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Desire and God and me

by davesandel on November 20th, 2011

Learning to Invite God In

“You are not there when I turn, but are in the turning …” – R.S. Thomas

When I’m with my grandson Jack, who is 2 ½ years old, I find myself jumping, sometimes, for joy.  He’s doing it, so I can too!  When we walk in the door to spend the day with him, he is so excited he stumbles over his words and his feet and then just runs in wild falling-down circles around the room.  The life force of our boy Jack rushes through him and into me.

But for Jack, I would be jumping for joy much less often.  In fact, over the many long years of my life various experiences and cultural pressures have paralyzed much of that jumping I was born with.  I think of T. S. Eliot’s forlorn anti-hero Prufrock: “I grow old, I grow old.  I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.”  And too often I echo his fear: “Do I dare to eat a peach?”

How many times in 62 years have I been afraid?  And what has it done to my desire to live in the heart of God?

Because this fear is part of every life, Jesus, his Father and the angels often repeat the words, “Do not be afraid”  (e.g. Gen 46:3, Matt 14:27, Mark 6:50, Luke 1:13, Luke 1:30, Luke 2:10, Luke 12:4, John 6:20).  Pope John Paul II chose this same Biblical consolation, spoken in his poor Italian,  to begin his pontificate.

In The Holy Longing Ronald Rolheiser likens our natural desire to the delight he sees when he watches young kids come out to the playground for recess.  But it isn’t long before we adapt to the graying shades of the fallen world, and then, “delight has to catch us unaware, at a place where we are not rationalizing that we are happy” (p. 26).  In short, as Prufrock knows, we are afraid.

Two Greek words for desire are eros and epithumia.  Epithumia (used 38 times in the NT) is often translated as lust, although when used in the context of marriage it simply means the desire associated with genital sex.  Eros is not used in the Bible.  The meaning of “eros” has been hijacked by our culture, as in “erotica”, the mostly forbidden playground of genital sex.

Rolheiser attempts to reclaim the original meaning of “eros,” as defined by Plato.  That meaning essentially, is “life,” or “life-force”, or “life-desire.”  God provides eros to fuel our pursuit of Him.  This “eros” is not something to repress or use selfishly; it is the most precious energy we have, something to get to know, cherish, nourish, and use well.  Eros allows me to return in the arms of God to the joy of childhood, even – and indeed, precisely – in the midst of the gray world of sin.

In Befriending Our Desires Phillip Sheldrake says that “agape”, one of four Greek words used for love in the Bible, and eros “are not two different loves but two qualities of the one human love, just as they are complementary aspects of Love itself or God” (page 39).  Epithumia, eros and agape all have healthy desire at their root.  Healthy desire is there to be found. This desire is created by God for our pleasure, and His/Hers.

Eve and Adam turned this desire away from God toward knowledge. How could it be so wrong if it feels so right? They misused the free choice God offered them.  They, like us (or at least like me), did not realize the power of eros energy, what Rolheiser calls the “imperial” energy.  The taboos set in place by their heavenly Father protected them from something beyond their nature, but in their ignorance they ignored these taboos.  Thus they settled for a shallow knowledge of what they thought was the All.  “My thoughts are not your thoughts,” declares the Lord.  What they thought would bring them into equality with God separated them and made them feel smaller.  They discovered the truth that they were the created ones, only made to be creators within the design of the One who created them.

In their hubris they fell hard.  In my hubris, so do I.  And then the next temptation is to blame my desire.  If I could just stop … then I would get closer to God.  Adam and Eve put fig leaves over their bodies.  Adam hid in the garden.  I curl up under the covers.  We are all ashamed.

But they were not abandoned, and neither am I.  One consequence of what the Bible calls sin, this turning away from God toward myself, might be my shame.  But God does NOT reciprocate.  God is not ashamed of me.  Even though I hide from him, God does not turn away from me.  Instead, He wanders through the garden calling my name, “David, where are you?”  When I appear sheepish, naked, he fashions a garment to cover my shame.

Rolheiser calls this compassionate protection of God “glue.”  God provides limits to keep me held together, and God provides repair to glue me back together when I ignore those limits and fall apart.  My spirituality enables me both to keep the fire burning, and to honor the consoling limits I have been given by God.

What can I do to make this spirituality more healthy and vital?  All the disciplines and exercises in the world cannot kindle a fire from nothing.  But without the disciplines, the fire can so quickly either lose its heat or burn me up.  This fire inside me belongs to God, and what He asks of me is that I 1) respect its potential danger and then 2) get my ego out of the way when the rushing wind of His spirit blows it hot.   My ego, my “false” self, is not in charge.  He is.  And He presents me with the “true” self He has always known me to be.  “The primary wonder of our Christian faith is that God comes to the place where we are and says our name” (Journaling as a Spiritual Practice, p. 31).

In Concerning the Inner Life Evelyn Underhill writes, “Love and prayer are the names of tremendous powers able to transform in a literal sense human personality and make it more and more that which it is meant to be – the agent of the Holy Spirit in the world” (p. 33).  Underhill’s phrasing underscores the idea that I am named by God.  And my unbreakable uniqueness needs no doing of mine to be.  In my own special being God stirs the particular embers, blows on the particular flame that He placed in me, and He lets me be in just the way I am meant to be.  What I do is not significant in this true new world inhabited by God as subject.  God and this “me” He created to be are all that matter.  One of my favorite breath prayers is “Lord, You do, so I can be.”

As I discern God’s presence behind the words, this single syllable language leads toward truth.  But I write from a mental place held together at least partly by pride, on a computer purchased with money earned by accomplishment, in a home borrowed from God but “owned” in the world of legal documents, property taxes and neighbors.  I can’t get away from my “self” for long while my lungs breathe and my heart beats.  Inviting God to live in me is one thing; accepting His invitation for me to live in Him is quite another.  My body seems to have local possession of me, even while God is my owner.

In this daily life where I return to being subject, where my self reclaims its right to be at the center, I desperately need disciplines that help me turn toward God and … ultimately, discover Him right in that center I so jealously and foolishly am so desperate to preserve for myself.

Naming the Disciplines

The spiritual disciplines are sorted in many different ways.

One. In the most acclaimed contemporary book, Celebration of Discipline (1978), Richard Foster divides them into three categories: 1) the inward disciplines of meditation, prayer, fasting and study; 2) the outward disciplines of simplicity, solitude, submission and service; and 3) the corporate disciplines of confession, worship, guidance and celebration.  These practices are like gears which engage my spirit and allow me to wait for God within myself, reach out to others from within myself, and seek God together with others.  In all these ways, I teach my body and mind to submit to my soul.  In all these ways my spirituality tames, centers, and does triage with the urgencies of both mind and body.

Two. In her Spiritual Disciplines Companion (2009), Jan Johnson offers disciplines for 1) introverts: solitude & silence, prayer & listening, reflection, secrecy, study & meditation; for 2) extroverts: community & submission, worship & celebration, confession and service; and for both 3) simplicity & fasting.

Three. In contrast, while Robert Mulholland acknowledges his introversion and expresses his love for silent retreats, he says, “If I do not nurture my less preferred side, that will cause problems with my whole spiritual pilgrimage” (Invitation to a Journey, p. 65).  To this end he cites a study from the Center for Applications of Psychological Type, which suggests what I might need for wholeness based on letters used on the Myers-Briggs Type Inventory.  Although not expressed as specific disciplines, these “needs” point toward them:

Preferred Attitude, Function or Lifestyle Needed for Wholeness

E (Extraversion) Reflection

I (Introversion) Action or Participation

S (Sensing) Awareness or Understanding

N (Intuition) Service or Embodiment

T (Thinking) Devotion

F (Feeling) Knowledge

J (Judging) Spontaneity

P (Perceiving) Discipline

Four. With her carefully chosen title, Sacred Rhythms, Ruth Haley Barton emphasizes the natural-ness of spiritual disciplines, the “words” of what she calls the “language of longing.”  Ruth advises me to identify the disciplines most important to me in the context of my own personal shadow.  My “desolating” behavior can thereby be balanced with the rhythm of a “consolating” discipline.  I resist God in darkness, then I actively return to his light; I can do that because He is with me in them both.

Sin and Negative Patterns Corresponding Disciplines

Gossip, sins of speech Silence, self-examination

Anxiety and worry Breath prayer, Scripture reflection

Envy and competitiveness Solitude, self-examination

Discontent Attending to desire

Avoidance patterns Community, spiritual friendship

Over-busyness Solitude, discernment, Sabbath, rule of life

Anger and bitterness Silence, self-examination, confession

Feelings of inadequacy Examen of consciousness, self-knowledge, celebration

Guilt, shame Solitude, confession, forgiveness

Lust Attending to desire in God’s presence

Restlessness and stress Solitude, silence, breath prayer

Lethargy and/or laziness Caring for the body, exercise

Lack of faith Prayer, Scripture

Feelings of isolation Examen of consciousness, community

Selfishness and self-centeredness Prayer and worship in community

Lack of direction Discernment, listening to the body

FiveIn the most comprehensive collection I’ve seen (Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, 2005) Adele Ahlberg Calhoun adds many other practices to the list (for a grand total of 62 distinct disciplines) and divides them using the acronym of  WORSHIP:

Worship (6) Celebration, Gratitude, Holy Communion, Rule for Life, Sabbath, Worship

Open Myself to God (11) Contemplation, Examen, Journaling, Practicing the Presence, Rest, Retreat, Self-Care, Simplicity, Slowing, Teachability, Unplugging

Relinquish the False Self (8) Confession & Self-Examination, Detachment, Discernment, Secrecy, Silence, Solitude, Spiritual Direction, Submission

Share My Life with Others (12) Accountability Partner, Chastity, Community, Covenant Group, Discipling, Hospitality, Mentoring, Service, Small Group, Spiritual Friendship, Unity, Witness

Hear God’s Word (4) Bible Study, Devotional Reading, Meditation, Memorization

Incarnate the Love of Christ (7) Care of the Earth, Compassion, Control of the Tongue, Humility, Justice, Stewardship, Truth-telling

Pray (14) Breath Prayer, Centering Prayer, Contemplative Prayer, Conversational Prayer, Fasting, Fixed-Hour Prayer, Inner-Healing Prayer, Intercessory Prayer, Labyrinth Prayer, Liturgical Prayer, Prayer Partners, Praying Scripture, Prayer of Recollection, Prayer Walking

SixDallas Willard inspires me to do this work in order to prepare for living as Jesus prepared.    “The secret to the easy yoke, then, is to learn from Jesus Christ how to live our total lives, how to invest all our time and our energies of mind and body as he did.  We must learn how to follow his preparations, the disciplines for life in God’s rule that enabled him to receive his Father’s constant and effective support while doing his will” (The Spirit of the Disciplines, 1988, p. 9).   The disciplines Willard notices in Jesus’ life are divided into 1) disciplines of abstinence: solitude, silence, fasting, frugality, chastity, secrecy, and sacrifice and 2) disciplines of engagement: study, worship, celebration, service, prayer, fellowship, confession, and submission.  Engaging my time and energy in these ways means I can eventually do more of what Jesus did.

Learning to Accept God’s Invitation

What does it mean, to do what Jesus did?  At the Vineyard Church where I worship, it often means that we call on God to heal and even raise people from the dead, and that we expect those miracles will come to pass.  We learn to pray confident prayers with our eyes open, expecting the Holy Spirit to blow life into us.  Prayer times at the Vineyard can get very exciting.

Henri Nouwen has a very different idea.  Speaking to Christian leaders, he points out the depth of Jesus’ humility.  Jesus chose NOT to be relevant, NOT to be approved of and popular, NOT to be powerful.  He chose solidarity with the irrelevant, the rejected and the weak.  He chose to walk toward these men and women and love them.  And with the right preparation and commitment, we can do the same:  Nouwen sees an “image of the praying leader, the vulnerable leader, and the trusting leader (In the Name of Jesus, 1989, p. 93).”  This vision, he says, “awaits realization in the future,” and thus requires our patience, our surrender to God’s time.

Jesus suffered deep betrayal, he was misunderstood and finally killed.  Doing what Jesus did means walking toward that same scene, accepting what comes, listening to what the Father says. “Do not be afraid,” the Father says.   Jesus’ life trained him to see past his fear in Gethsemane.  How can I learn that way of being?  Can I become so tuned in to my Father’s confidence and control that my words become those of Jesus?  “Not my will, Father, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).  Or the words of his mother Mary?  “May it be unto me as you have said” (Luke 1:38).

It seems strange to focus so much on preparation at the ripe age of 62.  But after twenty years of being immersed in the Vineyard culture of power healing, the spiritual disciplines draw me into another world of quiet, waiting, compassion and service.  I am regularly saddened at the unwillingness within my heart to give “all I have to the poor, and follow” Jesus.  I am still afraid.  But rather than desolating in shame and being angrily disgusted with my self-protective desires, I am learning to simply notice the resistance and speak about it with the One who keeps the fire, the One who gave me everything I have.  I know Jesus wants to bring me into the fullness and healing He made me for.  I need to make my desires known and then get out of the way.

In Mark 10, the blind beggar Bartimaeus was certain of Jesus’ desire to heal him.  He didn’t hesitate to shout for Jesus when he heard he was near.  And when the crowd told him to be quiet, he shouted even louder.  Jesus heard Bartimaeus and invited him to come.  He tore off his cloak, probably the only thing he owned, and rushed to Jesus.  He gave up everything he owned and forsook his comfortable habits.  Without looking back, Bartimaeus followed the One who made him see.

“Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner!” Bartimaeus shouted.  And then Jesus spoke.   I am learning to listen when Jesus asks me in the middle of the night and then again in the middle of the day, “David, what do you want me to do for you?”  I listen not just for Jesus’ question, but inside myself, for my answer.  What do I want?  And how badly do I want it?  What do I desire?  What fire in my belly is Jesus there to stoke?

As I was growing up I called myself an “experiential materialist.”  Life always has seemed so full, and I wanted a piece of everything.  Phillip Sheldrake says that isn’t all bad:

We will never come to know our deepest desire except through attention to the many desires … “I have so many desires, I don’t know what to do with them.”  But it is in fearless engagement with this confusion, rather than simply by some activity of our rational, detached intellect, that we move toward our center.  The many desires are staging posts on a journey toward what is most true in us. – Befriending Our Desires, p. 92

Yet, as Rolheiser points out, “Søren Kierkegaard once defined a saint as someone who can will the one thing … Mother Teresa’s fiery eros was poured out for God and the poor.  That was her signature, her spirituality.  It made her what she was” (Holy Longing, p. 8).

What makes me what I am?

In March 2009 I left the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette.  Since high school I have worked with one newspaper after another.  I loved the adrenalin that rushed through all of us working together as deadlines neared.  I loved the variety and uncertainty of investigating for, writing, editing, typesetting, and distributing newspapers.  When 90 carriers worked for me, I carried a beeper and responded to all the emergencies.  It was exciting.

In March 2009 I sat with my family and told them I wanted to de-adrenalize my life.  I wanted to do less and be more.  In Falling Upward Richard Rohr calls that the beginning of the second half of life.  It is the first step toward living out of your “true self.”  Is this the beginning of knowing my desire?

“Being” is not something to “work” toward, to set goals about, to “try harder” to achieve.  It’s precisely not that.  I am learning to sit.  To wait in checkout lines and stalled traffic with awareness and intention.  To breathe more deeply.  Fold my hands and settle.  Day by day, one breath prayer after another rises up in my mind.  I repeat them.

My mind is responding to this much more slowly than my body.  My mind flies off the handle and then flies back again.  My mind wants to read book after book about the disciplines while my body tries to get just a little time to do them!  The negotiations aren’t going all that well yet, but there is what Sue Monk Kidd calls an “all-right-ness” inside me that will win over even my busy busy brain.

How badly do I want to accept Jesus’ invitation?  I find myself admiring those who seem to want it more than I do, and that’s a start.  For a couple of weeks I have been watching a few minutes of the film “Into Great Silence” each night as I go to bed.   I look forward to watching it all in a 164-minute piece, with the lights out, on as big a screen as I can find.  The monks at the Grand Charterhouse of the Carthusians live in perpetual silence, broken only on weekly walks in the surrounding French Alps. Even the barbers do not speak.  They work with each other, they study, they chant their worship.  The day turns to night, and the night turns to day, and the monks get older, and they absorb the universal language of silence, speaking more and more clearly (I hope) with God.

One of the monks was granted permission to give an interview.  He is nearly 90, he is blind, his voice is wispy and small.  And his words echo in my soul:

The past, the present, these are human. In God there is no past. Solely the present prevails. And when God sees us, He always sees our entire life. And because He is an infinitely good being, He eternally seeks our well-being. Therefore there is no cause for worry in any of the things which happen to us … The closer one brings oneself to God, the happier one is. It is the end purpose of our lives. The closer one brings oneself to God, the happier one is, and the faster one hurries to meet Him.

Into Great Silence moves through winter into spring into summer and into winter again, and I grow softly quiet. Between some scenes an inter-title card – written in English, French and German – provides just a few words: “Anyone who does not give up all he has cannot be my disciple.”  And from the groanings of Jeremiah, “Lord, You have seduced me, and I was seduced.”

In my reading I find one ancient sentence quoted over and over:  Julian of Norwich’s confident assurance, “All shall be well, and all shall be well, and every manner of being shall be well.”  Of course she does not mean that my life or her life is easy.  She means, as Sue Monk Kidd puts it, that “where it counts – on the inside where we are fed and loved by God – all will be well.  There we find an ‘all-right-ness’ that transcends our wants and wishes” (God’s Joyful Surprise, p. 247).

Thanksgiving has come, and Advent and Christmas are coming, and this most wonderful year in my life nears its end.  This year I began to sit and wait and listen much more than before, and I am learning to be loved … and then to love.  I remember long-gone, far more innocent days when I believed every word spoken by Sun Myung Moon, when I joyfully gave up my life to be his disciple in the Unification Church (shortened from “Holy Spirit Association for the Unification of World Christianity”).

But I never learned to love him the way I saw some of my Japanese and Korean sisters love him.  We all mixed him up with Jesus, and we wanted to love Jesus too.  But I was afraid to love like that.  My sweet sisters cried such great tears, and wanted more than anything to please God.  Their lives were surrendered much more deeply than was mine.  So many long years ago, I remember wanting to know their way, but I never did.

Until … just a taste but surely coming … until now.  “Do not be afraid …”


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Barton, Ruth Haley.  Sacred Rhythms.  Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2006.

Barton, Ruth Haley.  Sacred Rhythms, Participants Guide.  Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011.

Barton, Ruth Haley.  Sacred Rhythms DVD.  Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2011.

Barton, Ruth Haley. Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership.  Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2008.

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Eliot, T. S. “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Waste Land and Other Poems.  New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1934.

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Willard, Dallas. The Spirit of the Disciplines.  New York: HarperCollins, 1988.

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