My Spiritual Discipline for the past week has been Face-to-Face Connection. I believe this practice is important because I believe we are gifted with wisdom and passion that is uniquely gifted by God and are called to use these gifts to support our brothers and sisters on their walks with God. These connections can be found in multiple ways through mentorships, accountability partners, and though valued friends. When meeting face-to-face with someone it takes a willingness to become vulnerable with the other person present. It is a time to be genuine and to express shortcomings, struggles, and goals. It is a time to realize where we are on our walk with God and to establish relationships with people who are willing to celebrate the victories and lift us up in our hard times. Throughout the Bible, Scripture encourages us to foster these relations and act out of love and compassion to our brothers and sisters. I often struggle when it comes to face-to-face interactions because I often come wearing a mask, presenting myself as who I want to be and not who I truly am. I find it hard for me to work up the confidence to be vulnerable with others as I fear judgement and ruining my ‘image’ as a Christian. One of my goals for this Discipline was becoming more intentional at removing that mask when sharing my story and struggles and be genuine to the person I am with. So right off the bat I was already nervous on how my face-to-face connection was going to go. Josh recommended me building my relationship with Teller, so I asked him if he was willing to go to lunch, and he agreed. I spent some time preparing some questions that I felt could lead us into a spiritual discussion. During our conversation, I focused on being honest and not trying to build an image. Teller and I sat for an hour in the caf and shared our faith journey, goals for the year, and our struggles. I gained a lot of admiration for Teller throughout our talk, and I felt myself opening up more and more. Leaving the caf, not only did I feel appreciative of the encouragement and support that Teller gave me, I felt the beginnings of a new mentorship. A mentorship where I feel like I could learn about wisdom and compassion that Teller has been blessed with. And that is the beauty of taking the time to make Face-to-Face relations, the ability to learn from those with different experiences and build a community that encourages growth and love. I am going to continue to work on taking off my mask and be more genuine in my relationships and I am excited to see where this road leads me. I believe God can work wonders using people’s relationships, and I hope to continue to build new friendships and mentorships here with my new family at University Church of Christ.
I have lived on Pepperdine for my entire life. So, I have grown up with students always in my house, hosted by my parents for free meals. I have also grown up with professors as neighbors and good family friends. This academic environment has taught me about the great power of the written and spoken word. Essays need to be precise and eloquent. Obscure quotes from ancient philosophers are thrown in at dinner tables as if they are common phrases that are used every day. Lecture classes in Elkins are a common topic in conversation. And then, this being a Christian campus, the religion professors dive deeply into the Bible and historical texts relating to early Christianity or the time periods surrounding it, then often are preached on.
In addition to my upbringing, I decided to major in Creative Writing. The classes that go toward my major are all English or Writing classes, therefore have a heavy emphasis on the depth of written works, along with the presentation of these works in various mediums. However, I have realized that with such focus on words and how they are portrayed it is easy to lose sight of another great form of speech.
I have recently gained a great appreciation for many visual arts. When asked about the quality of one of these works, people are not only asked about the techniques used by the artist or creator but also about how it speaks to them. So, sight is a form of communication itself. So, the spiritual discipline of visio divina is a form of prayer in which we speak with the taking in of certain sights rather than using words. It is a practice in which we look at the world around us, whether it be nature or man-made works of art, and seek to speak to God and listen for what he has to say to us through these pieces.
I had the pleasure of practicing this during the Well. Because of the smoke, the Well was held in the chapel. During most Well services, my greatest focus is on the words, the way they are sung and what they may mean. However, I decided that this was a great opportunity to practice visio divina.
For most of the Well, I was quiet. I stood in the back and simply observed. I observed the shape of the chapel and the ceiling., everything perfectly designed for great acoustics. I carefully examined the stained glass. It’s spectacularly beautiful. At night, when the world is dark outside and the chapel is lit from the inside, the glass seems to glow. And staring at the glass from the back is difficult to do when there is a sea of people in front of me throwing their hands in the air and singing their hearts out. So, I decided to watch the people for a bit. All I could see was this immense passion for God. Hands soar through the air. Voices rise higher to the checkered rafters that paint the ceiling. Swaying back and forth in groups of people, and even what could only be described as dancing.
Observation soon turned to prayer. A smile jumped to my face and I thanked God for such a great space to worship him. I then asked him for a constant desire to be close to him, one that reflects the sea of passion before me. Now, when I see stained glass, or raised hands, I am reminded of the passion I so desire from God for God.
Truly observing the world around you is a great way to understand more greatly the presence of God. It is easy to lose sight of the greatness that surrounds us, so visio divina is an excellent practice in which we can feel God through an appreciation of creation.
Service is a hard word to define. When most people think of service, they think of building houses, schools, or hospitals. They think of volunteering at a clinic or acting as a missionary. This is exactly what would come to my mind. However, my view on service was changed earlier this year.
Right around my spring break, I went down to Argentina with my parents to go on a service trip with Pepperdine’s Buenos Aires program. There were a few alumni of the Buenos Aires program who also flew out to go on the trip and the current BA students started asking them questions about what we were going to be doing. After struggling to describe the ‘service’ that we would do, one of the alumni said, “It will challenge your entire view of service. We will not be building houses or anything like that, but we will be serving. Because service is more than a single action. It is a way of life.”
Right when she said that, I began to think about all of my different service trips. By that point, I had been to Kenya four times to work with Made In The Streets (MITS), and Argentina once to work with a village called El Negrito (the village we were going to at the time). I started to think, What did I actually do at these places?
You see, the first time I went to MITS, I was eleven years old. There wasn’t much that I could do. I couldn’t help teach classes, because the kids knew more than I did. I couldn’t help with cooking, because no one trusted me around knives. So, I was just… there. I would play soccer with the kids and mess around with the toddlers, but that was about it. Then, when I got older, my family started going with the Pepperdine program and, with that, Pepperdine students. They were taking upper division science classes, so most of the activities were centered around science, which I knew nothing about (a reason I am a creative writing major). So, I couldn’t do much with the program and I ended up playing soccer and messing around with the toddlers.
Then, I thought about going to El Negrito. What did I do the last time I went? I played soccer and… messed around with the little kids (okay, I did more than that on all my trips but that was the majority of my time). I was not a very good spanish speaker, so I couldn’t hear people’s stories or tell mine to a population that only spoke Spanish.
So, what is service as a discipline?
Adele Ahlberg Calhoun describes service as “helping, caring, and sharing [the] love of God in the world”. However, many of the practices that she lays out as examples of service involve annual and big actions. I believe that service is simpler than that. It is the way in which we live, and while those great big actions are great and important, habitual service is so much more powerful.
So, in my mind, this discipline is one of the hardest to pin down. It challenges us to see the world and the people around us differently. We are meant to be servants. It is a position that Jesus took as he took the form of man. He placed himself to a position in which he loved people beyond what they deserved. He treated everyone with an immense respect.
To me, that is what service is. It is viewing everyone as someone who deserves both respect and everything that we can give them. It is humbling yourself and giving up what you have to others. One of the most valuable things in your life is your time, so to respect someone so much that you are willing to give up your time to them is the most humbling thing. That is why big service projects are so great; it is the action of acknowledging the importance of someone who believes themselves to be unworthy.
Everyone believes themselves unworthy in some way. So, service is the act of acknowledging the importance of someone when they feel forgotten or beneath another. Service is not the act of lowering yourself to someone else's level. It is the action of raising someone up to feel worthy of being a child of God.
Again, it is hard to pin down exactly what to do, but that is because service is such a broad subject and varies with every situation you find yourself in. Sometimes service is a smile at someone who is walking with their head down. Sometimes it is asking to pray for someone, because you feel drawn to do so. Sometimes it is inviting someone to any event that may interest them. There are so many ways in which you can serve, but the most important thing is to go out of your way to make them feel loved and, more importantly, deserving of that love.
A great spiritual mentor in my life once told me that when it comes to our relationship with God, our expectations define our reality. The more I think about those words, the more they ring true. I often rely on preconceived notions and judgements inside my head to create a viewpoint from which I view the world. These notions and judgements create expectations about who I am as a person and what my relationship with God should look like. Sometimes these expectations can begin to define my reality and get in the way of me truly experiencing my relationship with God as he intended it. I am not the first person to struggle with these expectations. Abraham had the preconceived notion that Sarah was too old to bear children. Moses defined himself as a poor public speaker and had the expectation that this would always be the case, even while he was with God. In Mark 6, Jesus is unable to perform miracles because of peoples’ notion of him in his hometown. In all of these stories, the common theme is people letting their own expectations of how God works limit what God can do through them. So this begs the question: What expectations and judgements do we cast on ourselves that possibly limit our relationship with God? This was the question I seeked to answer through my spiritual discipline, Truth telling. I spent the week reflecting on the “truths”, both good and bad, and how these notions limit how I view God. I did this by finding quiet and secluded spaces where I could spend time in reflection. This time can be spent in a multitude of ways with each way having many benefits. One way to spend this time is by setting an alarm for five minutes and writing all the bad things that come to mind about yourself and then repeating the process, writing only good things. When I personally worked through this exercise, I found the list of the negatives to be way longer than the positives. Going over the list, I felt a tremendous amount of guilt because I felt that the words I had written down were keeping me from God. For a moment I felt that my shortcomings superseded God’s ability to work through me. I was left thinking about who I am and my limits, instead of realizing that I serve a God who has no limits. Just like the Biblical stories I mentioned earlier, I should not limit God’s ability to work miracles based on my human capabilities. My negative perceptions of myself are largely built on the idea that I am not doing enough for God. I have been blessed with a strong Christian community, amazing spiritual mentors, and caring parents since birth, so if so much has been poured into me, why am I unable to return the grace and love I have been given? These thoughts plagued me and I felt almost like I was a carefully crafted project that just did not reach its full potential. The crazy thing about thoughts like this is that they are directly refuted in the Bible. The Word says I am chosen (1 Peter 2:9), a citizen of heaven (Phillipians 3:20), and a conqueror (Romans 8:37). After reading these verses, I realized the two lists I had created earlier do not define me at all. I am defined by the Father who supersedes any expectations I have for myself. In the past I have often defined my relationship with God based on who I am and what I could do for the Kingdom, but this discipline taught me that my relationship with God is based on who God is, and what God can do for the Kingdom through me.
For the past week I have been intentionally trying to set aside time to be with God in silence. The funny thing about my discipline is it is a struggle to find a quiet space in my life to even start! If you have met me before in person it is quite obvious that I should not be defined as the quiet type. I enjoy conversation and I find that a lot of my spiritual growth is fostered through interactions with others. I had to be consciously looking for those little pockets of life where I could remove myself to spend some time with God.
I usually found these pockets of life in my dorm room where there are minimal distractions. I typically set a timer for about ten minutes and started off with some breath prayers. I would inhale thinking “I am here” and exhale thinking “You are here.” I did this because it helped me focus in on God and push distractions away. I did these exercises with the help of Spiritual Disciplines Handbook, by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, which recommends seeing distracting thoughts as little boats that float away. I found this visual very helpful because normally I get very frustrated whenever I have distracting thoughts, so replacing the anger with the calming thought of boats drifting away made my experience much more peaceful.
During my time in silence, I tried opening myself up to God and recognizing the emotions that I normally ignore, and give them up to God. The first couple of times I tried this practice it was difficult; I often found myself chasing distractions or losing track of my purpose in the endless stream of my own thoughts. Instead of being present with God, I often found myself thinking about my classes, or what I wanted to eat, or what friends I should hangout with this weekend. It took constant effort to put these thoughts onto little boats and let them drift away, but the more times I tried, the better I got at minimizing these distractions.
I was finally able to be present and I started to realize I had emotions built up that I had not taken the time to process. I felt lonely since I had never been away from my family for so long. I felt the stress that was built up from all my classes. I felt confusion and anger because I thought I was wasting my time as I saw no benefits coming from my time in silence. While sitting there, filled with all these emotions, suddenly a wave of peace came over me, and I felt content.
The things that were causing me sadness and pain before were taken away, and I was left sitting in peace. I felt almost disconnected from the world as I sat there, not worrying about anything that was going on around me anymore. I wish I could say I heard the voice of God or reach some new enlightenment, but in reality none of those things happened. I can say that I was able to experience moments of peace that I attribute to being present with God. I learned a lot about patience through this experience, and I am happy I struggled through the rough patches in order to reach peace. I also know that I have a ton of potential to grow through this exercise, and I hope I can continue to take the time to work on being still in silence with God.
I have never been very good at praying. I am impatient, stubborn, and easily distracted. So, when I pray, I just say what I am thankful for and what I want God to do for me, then I turn away and go on with my life, and I forget about what I had just prayed about. So, I have never been able to hear God answer my prayers, because in a world full of noise, I never think to listen.
So, the spiritual discipline that I practiced this week was “Listening Prayer”. Listening Prayer is a practice in which we seek to quiet the noise in our lives, both inner and outer, to better listen to God’s voice. It is a way to trust in God, that he will speak at a time of his choosing, and that we will be listening. Because, there is always so much going on in the world. We are constantly busy, or worried, or feel that something is demanded of us, or feel pulled in every direction by every single person. So, it is necessary to take time to stop and listen. But the difficulty is deciphering what to listen to. Most everything we hear is outside noise or our inner thoughts that are running askew. Even during prayer, our thoughts can run wild, as our minds are designed to make connections. This is a reason we zone out while praying. But, the most important part of listening prayer is to not get frustrated with the difficulties that come with our minds straying away from our prayers, but rather keep returning to prayer and listening. Listening to God, however, is not limited to hearing God’s verbal words (because I promise I have never heard him speak to me in that way). It also includes praying, and then reading scripture or listening to worship music and searching for what sticks out, and then repeating those words to yourself. Sometimes the most important thing is to not try to make complete sense of it, but just listen to the words. Be patient and listen.
I would love to say that this is an easy practice and that I do it all the time, but sadly, it is one of the hardest things for me to do. I have always been more of an introvert, more comfortable sharing my thoughts with myself than with other people. So, I’d like to think that that made me a better listener, but in reality it has not helped at all. I have been much better at letting my mind go down rabbit holes and got lost in random trains of thought. This was especially true for me in my attempts to practice Listening Prayer. This last weekend, I got to camp and hike around Sequoia National Park. I thought that this would be the perfect time to pray and have time to listen. But, I kept getting distracted, and I couldn’t help but let my mind wander with every picturesque landscape. So the prayers that I prayed became the same kind of prayers that I had always prayed before. I prayed, got distracted, and stopped listening. I never picked up my Bible and I never listened to worship music. My biggest challenge is to give myself time to have no intention but to listen. I pull myself in so many directions in fear of missing out that prayer becomes an assignment to be put off for later rather than a priority and a main point in my life.
This became very clear to me when my English class was discussing the short story “A Good Man Is Hard To Find”. The story raises the idea that if we truly believe that Jesus was resurrected, then we should have no problem giving everything up to follow in his footsteps. The struggle that there are Christians who are cultural Christians and believe because that is how they were raised. I saw that same person in myself. So, I asked myself, “Do I believe? And if I do, what’s holding me back?” I have always struggled with this question internally, but to actually hear it out loud and to put it into words hit me hard. I decided that that was my new topic of prayer. And, after the Sequoia National Park, trip, I told myself that I would really be intentional about this prayer. So, I prayed. I prayed a simple prayer, and I waited. I waited and I waited. But, as the impatient, stubborn person that I am, I got frustrated and looked to see how much time had passed… less than a minute. So, I tried again… I got frustrated… how much time had passed… less than a minute. Again and again, this happened until I finally decided to listen to some worship music for a new perspective. I found a Christian playlist online and clicked shuffle. The first song that played was “Nobody” by Casting Crowns. Many of the lyrics flew over my head, as they do most of the time, but I heard a certain lyric that stuck with me. “I'm just a nobody trying to tell everybody All about Somebody who saved my soul”. I realized in that moment, I felt like my identity was taken away, and I was left as a nobody, but those are the people that Jesus had died for.
I still don’t have my prayers or concerns completely answered, because Listening prayer is very difficult for me, but I do want to continue it because hearing that one little portion of an answer is so exhilarating and fulfilling to me. The most important thing, I believe, is to keep going back to committing to the practice and continue going back to it.
The UCC Spiritual Practices blog is here for you to grow and develop in your faith and daily time with God. The majority of the articles are written by UCC's own Garrett Le and Hanson Von Flue, with the guidance of Adele Ahlberg Calhoun's Spiritual Disciplines Handbook.