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Fractions, Presence, and Native Language: Getting Started with Spiritual Disciplines

During this season of LENT, we’re revisiting some of our best posts on spiritual formation.  You cannot read these and reflect on them too many times.

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This is guest post by my friend, Rhesa Higgins. In addition to being married to one of my college roommates, Rhesa is atrained spiritual director in Dallas, TX and the founding director of The Center for Spiritual Formation. Chad and Rhesa are raising their three amazing kids: Raemey, Ryleigh, and Caysson. Rhesa enjoys a good caramel macchiato, a great book, and the best knock-knock jokes a 6 year old can tell. You can find her blog at: http://cfspiritualformation.wordpress.com/

 

When I was in the fourth grade, I ran into an academic brick wall: fractions. Suddenly, fractions weren’t just an exercise in coloring a certain number of pizza slices out of each picture. No, now we were expected to find a common denominator in order to add and subtract them. I was lost. One afternoon, while I slogged through yet another worksheet of torture (fractions homework), my mom called me into the kitchen.

“Come help me make some cookies,” she said. The counter was covered in the necessary ingredients: flour, sugar, butter, vanilla, eggs, salt, chocolate chips, baking soda and measuring cups. The mixer was there and a large bowl, as well. I didn’t hesitate to start helping her measure out ingredients and pretend there was no homework to be done.

As we worked together, we couldn’t find the ½  cup measuring cup. Mom asked me to figure out how we could use the ¼ cup instead. I did it without hesitation. She smiled. Then, she mysteriously couldn’t find the ¼ teaspoon measuring spoon either. She asked me to figure out how we could use the ½ teaspoon instead. I quickly sorted it out. She grinned again.

Later, while we ate warm cookies together, she asked me how my fractions homework was going. I sighed and complained loudly that I would never understand fractions. She laughed and pulled the measuring cups out again.

It wasn’t that I couldn’t do fractions; it was that in the abstract of a worksheet, fractions didn’t make seem important. In the concrete world of cookie baking, one of my favorite things to do with my mom, fractions were a necessary tool.

I think that for many Christians, spiritual disciplines are a lot like fractions: abstract and seemingly vague. We have a rough idea that this is what we SHOULD be doing but very little idea WHY. The phrase ‘spiritual disciplines’ is even misleading, conjuring up images of barbells, uniforms, and buzz cuts. How can those things be spiritual?

The spiritual disciplines are first, tools. Just as we exercise our bodies to increase their overall health and strength, the spiritual disciplines are exercises meant to strengthen the soul. Just as exercise alone will not bring our bodies to health, the disciplines are part of a life given over to growing into the likeness of God.

The spiritual disciplines are also training. They teach us to look for God in every moment of our lives and tune our ears to hear the melodies of God playing all around us. The disciplines are a way of opening ourselves up to an awareness of the presence of God so that we find it more natural to seek that presence everywhere.

The spiritual disciplines are vast and varied. There are so many ways to cultivate our awareness of God and strengthen our souls. While some disciplines are more prevalent than others, all can be effective in our desire to connect with God. As a spiritual director, I often encounter people who want to know God more or feel more in love with God but aren’t sure where to start. Many times, my response startles them.

“What do you love to do? When it is just you and there are no expectations of accomplishment or productivity, what brings you joy?”

A healthy life of knowing God begins with knowledge about you. God created you as a unique individual. Your likes, dislikes, motivations, strengths, passions, and desires create a complexly beautiful reflection of God in you. This is the place where you are most like God in the first place, so it is a natural starting place. This knowledge is where you begin to cultivate your heart towards God.

I am drawn to color and beauty. I crave silence and solitude. Deep relationship is my strongest motivator. I love to gain new knowledge and insight. These are where I begin to craft my life with God. I experience prayer as an invitation to be with God, rather than talking to God, feeding my love of silence. When I see or create art, I am drawn to praise God as the designer of creativity. When I spend meaningful time with another individual seeking a God-shaped life, I am inspired to be more like God as well. I return to the sacred stories for new life. These serve as the foundation of my spiritual disciplines.

In my religious tradition of logic dominated faith, these don’t strike others as discipline at all. On the contrary, they seem to be an excuse to play with what I like to do. Many assume that if a discipline doesn’t hurt, it isn’t shaping you at all. I wonder what this says about our image of God.

I grew up with the idea that ‘real Christians’ got up early every day to read their bibles and pray for each person on the prayer list at church. These are wonderful tools! But they don’t cause me, in all my creativity-driven-self, to know God. I felt such a great sense of freedom to discover that God created me this way, as a creative, and invited me to interact in the language that my heart and soul speak. God created you, whether you identify as a creative, or as a seeker of information, or as a rule follower, or in countless other measurements. And God invites you to speak your native tongue as you interact with the One who gave you that language.

This knowledge led me to discover again a simple, but profound truth: all of life is spiritual.

God is as near when I am weeding the flower beds as when I am praying. God is as near when I am driving in traffic as when I am reading my Bible. God is as near when I am scrubbing toilets, making lunches, and checking my daughter’s fraction homework as when I am in a direction session. God is near. I must simply tune my heart to hear.

If you would like specific ideas for disciplines to experiment with, I would suggest these resources:
Sacred Rhythms: Arranging Our Lives for Spiritual Transformation by Ruth Haley Barton

Armchair Mystic: Easing into Contemplative Prayerby Mark Thibodeaux

Creating a Life with God: The Call of Ancient Prayer Practices by Daniel Wolpert

Soul Feast: An Invitation to the Christian Spiritual Life by Marjorie J. Thompson

Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices That Transform Us by Adele Ahlberg Calhoun

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