Growing Beyond the Formulas

formulas1aI just saw a cute meme on Facebook. Sounds almost like the beginning of a joke, right? But I really liked it. It was tasteful, unlike so many of the religious-themed ones. It had a message I liked.  And it was simple. But … It was also simplistic.

As far as memes go, this one was probably as true as any of them. General encouragement, general principle, general instruction. Generally helpful.

But the problem is that it was just that: general and simplistic. It could not address my specific situation. It reduced a complex and free-flowing relationship with God and our circumstances into a formula. And God is bigger than that. And so are we. And so is life.

I do believe that God intervenes in our lives in powerful ways. But I also know there are times when it feels like he’s left us hanging out to dry. Like he doesn’t see our problems. Like he is ignoring us, and we’re in it all alone.

I don’t think he’s doing that at all, but sometimes it sure feels that way.

And the thing is, sometimes it is absolutely the right thing for us to be going through: the trouble, the hard times, the rough circumstances.  Diamonds aren’t polished by speaking nicely to them or setting them in red velvet. They’re polished by grinding, by cutting. And if you don’t think God wants to add a little polish to your life, well, then what is he involved in your life for?

What little I know about God, I’ve learned from the bible and interpreted through the lens of life experience. Theology isn’t theology until it’s lived out.  And ya know? When you begin opening yourself up to God, when you lift your eyes off the immediate circumstances, and you focus your thoughts and your praise on the One who sits above it all, holding it all in his hands … sometimes that power enters your life in dramatic ways. And sometimes it just lifts your spirits so you can plow through those circumstances.

formulas3In those moments, by all means, hold on to the general truths – of God never leaving you, of his great and loving plans for your life, of the certainty that he will ultimately work things out for your good.

But trying to force a specific outcome by quoting a promise given to someone else in Scripture and may not be applicable to you or your situation at all, just confirms that you’re trying to operate outside your own personal relationship with God.

From Abraham waiting years for the promised son, to Joseph sitting in Pharaoh’s prison, to Moses tending goats on a mountain, to David waiting 15 years for his rightful throne, to Elijah running away to a holy mountain because he heard bad rumors, to Paul spending years in the wilderness and then more years as a disciple before really being ready for his apostolic call – it all depends on who you are and where you are in your journey.  It takes time. It takes a little suffering. It takes experience. It takes a little maturity – born only from that experience.

Dropping 10% into the offering plate and claiming your multi-fold return may or may not trigger a spiritual tidal wave that washes away your debts.  Quoting healing scriptures and trying to lay hold of your atonement-rights doesn’t always bring the healing you’re looking for. Claiming your authority as joint-heirs with Jesus, and the fact that you sit “in him” at the right hand of the Father, may or may not bring the change to your job, your relationship, your health, … your situation … that you’re trying to “manifest.”

formulas2aGod doesn’t listen to formulas. God cannot be manipulated. “Where were you when the foundations of the earth were laid?” Do you think you can make God perform by quoting his own words back at him, or by stroking his ego? He is not a genie, he is not a coke-machine. You don’t plug in your quarters and get your selection.

He is a person. He responds and reacts in relationship. And sometimes, because he is in relationship with you, he will lead your through tough times. He will allow you to sit in a dungeon cell for a while. He may leave your “thorn in the flesh” in place. Why? Because it’s good for you. Because a spoiled child is of no use to anyone.

That doesn’t mean God doesn’t care. Or that he is indifferent to your suffering. That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t want you to be blessed. Perhaps he wants to expand your understand of what “blessing” is – and what it means to be a blessing to others.  (Ever gotten unwanted advice from someone who’s had an easy life? Yeah. You gotta earn your cred.)

I believe in God’s power. I believe God wants us to be happy. I believe he put us on the planet to enjoy our lives – hey, he put Adam and Eve in a garden – AND to be a benefit to others. I believe God does work out all things for our ultimate good. And I believe God wants a one-on-one, intimate friendship with each and every human being – and that includes you, even while you’re going through the muck.

By all means, do your part. Give up part of your pay check for the good of others. Lend a helpful hand to your neighbor. Plant seeds of peace and acceptance; be nice to each other. Lift your voices to the heavens and thank the One who holds the Universe together. Memorize scripture. Recite it to yourself to strengthen yourself, to remind you of who He is and who you are. Especially when you’re going through periods when none of it seems to matter.

You matter. And He is interested in walking through life with you, helping you become the person you were designed to be. And that doesn’t happen by working spiritual formulas or reciting isolated verses as though they were magic incantations. The Word of God is what the Spirit is speaking to you at the moment, specific to where you are right now. And you can’t manipulate that.

Our spirituality, our maturity, has to grow beyond the formulas. Beyond the clichés. Beyond the biblical sound-bites. Learn who He is, who you are, and how you two work together. That kind of spirituality will rock this world.

 

The Sacrament of Cooking Bacon

frying_bacon

 

Growing up as a Protestant, I had an inherent distaste for ritual. Liturgy, routines and orders of worship (even though every church has one) … were all equated with “religion,” the imitation of true relationship with God. “Religion = Death” was a mental slogan, even if the words never quite formed that way in our minds.  Even habits. You hardly ever heard about “good habits.” Mostly, habits were referenced in the context of sinful things we did, that our “flesh” compelled us to do. Habits that needed to be broken. The genuinely spiritual person was free — free from form, free from ritual, free from habits.

And surely, those poor Catholics who “mindlessly” recited the rosary were missing out on a real connection with God. And all that incense waving and candle lighting … all imitations of spirit. Cheap substitutes that were empty of meaning and devoid of power.

Of course that’s not true. It was just the fuzzy logic floating through my head as a Protestant kid who probably thought too much about incidental things. I had no appreciation for the sacramental, no understanding of the connectedness between things of the world and things of the spirit, how one can help enrich the other.

Now, witnessing the “multi-tasking,” “spontaneous” activity of so many of my friends — myself included — as we flip between phone apps, texting, snap-chatting, tweeting, clicking photos to share on Instagram … all that freedom. And is it really freeing us, or just making us prisoners of the immediate? With our 1500 friends and followers on Facebook and Twitter, do we even know who we are anymore? Are we even in touch with ourselves?

mind full - mindfulYears ago, when we thought about our elders growing senile, we used to say that they’re reliving fond memories, that it’s okay that they don’t remember our names or faces: they’re in happier times.  Recently the thought occurred to me: am I even making memories to relive? I’m so busy jumping between projects, between shows on Netflix, between apps and games and programs. What would I be “reliving” when I’m 85 and have lost my mind? “Oh yes, those golden days. I remember this one tweet …”

This struck me more powerfully the other day when I was frying up some bacon. I’d finally learned how to do it right, without smoking up the whole house or covering the stove top (or the inside of the oven) with bacon grease. It’s a bit of a slow process, frying up 2 pounds of bacon (I cook up a batch and store it in the freezer for quick snacking), and I caught myself going from stovetop to laptop: flip the bacon, check Facebook. Add another slice to the skillet, post another comment online. And I stopped myself.

I was missing out on something. The simple joy of the experience. The sensuous sizzle of the bacon in the pan. The smell of the smoked meat as it crisped up, filling my nose with that hardwood saltiness that makes the mouth water. The heat from the rapidly accumulating grease as I added more slices to the pan. The changing color of the meat as it cooked. The popping of randomly splattering grease. Sights. Sounds. Smells. Sensations. And I forced myself to stand there and just take it all in. Facebook can wait. This is living in the now.

This! This is wonderful. Bacon is wonderful. It’s a gift from God (apologies to my Jewish and Muslim friends). Let me just enjoy the full experience, this moment of grace that is doing something unexplainable to my soul.  I’m smiling. I feel good. I’m looking forward to munching on ALL these delectable slices of heaven piling up on the plate next to the stove. This is a memory I might enjoy reliving in my twilight years. Even if not, it’s doing something to me now.

It was an exercise in “mindfulness,” of being present. Of dismissing the distractions, and the A.D.D.-driven activities. It was a sacrament, an instrument of receiving divine grace.

Over-stimulation is killing our souls.

There is a place for ritual in our lives. There’s a need for it. Familiar routines fire “comfort” sensations in our brain. Our thinking slows. Our nerves unravel. We become calm, peaceful. And in those moments, more receptive to the world around us. More in tune. Whether it’s a morning run outdoors, a late-night workout, or quiet times of prayer and meditation, routine grounds us, makes us stable. It makes us happy.

We need to slow down a bit. Maybe buy a French press, and make your morning coffee a drawn-out ritual. Even if just on the weekends. Make tea, in a pot. Let it steep a few minutes before your drink it. Sip it with both hands. Taste it. Really taste it. Experience it.  Cook more; eat out less. Allow yourself the luxury of chopping vegetables, of making a salad with multiple ingredients, of grilling a steak. Bumping into your partner as you both maneuver the kitchen. I even started making a cake on Friday evening, just to help slow down, as I mix the ingredients and wait for the oven to preheat. Doing something with my hands since I work all week with my brain. And a Sabbath! We should all get back to the habit of taking one day a week where we just relax, where we hang out at home or do simple errands… to unwind. Refresh. Or just sit on the patio for an hour with a book.

We need to build moments back into our lives where we can receive grace. That life-restoring energy, reconnecting us here and now.

cafe_au_laitWe need to cultivate rituals — things to make us pause for a moment and just appreciate what is right in front of us. Even if it’s the simple delight of pouring real cream into your French-roast coffee and watching the color change. Or holding your favorite mug in your hands. Buy yourself some wind chimes, and occasionally turn off the TV just to listen to them for a few moments.

Like God on the first day of creation, impose some order and peace on the chaos that our lives have become.

We Protestants have missed out on this aspect of worship, of reverent living. We don’t do rosaries. We don’t recite prayers. We haven’t built mechanisms into our lives that allow us to slow down, to relax the brain and the rampant rapids of our thoughts. To find stillness. Even our Sabbaths are hectic. Maybe the simple act of lighting a candle can help reconnect our faith that our prayers are ever-ascending before the Throne of God. We are human, and we need tangible objects, simple acts, to help focus our thoughts, our prayers, and our lives.

I’m not about to sell my 50″ flatscreen. I’m not going to cancel my subscription to Netflix. But I’m enjoying the tactile sensations of cooking again, the simple pleasure of my favorite red coffee cups, the random music of the chimes outside my living room doors. I jealously guard my Saturdays, when I (mostly) ignore my phone, and take my dogs to the park. Or my Sunday afternoons, after the hub-bub of church, when I can grab some quiet time on my patio with a book. I need those slow-down moments. You do too. Being quiet. Being present. Being in the moment, in the now. And receiving a touch of grace. Even when it’s just cooking up some bacon.

 

photo credit: I Believe I Can Fry, via Flickr, cc.
“Cafe au lait,” NukelarBurrito, via Flickr, cc