Each time the calendar flips to summer, my mind turns to sitting on the porch with a good book — hopefully the kind that keeps me up too late reading just one more chapter. So, this month, I’ll share with you four newly released books that I think will make our souls better.
I’ll make some sweet tea and we’ll settle in for a visit with Jerusalem Jackson Greer, author of “At Home in this Life: Finding Peace at the Crossroads of Unraveled Dreams and Beautiful Surprises.” Greer writes about practicing the presence of God through things like solitude, study, prayer and service and how she works that into everyday life with activities like baking, sewing and gardening. But the thing that fascinated me the most was Greer’s idea of how people like me have delusions and spiritual fantasies that get in the way of our growth. That, to me, made her book worth sharing with you.
Q.: Do you think most people have delusions and spiritual fantasies? If so, what are the most common ones?
A.: Yes, I do think people have spiritual delusions and fantasies – I know I have, and being human, will probably have again. I think the most common of these delusions and fantasies is that there is somewhere, within the warp and weft of faith, a magic formula to happiness and contentment. That somehow, if we can only can figure out how to believe the right things, say the right prayers, sing the right songs, or read the right text, we will be able to uncover the code to ensure our long-term well-being, finally fixing everything that is broken in our lives.
Q.: How do we begin to move away from fantasies? I know when things don’t measure up the way I expect them to, I sometimes lose perspective and hope. How should I and others get back on track?
A.: The truth is, when it comes to faith 1+1 does not always = 2, and this can be a hard pill to swallow. Especially in a culture that likes certainty and measured results. I mean, we wear expensive devices on our wrist to count our steps. Can you get more measured than that? So we look for assurances even within our faith. We look for a cure-all, get-happy-quick scheme within our spiritual practices. When they don’t deliver, we handle it one of two ways: we are either plunged into disillusionment and cynicism, or we brush it off with Pollyanna-esque optimism, creating a palatable reason for why things didn’t work out, saying things like “Well, when God closes a door, God will open a window!”
I think the thing that gets us in trouble in the first place is our expectations and understanding of what our faith is for. Do we engage in spiritual practices, and live a life of faith, simply in the pursuit of happiness and comfort? Or, is it for a great purpose? A reason larger than our own well-being? In the Westminster Catechism one of the key questions is “What is the chief end of man?” to which the answer is “To glorify God and enjoy him forever.” I have always loved this answer because to me it sums up the total need for and benefit of faith; To live a life that is in pursuit of being made whole. Within my faith tradition, to glorify God means to do the things we believe God said to do – love God, love your neighbor, take care of the widows and the orphans, be good stewards of the earth, to honor the dignity of all persons. To enjoy God means to enjoy the things that God has provided – creation, relationships, rest, food, beauty, the pursuit of knowledge and so on. But most of these things – the glorifying and the enjoying – if we are doing them well, will stretch us and challenge us and grow us. Which I believe is the true purpose of faith – to grow us towards being made whole, which in the end is a beautifully healing thing, and is also the most glorifying thing of all. So is this process uncomfortable at times? Yes. Is it worth it? Absolutely. So, to answer the question – I think we begin to move away from our spiritual fantasies, and the disappointment they bring when we begin reorienting our expectations; When we embrace faith as transformational process, instead of a means to an end (that end being our satisfaction), when we accept that the purpose of living a faith-filled life is to grow, not to be pacified.
Q.: Transformation is uncomfortable. How do we know that we are headed in the right direction — and how can we tell when we have arrived? (Can we tell?)
A.: Transformation is very uncomfortable at times because it is wracked with growing pains. I think it is always helpful to remember that faith is a process, made up of spiritual practices, not “spiritual perfections” or “spiritual guarantees.” They are called practices for a reason: we are choosing to learn, we are attempting to get better, through repetition, over a span of time, in order to become proficient. And like any form of practice – from piano playing, to soccer, to painting – there are going to be parts of the discipline that come more naturally than others. Within a faith practice, some of us might find that our prayer muscle is already well developed, while our hospitality muscle is a little flabby. And of course, the opposite could just as easily be true for someone else. And so we practice. We choose to cooperate with God in our transformation process, and we do work, even when it hurts – even when it causes us to have to die to our desires – in order to love better, give more, and forgive again. And how do we know if it is working? Well, I guess you ask yourself – and those who know you best – things like, “Am I genuinely more loving towards my neighbors today, than last week?” or “Am I becoming a better caretaker of creation?” or “Do I seem more grateful this year, than last?” If the answers are “yes”, then I think you are on the right track. But I don’t think we ever “arrive.” I think transformation is a lifelong process, which I think is a good thing – lots of second-chance opportunities that way!
7 days of letting go
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