board show the least amount of happiness and feeling of well being of any faith (or lack of, in the case of atheists). Something is very wrong (Gallup).

Hopeful: Is evangelical Christianity about to experience a great big, gay revival? The winds of change seem to be coming (Sojourner’s blog)

Quote of the Day: 1/25/11 January 25, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Attitude, Evangelism, History, Quote of the Day.
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No more indifference, then! No more sleeping in unawareness! No, with bold and blazing heart stretch your sweet loving desires to go and give honor to God and your best efforts to your neighbors, never losing sight of your objective, Christ crucified.

Catherine of Siena

Faith vs. Fear January 24, 2011

Posted by orualundone in Change, Faith Journey, Fears, Promises, Trust.
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I’ve been listening to some old sermons from the church I used to go to (and still would if it weren’t much to long of a drive). It’s a nice way to start the day with my morning bike commute, and the pastor there is a truly gifted speaker. I haven’t been there in the past three years, so I have plenty of sermons to keep me occupied. The ones I’ve been listening to lately seem to have a very apt theme for my life (and no, I didn’t know what they were about when I downloaded them!) They all seem to be about change, upheaval, stepping out on faith, following God even when it seems crazy, depending on God even in our darkest and most frightening times.

We are now at the 15 week mark from our proposed departure and frankly, I am terrified. I question if this is the right thing to do, if we’re being stupid and reckless. I wonder if I’m being ungrateful by throwing away the good job and health benefits God has provided me with, by leaving all the friends and the support network he’s given us. I fret over how there always seems to be less money than I thought there would be, and worry about how will I ever get a job, or without one, how we will find an apartment with 3 cats and only so-so credit.

In fact, I am currently in a state of panic so acute that it drives out nearly every other thought in my head. It paralyzes me and tries to prevent me from doing nearly everything that I need to do in order to prepare for this transition, including write and look for a job. It’s hard to overcome, but the words I’ve been hearing on my ipod every morning have been a great help to me in combating it.

Three things I’ve learned from my recent sermon-listening that really came home to me in this time of fear and worry:

1) Fear and faith are two sides of the same coin. They both involve believing in things that haven’t happened yet. But fear means you’ve let your mind assume the worst will happen and that God won’t save, while stepping out on faith means that you are believing that God will come through just as he promised. So why do you think the fear option is more likely to come true than the faith option?

2: If you are facing opposition, either mental or physical, then you are probably on the right track. I think about stepping out on faith and I hear whispers telling me I’m being ungrateful, foolish, wasteful. I hear that no one will want to hire me, ever, and that I’m making a huge mistake. I should stay where I am and be grateful for what I have. Don’t rock the boat, make a fuss, or try to chase silly dreams. But I don’t think those whispers are from God.

You see, my fear and uncertainty has forced me to turn to God in a way that never would have happened if I were just continuing on with my life and my soul-crushing job. In fact, I probably would have continued to drift further away from him. The enemy knows this. The last thing he wants is for me to put my life on the line and to turn to God whenever I feel fear and uncertainty. He would much rather have me stay where I am.

3: He will be with me, wherever I go. Scripture records at least 46 references to God, Jesus, his Spirit, or his grace being with his people. I don’t think it matters as much where I go, but rather that I have God with me. He has always provided for me exactly what I needed, exactly when I needed it, in such a way that I knew that it was credit to him and not through my own work. And the times when I have been closest to him have been the times when I was closest to the edge.

It’s hard to get past the fear, and even harder not to give credit to the whispers telling me I’ve misjudged everything. But I know in my heart that God is the one leading me. That may not end up looking like what I think it will look like, or even put me where I think I’m headed, but I know he’s leading me and the more fear I feel the closer it will drive me to him.