Tag Archives: spiritual growth

How to Move a Foundation

The first flaw in our new home build was a big one!  Before we broke ground, I had flagged off several possibilities for how to situate the home on our house site.  I met with the builder, and explained that we’d chosen the option with a north-northeast direction (the stakes with two flags)—NOT the direct north-south orientation (the stakes with one flag).  Within a couple of days, the foundation sub-contractor had come in and carefully pinpointed the exact corners of the house footprint.  I was so excited to go see, with precision, the view out my bedroom window, and the location of the front porch!  But as I stood in the field on the “front porch,” it didn’t feel quite right.  I pulled out my compass.  Sure enough, the house was oriented on a due north-south direction.  He’d used the wrong set of stakes!

Thankfully, no footings had been dug, no concrete had been poured.  The contractor owned his mistake, and paid the sub to come back and spend another day laying out the right footprint for the house.  Four lightning-quick weeks later—after the basement had been dug, the footers poured, and the basement walls poured—I stood on the front porch space and thought, “What if I hadn’t caught this mistake?  What if we discovered it now, and had to rotate the entire foundation of this house twenty-two and a half degrees towards the east?  It wouldn’t be happening—unless I had a magic wand!”

We were a week and a half into pandemic isolation at that time, and everything was wrong.  I couldn’t visit my parents’ house.  My carefully-laid plans were trashed.  I was forced to interact with people through a screen.  My introverted batteries were drained by the incessant noise of a house full of children.  I watched helplessly as my remaining months of sabbatical leave were being hijacked by increasing family and work demands.   Outwardly, I tried to be positive.  Inwardly, I was a little boy who, halfway through enjoying a banana split, found that someone had replaced the bananas with dill pickles, and was forced to keep eating it.  I was angry, bitter and resentful.  My recurring thought was, “No!  This can’t be happening!”  But it was.  And I couldn’t do a thing about it.

I also couldn’t do anything about my “No!” orientation to this new normal.  I wanted to change my heart—to learn to say, “Yes!” to what was happening—but couldn’t muster the willpower.  In my heart-of-hearts, I knew this change was essential if I was to survive this pandemic without going off my rocker!  So I went looking for the magic mystery pill which might move my heart.  I prayed the Serenity Prayer: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can…”  Nothing happened.  I doubled-down on my daily, twenty-minute centering prayer sessions.  Nothing changed.  I opened my Bible, looking for a word of grace that would open the skies of my soul to rainbows and sunshine.  Nothing.  I even added a second day of fasting for the week (one of my Lenten disciplines).  Nothing changed.  The ground of my being was as firmly fixed as a two-year-old being told to share his toys:  “NO!  I refuse to accept this!  I will not surrender!  I will NOT give in!  I demand my old life back!”

Then one Wednesday it happened.  Sometime mid-morning, as I was responding to some urgent emails, my youngest son came in asking me to help him with his spelling.  “Sure,” I said.  After we did the spelling lesson, he asked, “Could you help me with these long division problems?”  “Yeah, sure.”  Later, as I was helping my kids make lunch, it occurred to me:  Something is different here.  My heart had shifted.  I found myself embracing reality as it was—not as I wanted it to be.  I felt joy as it dawned on me:  “My whole orientation has changed.  After weeks of, ‘No!’ I am suddenly saying, ‘Yes!’ to what is.”

The foundation of my life shifted that day.  I’d been helpless to reorient the house of my life.  And yet, by a power greater than myself, I now found myself on new footings, with my whole approach and perspective changed.  I had moved from opposition to acceptance, from pessimism to trust, from despair to hope, from self-centeredness to love.  Jesus said, “If you have faith the size of a mustard seed, you will say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move; and nothing will be impossible for you” (Matthew 17:20).  I like to think I had commanded the mountain of my own life to be moved, but that wasn’t true.  It was God’s doing.  But the mustard seed of my faith did play a part.  I longed for a new orientation, and gave God space each day to work at making that happen.  Through spiritual practices, I was giving God the time to do some demolition in the basement of my life, and to do the impossible:  to dig new footers.  God could certainly do that without my efforts–whether instantly, or over time.  It’s God’s work, but still…it also involves me.

Once upon a time, I did spiritual activities because they made me feel good.  (To a certain degree, that’s still true.)  But I’m understanding more and more that prayer, scripture reading, meditation, etc. are less about the immediate results.  These practices deepen my capacity for grace—a grace which can build a foundation that’s firm and solid, and yet flexible, nimble and resilient.  It can even take a poorly positioned life, uproot it, and reorient it in such a way that it will stand through the storm, and even dance in the rain.  Sure, I still have moments when I shift back into old ways.  But in the end, grace prevails.

A Feast of One

I believe in the power of Christian community to grow faith and the spiritual life.  As a preacher, I’ve often said with certitude, “There’s no such thing as a single, solitary Christian!  You can no more be a solo Christian than a finger lopped off from the body.”  But five weeks into COVID-isolation, I’m rethinking the connection between believer and body.

To be fair, Jesus calls his followers into community.  During his ministry, Jesus’ followers numbered as many as seventy-two people.  The new covenant of his blood was shared at table with the Twelve.  He asked Peter, James and John to stay awake with him as he prayed in Gethsemane.  Hanging on the cross, Jesus told (presumably) John that his mother, Mary, was now John’s mother—creating adoptive family among the disciples.  As I like to say to people joining the church, “Jesus has called you into communion with himself—which means you’re stuck with all these other people Jesus has gathered to him.  The church is the laboratory in which you learn how to love the unlovable.  It’s where Jesus schools us in how to love our neighbor as ourselves.”

I still believe these things to be true.  But this season of social distancing has opened my eyes to something else equally as true:  separation and solitude are just as essential to faith and spiritual growth.  “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me” (Luke 9:23).  I stumble over the word “daily.”  The choice to follow Jesus is not a once-and-for-all moment.  It’s a daily decision.  A choice to seek God—to read the scriptures, to be in prayer, to be still in God’s presence, to listen for Christ’s voice, to do whatever foolish and risky thing that voice may be calling you to do (without putting others at risk, I would add!).  As a student of contemplation, I believe this also includes periods of solitude.  Jesus fasted and prayed in the wilderness for forty days.  With regularity, he retreated from the crowds to deserted places to pray.  If Jesus did this to stay grounded in God, how much more do I need to!  Jesus included this part of the journey when he said, “Follow me.”  Imitate me, and how I deepen my capacity to know, love and obey God by spending time alone with God.  Relationships are built on trust.  And trust takes an investment of time.

On Easter our family worshiped with Trinity Church, Boston.  (Thank God for YouTube!)  While in seminary, my wife and I frequented this grand church’s Holy Week and Easter services.  As we settled into the live stream, we were a little disappointed.  Except for some inspiring organ music, with images of their stained-glass windows, none of the prerecorded service was in their beautiful, cavernous sanctuary.  It was all done from the rectory and homes of the parishioners.  Dozens of choir members offered Zoom-like anthems and hymns from the safety of their homes.  (Even the organists played from instruments in their own studios!)  Various clergy offered prayers and readings from their home offices.  I began to sense how beautiful and touching this was, in itself.  Even when driven asunder by pandemic, the church was being the body of Christ.  The church is not a building, but a people.

But what unhinged me was the “communion” liturgy.  Sitting at his dining room table, with a plate of food (including a bottle of Tobasco and shaker of LSU Geaux Dust; he was obviously a Louisianan!), the rector explained that the meal they would experience was not the customary eucharistic celebration.  He explained how God was present in each home, at each table as people gathered for their Easter meal.  What followed was a long series of parishioners who’d snapped video sitting at their dining room tables, with food on their plates, and drink in their cups, reciting a portion of a rewritten eucharistic liturgy.  Some tables included parents and children, or spouses and partners.  But many had only one place setting, only one person—an icon of how social isolation has led some into solitude.  As the pastor concluded this liturgical mosaic, he evoked as a gift those who gather at a table where their only companion is the Risen Lord.

For all the beauty of community and communion and fellowship—from sanctuaries filled with thousands of worshipers, to home-based small groups—at the heart of the Christian faith is the individual abiding in a relationship of trust with the Living Lord.  Without this, the community of faith is not much more than just a community.  Perhaps those of us in the church have become so enamored with the beloved traditions, institutional grandeur, inspiring music, high-impact productions, fellowship events, feel-good missions, etc., that we’ve taken our eye off the main thing:  people who seek, encounter and follow Jesus in their daily lives.  The real work of discipleship—the life of faith—is learning how to listen for and follow the Spirit’s leading Monday through Saturday.  This is how the church gets imbued with the fragrance of Christ.

What is God teaching me amid this crisis?  That perhaps I’ve got it wrong in assuming that gathering Christians together is somehow the way disciples of Jesus are made.  Mike Breen put it this way (and, if you’re a church person, I’ll warn you that this is hard to swallow):  “If you make disciples, you always get the church.  But if you make a church, you rarely get disciples.  We need to understand the church as the effect of discipleship and not the cause.” (Building a Discipling Culture, p. 5)  Jesus told his followers, “Go and make disciples” (Matthew 28:19).  But about the church, Jesus said, “I will build my church” (Matthew 16:18; also see 1 Peter 2:4-5).  Jesus builds the community of faith—not us.  It is an outgrowth of individuals who seek and follow Jesus to the point that they find themselves in communion with others who are doing the same.  As they say, “Birds of a feather flock together.”

In this respect, the church is a grace—a gift that Jesus is giving to the world.  He collects each of us one-by-one, folds us together, salt of the earth, quietly slipping in the yeast of the Spirit, kneads the dough of our collective lives, lets it rise, bakes, takes, blesses, breaks and gives us as the bread of life to a hungry world.  It’s not something we can make or fake.  It begins with Jesus’ initiative.  He comes to each of us with the invitation: “Follow me.”

Here is a gift for the receiving.  If you’re a seeker of God, offer some of the bandwidth of your life to Jesus…daily.  If you’re a formerly-regular church-goer, let your hunger for Christian community drive you into the desert…daily.  Go for a walk with Jesus.  Speak with him about what burdens you.  Listen for his voice in the silence.  Break open your Bible and read it.  Try doing what you sense he’s asking you to do.  Sure, when the time is right, connect with others online.  (I’ll say more about this in a future post.)  But perhaps your calling now is to enter into your closet to seek Christ in this intimate space.  Allow grace and time to deepen the trust between you.  It’s been my survival strategy in this crisis.  Yes, I can’t wait to gather with people again—my Jesus-peeps, neighbors, friends and family.  But for now, I press into the desert of social isolation, trusting the One I meet there will press me back into community when the time is right.