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Lessons on spirituality from the desert saints (part two)

November 18, 2011 Leave a comment

Drawn from Gerald Sittser’s Water from a Deep Well.  Part one is here.

Sittser uses STRUGGLE as the key word to describe the spirituality of the desert saints but it was a struggle related to the battle between flesh and spirit.  Paul had something to say about this in Galatians:

“But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do.” (Galatians 5:16–17 ESV)

Personal photo

Following are reflections by Sittser on the desert saints with regards to their struggle against the temptations of the flesh:

It was the battle for the soul that mattered most to them.  The desert saints believed that the Christian life requires struggle against the darkness that resides in the heart, epitomized by the egoism that runs in every human being.  Only by facing that darkness will we find true life and freedom. 83

Evagrius describing the problem of egoism, “It is not in our power,” he wrote, “to determine whether we are disturbed by these thoughts, but it is up to us to decide if they are to linger within us or not and whether or not they are to stir up our passions.” 84

According to Evagrius, gluttony consists of obsession with food, whether or not we actually eat too much of it. Vainglory tempts us to angle for attention and honor, regardless of how it can be attained. Pride causes us to claim credit for our virtues and successes rather than acknowledge our indebtedness to others and to God. 84

With regard to temptations, Evagrius said that thoughts toward sin cannot be overcome by simply resisting them.  They must be replaced by positive virtues—gratitude instead of gluttony, humility in the place of pride and especially love. 85

One monk even carried a stone in his mouth for three years to overcome the temptation of gossip and frivolous talk. 86

For Abba Abbas, spiritual leaders were not to impose their own will on disciples, as if they were the superior; instead they were to offer suggestions, provide encouragement, impart the wisdom of the desert and, above all, set an example. 87

Sittser concludes his chapter on the value of the desert experience for us today:

The desert will also enable us to see how unfriendly modern culture is to the spiritual life.  It seduces us into being too busy, too ambitious and too self-indulgent. We never seem to be satisfied; we always want more. 94

Abba Antony once said, “The man who abides in solitude and is quiet, is delivered from fighting three battles—those of hearing, speech and sight. Then he will have but one battle to fight—the battle of the heart.” 94

The desert will force us to hold our appetites in check, to resist the temptations of the devil and to seek the face of God. 94

Sittser suggests the following exercise. After reading Luke 4:1-13, identify an appetite that seems to be dominating your life.  Commit yourself to fasting from the appetite you have identified, for a period of time and in place of the appetite, memorize an appropriate passage and pray for areas of the world that lack what you so desperately crave. 95

This chapter stirs up all kinds of questions for me.  But on the topic of the desert:

What (if anything) can replace the desert experience for us today?  Beyond going to a literal desert (which I personally find attractive), what alternatives exist for us today? What has worked for you?

Hurry up and wait

September 7, 2011 Leave a comment

billiards by Beatriz Pitarch

Two questions to get you going:

How hard is it for you to admit that you are struggling (1 to 10)

How easy it is for you to wait? (1 to 10)

If it is difficult for you to admit that you struggle or hard for you to wait, then Psalm 130 may be for you!

Psalm 130 teaches us two things–we should be honest about our struggles and we should wait!  Eugene Peterson writes about the two great realities of Psalm 130: suffering is real and God is real. “Suffering is a mark or our existential authenticity; God is proof of our essential and eternal humanity. We accept suffering; we believe in God.” 145

Verses 1 and 2 allow us to admit to a feeling of being overwhelmed.  Reflect on the first phrase, out of the depths and examine Psalm 69:1-2 and 14-15 to get a better feel for the imagery here. More from Peterson:

We can face, acknowledge, and live through suffering because “we know it can never be ultimate, it can never constitute the bottom line. God is at the foundation and God is at the boundaries.  God seeks the hurt, maimed, wandering, and lost.  God woos the rebellious and confused.” Peterson 144

walking on the roap by Beatriz Pitarch

Question: What is currently overwhelming you? In what way are you suffering? Or the people with whom you serve?

The good thing about being overwhelmed—you become real and you don’t have to hide or deny. When we deny pain and suffering, we deny ourselves an encounter with reality. (Idea from Ivan Illich)

Verses 3 and 4 tells us that forgiveness is available. “The fact of forgiveness is not in doubt.”  Peterson describes God as the forgiving God:

God is “One who forgives sin, who comes to those who wait and hope for him, who is characterized by steadfast love and plenteous redemption, . . . God makes a difference.  God acts positively toward his people.  God is not indifferent. He is not rejecting. He is not ambivalent or dilatory. He does not act arbitrarily, in fits and starts.  He is not stingy, providing only for bare survival.” Peterson 143

Remember the following:

  • No culpability, no sin
  • If God kept a record, kept track of?  Who could stand?  Expected answer–NO ONE!
  • The word guard or shamar is also used in v6–what is happening here?
  • Now With Yahweh—forgiveness v4
  • Fear follows forgiveness—reverence and implied relationship come with true fear of God

Verses 5 and 6 tells us what we are to do: We are to wait! 

7 times the Psalmist tells us to wait

  • I wait
  • My soul waits
  • In his word I wait (hope—yachal)
  • My soul waits
  • watchman (wait) for the morning,
  • watchmen (wait) for the morning
  • Israel—wait—(hope)

Peterson helps us to understand what it means (and does not mean) to wait:

“Hoping does not mean doing nothing.  It is not fatalistic resignation.  It means going about our assigned tasks, confident that God will provide the meaning and the conclusions.  It is not compelled to work away with a bogus spirituality.  It is the opposite of desperate and panicky manipulations, of scurrying and worrying.” 147

“And hoping is not dreaming.  It is not spinning an illusion or fantasy to protect us from our boredom or our pain.  It means a confident, alert expectation that God will do what he said he will do.  It is imagination put in the harness of faith.  It is a willingness to let God do it his way and in his time.” 147

Verses 7 and 8 tells us why we can wait in two simple phrases

  • With God—hesed—love, faithfulness, covenant keeping
  • With God—abundant redemption—restoration

We wait. . .
He will redeem and restore
He will remove our sin, the guilt of our sin and even the consequences of our sin

Our suffering has boundaries and these boundaries are established by God!

Peterson writes, Psalm 130 does “not exhort us to put up with suffering; it does not explain it or explain it away.  It is rather a powerful demonstration that our place in the depths is not out of bounds from God. . . We are persuaded that God’s way with us is redemption and that redemption, not the suffering is ultimate.”  148

What struggles do you need to admit today?

What will waiting on God mean for you today?

  • not sending that email or text message?
  • keep showing up?
  • not responding in kind?
  • letting go of something you have been holding onto?
  • being quiet and allowing God to show you that he cares, he forgives and that he will redeem your situation. Remember, there are boundaries that he has established.
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