Two Pharaohs:  Joseph’s Pharaoh in Genesis 47, and the next one we read in the story in Exodus 1.  The LORD has used Joseph to save Pharaoh’s country and make him wealthy and powerful.  Joseph’s Pharaoh loves and respects him. When Joseph presents his alien father and brothers to Pharaoh he welcomes them.

A few hundred years later a new leader rises to power (Exodus 1:8-22).  He doesn’t remember history.  He is afraid of these immigrants.  They are outnumbering the Egyptians.  They could conspire with their enemies.  They will definitely shift the balance of power in the country. So he comes up with a plan that is described as “ruthless” , “oppression”, “afflicting them with heavy burdens”, making “their lives bitter”.  When this fails to work he resorts to murder.

Normally, when I read these stories I identify with the hero, Joseph.  But I recently heard a fiery, passionate sermon by an Hispanic preacher that caused me to shift my perspective.  He was preaching from Genesis 42 and started talking about life right now. Where common, everyday people who just want to live life, love, and raise a family are put in extraordinary situations. They don’t make laws. They don’t run countries. Being on the lowest rungs of society they must flee to survive.  Because of a famine (Gen 42) of justice and opportunity they are forced to enter a foreign land.  Their labor and husbandry skills are put to use.

But times change.  After 9/11 honest concerns arise about enemies coming across the border.  The market effects of our insatiable appetite for drugs and the increasingly ruthless people needed to supply them feeds corruption and violence.  The xenophobia that historically meets every generation of new immigrants in the US grows more and more strident.

New leaders want to rise in power.  Feeding on the fear of those who perceived that these foreigners are  growing too numerous, they repeat an ages old script. They are ruthless, oppressive, and lay heavy burdens on the immigrants.  They take away their driver’s licenses.  They make deals with taskmasters – private corporations who make billions from taxpayers by putting people in cages.  They threaten their futures by among other things higher tuition rates.   They use them as political scapegoats to gain power by preying upon prejudices and fears. Many of these leaders consider themselves “people of the Book”, and even have positions of responsibility in the Church.  They read their Bible and assume they are on God’s side. I know, I’ve talked with them here in Georgia and in Washington DC.

A surface reading of the story allows someone to see what they want to see.  But words and actions, thoughts and intentions tell the real story.  Neither the political leaders nor I are immigrants fleeing famine.  We are not even the first generation who welcomed migrating Israel into the land.  The political leaders making hay at the expense of immigrants are, in fact, the Pharaoh of Exodus chapter 1.  As a member of the same society, so am I.

Yet behind the veil of human perception is the will of God in the movement of history.  Hundreds of years before this story God told Abraham exactly what he was going to do and how long it would last (Gen 15:13-16).  We see the arch of history sorting and clarifying who the promised Messiah in Gen 3 will be.  We see God preparing a people and the world for the greatest, most significant event in all of human history – the birth and ministry of this Messiah.

So it is today.  Acts 17:26-27 tells us that God establishes and moves people to where they need to be in order that they might find him, reach out to him, and hopefully be saved.  With an estimated 24% of the world’s population in flux from the places of their birth we can discern with great confidence the purposes of God.  We can either be part of it, or – like the Exodus Pharaoh – be crushed by it.

My prayer is that we will all get on God’s side of history.  That we will treat others as the LORD has treated us – with mercy, grace, and welcome.  That we will stop rewarding greedy, political opportunists who prey on fear and prejudice.  And here is the biggest effect of my change in perspective from no longer being the hero of the story – my prayers are tearful intercessions of repentance.  They are not emotionally neutered assumptions of my own favor and goodness.  They are for a nation I love that – on this issue anyway – is on the wrong side of the story.  I don’t want my children to pay the price of the Exodus Pharaoh, but to enjoy the blessings of Joseph’s Pharaoh.  I encourage all believers to pray, act and speak out so that we can.

I don’t know if it is a function of getting older, but I find myself reading things I have read a hundred times before but that now carry a weight, a gravity, that totally escaped me in the past. Today it was the Methodist Covenant Prayer:

“I am no longer my own, but Thine
Put me to what Thou wilt,
Put me to doing, put me to suffering;
Let me be employed for Thee
Or laid aside for Thee;
Let me be exalted for Thee,
Or brought low for Thee;
Let me be full, let me be empty;
Let me have all things,
Let me have nothing;
I freely and heartily yield all things
to Thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed Go,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
Thou art mine, and I am Thine.
So be it.
And the covenant
Which I have made on earth,
Let it be ratified in heaven.
Amen.

I have tried to live this out my entire Christian life (The Lord brought me to himself through the ministry of a United Methodist Church in college). But for some reason today was different. Even as I have left careers to follow the Lord, relocated my church and family, and done everything I know to be faithful; I realize the difference between my obedience and confession and the depths of my heart.

I am not one of those overly conspicuous, hyper-conscientious Christians who constantly questions himself and his motives. I love, believe, preach, and exalt in the Reformed commitment to grace upon grace. Grace in salvation. Grace in growth. Grace unto eternity.

This is not about God’s goodness or eternal purposes. It’s the simple revelation, the glaring fact, that I don’t love him to the same degree that I talk about loving him. It’s also about the fact that I know a lot more about the actual cost of prayers like these. They are not academic, light, casual requests. They cost. They actually hurt. But they also have to be prayed with intention to obey, or they’re useless piety.

All of this doesn’t cause me despair. It brings humility. It forces me to quite believing my own press releases. It drives me back to the very first fact of the gospel – he loved me first, while I was still an enemy in my heart and will. He saved me and he promises to grow me up.

So I confess. I ask for the ability to repent because I don’t really know what I’m turning from. Just that I need to.

I pray one of the very first prayers I was ever taught thirty-something years ago, “Lord, help.”

I have had two amazing events in the past month that have really challenged and blessed me.

The first event was the Respect & Dignity March in early September. 3500 people rallied for Comprehensive Immigration Reform. But before all the people gathered I was standing alone watching the preparations, and I started thinking about what I would share if I ever spoke at one of these things. Totally egotistical I know, but there it is.

I was watching a father talk to his kids about what this was all about as young women walked around with clip boards for petitions, and different groups from different parts of the state were recongized and greeted. I realized that I was watching people take their own fate in their own hands to make a better world.  If I ever got the chance to say anything that I would simple say, “Thank you.”

Thank you for inviting me into your struggle, because it moves me from apathy (a word that means without or avoiding suffing) to compassion (sharing the suffering of others).  Not that the sharing is equal.  Far from it.  But what you have done is graciously opened a door that I cannot open myself.  A door that is another step in the process of stripping away the blinders from my eyes and my mind that comes from a set of privileges, lifestyle, and understanding that is contrary to God’s Kingdom and the life Jesus tells us to live.  Without this door and the dozens of others that are found in relationships outside of the halls of power I would continue to fill in the words of scripture with the definitions of my own mythology.  I would continue to remake the Kingdom of God into one that suits my own preferences.  Thank you for being God’s gracious gift in my redemption and in the continual process of maturing and freeing people like me.

The other event was the response of my friend David and other Asian -American leaders to the insensitivity and mockery of evangelical Christian leaders.  It reminded me of the vital importance of truth-telling if people are to be truly free from their blind, self-serving ways. It reminded me that true compassion is a lifestyle of repentance and effort to right a world gone wrong by privilege and presumption.  It isn’t just a result, but a way to relate to a broken world full of broken people that can both prevent more damage and  bring healing. Sadly, the most consistent result is exactly what you see in Rick Warren – a defiant, can’t-you-take-a-joke dismissal – that shows a refusal to listen.  Which simple amplifies the original complaint of insensitivity and ignorance in perpetuating racial stereotypes.

So I find myself thoughtful and thankful for brothers and sisters who take the risks to speak up and step out against the tides of culture. People who don’t perpetuate the sins they endure by inviting people into their struggle, into solutions that if people would lay down their pride would go to great lengths in making the church more of what it is suppose to be.

[note: lifestyle repentance is not worm theology that denies Christ’s work and says people have to wallow in shame.  Rather it is the theological pattern of turning away from corruption and embracing grace and new life.  It is the practice of initial conversion becoming ongoing conversion and renewal.]

Immigration is big, complex, important issue.  There are a lot of misconceptions about the economics, policies, and practices of immigration in the US.  I enjoy talking about all of these.  However, when it comes to the church I am finding a few points that I return to on a regular basis.  Here is a typical example from a presentation I recently prepared.

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In explaining his expansion from traditional evangelical concerns to the wider issues of poverty, AIDS, and literacy pastor Rick Warren – already through seminary, ordained and successful in ministry – exclaimed that somehow he had never really noticed the over 2000 references to the poor in scripture. But when he did, it changed everything.

For many Christians, and especially those who consider themselves evangelical Christians, the same can be said about what the scriptures teach about immigration and immigrants. They just don’t see it. When they do, like Rick Warren, it usually changes everything.

Not seeing issue clearly makes particular sense with immigration, because of the differences between the Biblical language of stranger, alien, and sojourner and contemporary titles and categories such as immigrant, immigration, migration, etc. We don’t see the words we’re used to seeing, so we don’t see the issues.

Fortunately, we have Bible scholars and preachers such as Waltke, Carroll, Bloomberg, Motyer, Keller and others who build the bridge between biblical language and modern life. Tim Keller writes in Generous Justice that the phrase found throughout the old testament to summarize God’s concern for the poor is typically (literally) translated, “do not oppress the widow, the fatherless, the sojourner, or the poor” (Zechariah 7:10).  However, a more accurate  translation for modern ears is,  “do not oppress the widow or the fatherless, the immigrant or the poor.”  When we do make the right translation we see God’s heart in scripture clearly.

Here are some other examples:

Lev 24:22 –   “You shall have the same rule for the immigrant and for the native, for I am the LORD your God.”

Deut 10:17-18 –  “The Lord your God…defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the immigrant, giving him food and clothing.

Deut 27:19 – “Cursed be anyone who withholds the justice due to the immigrant, the fatherless, and the widow. Then all the people shall say, “Amen!”

Jer 22:3 – “This is what the LORD says: “Do what is just and right. Rescue from the hand of the oppressor the one who has been robbed. Do no wrong or violence to the immigrant, the fatherless, or the widow, and do not shed innocent blood…”

Psalm 146:7-9 – “He executes justice for the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The LORD sets prisoners free, the LORD gives sight to the blind, he lifts up those who are bowed down, the LORD loves those who live justly. The LORD watches over the immigrant and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked.”

This idea of helping the poor and the oppressed – named specifically as widows, the fatherless, the immigrant, and the poor – is part of a much bigger picture of God’s nature that is found in the guiding ideas of Shalom (peace), Justice, and Righteousness that make up God’s Reign and Rule (Kingdom).  How we treat the immigrant is how we understand the nature of God and his Kingdom.

Also, shockingly for many of us, this also means that we need to upgrade how we see ourselves. For the Bible calls us to both identify ourselves as strangers and aliens as well as to live as strangers and aliens. King David in presenting the materials for the Temple that his son, Solomon, will build proclaims in 1 Chronicles 29:15 that he and all Israel are exiles and immigrants.  It is part of their identity and confession before God.

In the New Testament the writer Hebrews ascribes to God’s people the same fundamental identity when he writes in 11:13, “These all died in faith, not having received the things promised, but having seen them and greeted them from afar, and having acknowledged that they were strangers and exiles on the earth… If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. There God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.”  The writer is admonishing and encouraging his readers to have the same commitment and endurance as the OT saints, which requires the same understanding of who we are – immigrants of another land who don’t completely fit in or belong to this culture.

Related to this is something much deeper.  For many of us the challenge is not seeing life or ourselves through the lens of scripture, but through our preferences, our politics, and our fears. We do not have the scriptural understanding of Shalom, of Justice, or of Righteousness so we find ourselves in opposition to God’s values and ethics. In this sense, immigration is not just a political or economic issue for evangelicals (although it is both of these things). For Christians who desire biblical integrity the issue of immigration is a prophetic call, a loving invitation, to lives informed more by God’s word than lives informed by the politics of fear and division (or oblivious self-interest). To use more Biblical language we need to learn to live out on earth our citizenship which is in heaven.

My pastoral heart in the issue of immigration is with those suffering and with God’s people. I want relieve the suffering, fear, and isolation of immigrants.  I also passionately desire that God’s people will reflect God heart of compassion and favor for immigrants.  We need immigration reform to make a better system that is line with (1) the world we live in, (2) the economics that drive and sustain us, and (3) the ethics that God requires in loving, protecting, and caring for the immigrant.

Moving into areas with needs and putting yourself in a place to help with those needs is good and right. Many times it’s a blessing. Even the battles I have with myself over being judgmental and condescending are good. They help me confront the dark edges I hide under the veil of good works and sacrifice. But today I really hit a hard bump.

The details don’t matter. A guy came knocking at the church door. His Communicycle bike broke down and he needed help. I get it. But then the con began. I recognized it immediately. Sometimes I cut right through them and ask what they need so we can see what to do. Today I just groaned inside and let him spin his story.  All the time thinking that I was interrupted from work,  I had a headache from the dentist, my to do list just keeps growing, that I’m constantly praying about my own transitions in work and ministry without this addict playing his addict games.  On top of it all the AC isn’t working in the office. Blah, blah, blah… this guy and his lame, inconsistent story. I just didn’t care.

I know it happens. I also know it’s not right. It’s one thing to be in a position where you just are not able to help someone. That happens a LOT. It’s another to be contemptuous and dismissive of someone. It was an interesting, disappointing glimpse into my heart.

Living and working in higher need communities is an interesting discipleship. It’s hard just get here. To actually think about moving and then actually relocating seems to take forever. And once you do, the harder work starts. All the things you could hide about yourself through a life-style of distance and distraction you can’t hide anymore. It’s there. It’s ugly. It’s true.

So you take the truth and go to God, confess your short-comings and needs, try to learn, look to make things right, and keep on going.

I’m sharing all of this because it’s true, and also to help dispel the myth that there is something more noble about working in places like this, or that people who do work like this are somehow more committed or more loving. It’s just not true (even if we wish it was). It underscores a vital point – Jesus takes you to places because you need those places and people much more than they need you.

Let me make a important clarification – while being here doesn’t make you a better person or a better Christian than those living in more affluence, I think it does make discipleship easier and maturity more attainable precisely because it’s more confrontational to your sense of self. I honestly prefer this to the suffocating lies I wrapped myself in before I got here. Places like this don’t let you wrap yourself in too many lies for too long. They have a tendency to take you to your limits and expose who you really are. Like the guy who knocked earlier.

Bottom line: Follow Jesus wherever he decides to take you. The scriptures are clear about what those places are like. Just don’t think you win any points by doing what you are told, or by comparing yourself to people who are not doing what you’re doing. They’re God’s business. It’s hard enough to stay true to the Lord and his ways without evasion through comparison or ideal worship (yes, I meant to write ideal since that is the  particular form of idol worship I was confronted with).

So If you’ll excuse me, I need to go deal with this hard heart.

P.S. Yes, I am still doing my contemplative prayer times, and I’m pretty sure they’re to blame for all of this!  <LOL>

My understanding of the spiritual life – of life – is finding the balancing point between competing demands and making necessary adjustments as things change.  I think psychologists call this resiliency. It’s living in tension without being tense.  Like a guitar string in tune that is anchored but adjustable.  It’s doesn’t stay in tune once for all, but can be kept in tune as conditions of the string, the weather, the playing, etc wear on it.

In my life as a Jesus follower it means living in the fullness of unearned mercy and grace and also actively bringing about the actions that the mercy and grace motivate me toward (i.e. works).  It is being both Mary sitting at Jesus’ feet and Martha serving the guests.  It is the “going” of the Great Commission combined with the rest of Sabbath.  It is Paul’s faith apart from works and Jame’s faith by  works.  You don’t pick and chose.  You (hopefully) find the right order and balance in “both/and.”

We’re even hard-wired this way.  Our brains have both alpha and beta waves.  Beta being the calculating, counting, problem solving, focused aspect; and the alpha which is the unfocused, open, passively aware aspect of our minds.

While I am an individual I am not just an individual.  I am also part of the larger cultural milieu in which I live.  As a western evangelical this means an overwhelming focus on propositional ideas, planning, intercessory prayer, and focus on people and ideas.  Combine this with my own codependent and passive-aggressive tendencies (which always position the self in response to others) and it means that I live a good 97% of the time on one side of the line – the beta, focused, active side.

This is why the contemplative teachings of the faith are so particularly relevant and important for me.  I know it’s not true of other gift-mixes and personalities, but it is for me.  The codependent/passive-aggressiveness especially needs the calm distance that contemplation provides to even be aware of the regularly toxic way those thought processes spins false stories and “noise”.

This is why Martin Laird’s “Into the Silent Land” is such a helpful read for people like me.  He summarizes my reality so well, and points the way out of the boxes I think my way into.  In his chapter “The Wild Hawk of the Mind” he tells the story of man walking four dogs.  Three of them ran fast, free and all about.  The third ran in circles, never far off.  When he asked about it the man told him that the fourth dog had lived most of it’s life in a cage and could only exercise by running in circles. He writes:

“This event has always stayed with me as a powerful metaphor of the human condition. For indeed we are free, as the Psalmist insists, “My heart like a bird has escaped the snare of the fowler” (Ps 123:7).  But the memory of the cage remains.  And so we run in tight, little circles, even while immersed in open fields of grace and freedom.

“The minds obsessive running in tight circles generates and sustains the anguish that forms the mental cage in which we live much of our lives — or what we take to be our lives.  This cage can be comfortable enough; that dog wagged its tail all day long.  But the long-term effects on humans can still be pretty damaging.  It makes us believe we are separated from God.  God then becomes an object somewhere over there in the distance and as much in need of appeasement as praise.  This tyrant-god is generated by the illusion of separateness and requires us to live in a mental prison (however lavishly furnished).  It makes us believe that we are alone shameful, stupid, afraid, unloveable.  We believe this lie, and our life becomes a cocktail party of posturing masquerade in order to hide the anxiety and ignorance of who we truly are.”

None of this is completely new to me (although the story was).  It wasn’t so much new as timely.  But I desperately needed the reminder.

Laird’s next chapters are on “Three Doorways” and “The Riddles of Distraction.”  These were the missing puzzle pieces for me.  While the number three is arbitrary in a process as individual and meandering as spiritual maturity, the general principle is very helpful.  It describes how the silence (which is more than lack of external or internal noise) shapes and changes as we grow.  If we don’t appreciate this, we quickly give up, think we’re failing, etc, when in fact we are right where we are suppose to be – which I think describes most of my spiritual walk.  I was encouraged when I realized that it was my romanticism with what I thought contemplation should be that was wrong, not my practice.  I don’t know that confessing boredom or distraction is a ringing endorsement, but knowing that I wasn’t totally screwing up was big for me.

What was particularly brilliant is the teaching on how the distractions are both bane and boon.  They are bane to us because they assault our egos and self image, but boon in the hands of God who is freeing us for something greater.  The Lord uses them as gifts to graciously mature his children.  Laird goes into specifics about all of this.

It was the nature of “noise” that has stuck with me.  The reality of who I actually am is assailed and denied by the story I tell about myself and the “noise” of my scars, misunderstandings, and the world around me – all of which operate on very different principles and purposes than God’s kingdom.   Laird writes,

“The marvelous world of thoughts, sensation, emotions, and inspiration, the spectacular world of creation around us, are all patterns of stunning weather on the holy mountain of God.  But we are not the weather.  We are the mountain.  Weather is happening – delightful sunshine, dull sky, or destructive storm – this is undeniable.  But if we are the weather happening on Mount Zion (and most of us do precisely this with our attention riveted to the video), then the fundamental truth of our union with God remains obscured and our sense of painful alienation heightened.  When the mind is brought to stillness we see that we are the mountain and not the changing patterns of weather appearing on the mountain.  We are the awareness in which thoughts and feelings (what we take to be ourselves) appear like so much weather on Mount Zion.  For a lifetime we have taken this weather – our thoughts and feelings – to be ourselves, taken ourselves to be this video to which the attention is riveted.  Stillness reveals that we are the silent, vast awareness in which the video is playing.  To glimpse this fundamental truth is to be liberated, to be set free from the fowler’s snare (Ps 123:7) ‘Whoever trusts in the Lord is like Mount Zion: Unshakable, it stands forever” (Ps 125:1).  “Mount Zion, true pole of the earth, the great King’s city” (Ps 48:2).

A practical example might help. A week or so ago I was reaching out to a very close friend who was obviously struggling and anxious.  Their response was quick, terse, and ugly.  It really took me back.  I turned away and walked away really hurt.  My mind reached back into my bag of experiences and pulled out all my rejections, abandonment issues, fears, and failings.  I couldn’t even think straight (remember I am a well-practiced codependent/passive-aggressive mess).

When I went back the next day to reach out again, I got a similar but not as heated reaction.  This never happens to me.  When it happened a third time, I finally stopped talking to myself and praying with intention about the relationship.  I  just sat.  I pulled out my prayer cord and went through my litany, “Be still and know that I am God.”  I breathed deep and in rhythm with the scripture.  I’m not sure how to describe it, but eventually a space opened up.  A pocket of calm that was like sliding under water.

I’m not sure – nor do I care – about how long I sat there in the dark.  But as the world started to come back into my conscious awareness I was able to watch the arguments going on in my mind without being in the middle of it.  I have a friend, Lawrie, who describes this kind of thing as watching the roller-coaster without a buying a ticket and climbing aboard.  What I saw was a reflex.  A story that wasn’t true and that kept me from seeing truly.  Laird appropriately quotes Mark Twain, “I’m an old man now and have had a great many problems.  Most of them never happened.”  This is what I was doing.  I was interpreting an experience through a lens of fear and hurt and past experience. So I stopped.

I wasn’t actively thinking as I normally perceive thinking.  It was more like…dreaming, I guess.  I found myself knowing that I am who Christ says I am.  That my friend is who Christ says they are.  That our relationship really does mean a lot to both of us.  I knew they were in a rough patch and were probably feeling more guilt than I was. A deep compassion filled my heart.  As my breathing slowed and deepened I found myself again floating in stillness and silence. It gave both the distance to see what was really going on in my head, and the awareness to parse the lie and deconstruct the story.

The next time we talked it started rough, but quickly shifted as I owned my contribution to the tension, clarified my intentions, told them what they mean to me, and asked how I could help bless.  Everything turned around.

My point in this rather drawn out example, is that the key that turned the lock was silence.  It wasn’t just a lack of noise or thought.  I’m not a good enough writer to describe it. Silence was my perception. Silence describes the calm place of waiting and filling.  Silence is what happened to my anxious mind and hurt feelings.  But this space was more than a lack of something, it was a fullness.  Sorry for getting all mystical with that last sentence.  I’m just not sure how to describe it…

This idea that I am who Christ says I am.  That my fundamental nature is forever different because of Cross and Resurrection is something I have preached on, but not fully grasped or believed.  It is at the heart of the Reformed Theology I love that our lives at justification are now about going deeper and deeper into a grace already accomplished through quickening and mortification.  What Laird provides for me is a way deeper into grace and the reality of my union with Christ.  He describes what I experience but can’t name.

I’m pretty sure Laird wrote the final chapter of the book just for me.  Thanks, Martin.  The final chapter, “Epilogue: Who Am I? A Tale of Monastic Failure” is the story of a young man going to a  monastery, struggling, and learning.  It spins around the question “Who are you?”  My heart was in my throat when the older monk finally answers the question.  All my own struggles, ideas, and misunderstandings were laid bare. I honestly worshiped.  This book is such a blessing for me.  It was full of so much that I really need to learn, but it would have been worth the price of the book for the final story alone.

It’s one thing to talk about being resilient, balanced, etc.  It’s another thing to know how to do it.  “Into the Silent Land” was a timely gift of grace for me.  My hope is that if anyone asks me how I’m doing with my practice of prayer in a month or so that I’ll be able to smile and say I’m doing really well.  I’m keeping the hours and staying in the silence.  But even if my on-again-off-again pattern holds true, I’ll still appreciate the reminder to sit still and open up my heart/mind/body/soul/strength to the One who loves me most and calls me into an eternity of  love with him.  An eternity that doesn’t start at death, but when he called me his own.  Into an eternity that I get a small taste now when He and I sit quietly together of a full-fledged normal that is coming.  In some things you just can’t go wrong.

 

1991 was one of the most painful years of my life.  It was also the time that I was given some amazing insights and blessings through an obscure book I found at a used book store:  “Poustinia, Christian Spirituality of the East for Western Man” by Catherine de Hueck Doherty (first published in 1974). Poustinia is a Russian word meaning “desert”.  As a metaphor it stands for “prayer, penance, mortification, solitude, silence, offered in a spirit of love, atonement, and reparation to God!”   [side note:  I know, I know…it was all cool until you hit the work “reparation.” I’ll talk about the theological and doctrinal disconnects between the eastern, Orthodox ideas and western, evangelical ideas later.]

Later that same year, I also discovered Richard Foster’s “Celebration the Disciplines” and found myself experimenting, trying, failing, succeeding in different spiritual perspectives and skills.  The Lord was busy on so many fronts to heal, mature and transform me.  I would reconnect now and then with the idea of stillness and silence throughout the years.

Two years ago, while on a retreat at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit the Lord really cracked me open.  It was another time of transition and I desperately needed to push out the noises, voices, and accusations in my head.  At this time I met (through their writings) some amazing teachers.  Frederica Mathewes-Green’s books “The Jesus Prayer, The Ancient Desert Prayer That Tunes The Heart To God” and “The Illumined Heart” were among my favorites.  I learned the Jesus Prayer and the utility of a prayer rope.

I also really enjoyed and benefited from James Patton’s “Light from the Christian East, an Introduction to the Orthodox Tradition”.  This book is specifically designed as a bridge-builder between Eastern Orthodoxy and western Protestantism.  Patton teaches at Redeemer University in Ontario, Canada.  He does a wonderful job in describing the connections and divergences of the two communities that is respectful and helpful.  For me, I found it more helpful than the standard Orthodox polemics against western Christianity even though I appreciate and agree with much of the Eastern Orthodox critique of the west.

Yet even with these, I struggled with long term consistency.  They absolutely helped and blessed me when I was practicing them.  But, as is typical, my practice fell apart in a few weeks, was resurrected after some time off, only to fall away for months at a time. It’s not that I stopped praying altogether, just that I found myself dancing to the tune of a busy schedule, pursuing other things, and filling my time with entertainments and distractions to deal with stress.  In other words, failing at what I knew I needed to be doing.

But even here there is no condemnation. Our performance is not who we are.  It’s just a measure of a relative maturity/immaturity at a particular point in time.  They’re points of reference to compare to.  Mirrors that offer a reality check to run away egos like mine. So I’m not beating myself up, I’m just trying to do better at what I know blesses my life.

This is where Martin Laird’s “Into the Silent Land” comes in.  I’ll talk about this in the next blog.