When Pain Takes the Words

The goodness and love of the Father is ever present. Every day brings new opportunities to respond to the invitation to become formed into his likeness. It is a call to life, a life that leads to a natural and, sometimes even, effortless freedom — freedom from the entrapments of our culture and the pride and self-centered striving that enslaves us. It is a call to live as we were created to live. It is an easy yoke and light burden. Spiritual training enables us to rightly order our habits so God can bring character transformation. Not only is honest and deep change possible, it is quite simply the way of the Jesus follower.

The voice of the Spirit is ever calling us to our true homes, to relationship and transformation. I assume this voice can be loud and abundantly clear, starkly awakening us from our hard hearts and blindness. Certainly the Bible is full of examples of God’s direction in very clear and uncertain terms. I half wonder if God reserves using such abruptness for when we would hear in no other way. I can’t imagine Paul would have had a conversion experience had he not been knocked to the ground and rendered blind. I’ve come to believe that growing in a life with God draws us into a place where we’re able to hear and respond to the Spirit’s quiet, gentle promptings in much the same way that Jesus appears to have done. We learn to recognize the tone and texture of the Spirit hovering about, leading, guiding, prompting, correcting, and loving. In such places, stillness of the small voice is enough. We become content with absence. We accept loneliness. We learn obedience in the darkness of life’s nights. 

The last two months of my life have been almost entirely dominated by the passing of my father-in-law. During this season I have felt no real prompts to begin intentionally practicing a new spiritual discipline. My primary attention has been on caring for my wife and our kids while occasionally my own grief bubbles up. Death brings a sort of helplessness. We’re not in control. We can’t fix people or situations. And so I cleaned our house and filled the freezer with soup and chili while my wife sat beside a hospital bed, hugging, encouraging, praying and singing to the lone parent who raised her until his body slowly wound down and his spirit passed beyond the veil.

During these days I crafted a few prayers, but for the most part I’ve found I have few words to pray. At times a phrase or two finds me. I hold and repeat them, caressing them like a trusted small smooth stone, turning it over and over in my hand.

Sometimes, when I have no words to pray, I borrow them from others: the Psalter, The Book of Common Prayer, or other whispers from the community of saints. I wrap these words around me like a blanket on a frigid night. Safe. Protected. Known.

When I’m unable to find my own words to pray, when all I have is worn and exhausted groans, there sits the words of my brothers and sisters ushering me before the Father. Through time and space we join together, sharing a similar cry in our souls.

And then it dawned on me. I been practicing spiritual disciplines in these months. The gentle nudge of the Spirit had been leading me in deep, quiet, meaningful prayer. If you’d asked me at the time, I would have said I was sort of taking a break from the disciplines, that I was tired, sad, and just trying to make it through each day. I think it was because these prayers were so helpful, so needed, so desperate that I hadn’t realized this process was part of my training. In fact it just may have been of my training. If formation leads us, quote Dallas Willard, ​“to become people able to naturally respond to life as Jesus would if he were to live our lives,” then it’s quite possible some of the years of training are beginning to do their work. For prayer was a completely naturally response, as was caring for my wife. And, I’ve actually done fairly well at helping her. Again I question if this was the result of years of practice? I didn’t particularly have to tell myself to respond to her with love, it just kind of came out. Certainly in years past I couldn’t have maintained this level of care with this level of ease.

I still get caught up in the idea that I’m not really doing formation correctly if I’m not feeling stretched or pushed. If I find I’m not measuring up to the self-placed expectations of success, I tend to feel a little discouraged. This notion is so ridiculous and says a whole lot more about the system of the world than about God.

In fact, obsession with performance or trying to be good or successful at a discipline is potentially one of the most destructive things to the spiritual life. It almost always paralyzes us from seeking to encounter God. Rather than lead us to submission to the work of the Spirit, we regroup and press in with the brute force of will power, which never takes us very far in the spiritual life.

N. Foster

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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