Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Embracing Struggle: Wilderness Camping and Spiritual Formation

Photograph by Drew Collins

The wilderness! I love exploring the wilds, hiking in new mountain ranges and camping under the stars. Many summers I venture onto the pristine lakes of the Boundary Waters in northern Minnesota. Here the brave of heart encounter the tall timber, crystal clear waters, and endless woods filled with martins, moose, beaver, wolves and the like.

Away from buildings and fences and everything built with right angles, the wilderness brims with life and adventure. That adventure entails challenge and danger—if you don’t pay attention, you can easily wash over a waterfalls onto the rocks beneath. The wilderness is very unforgiving! Venturing into it calls for alertness, some hard work and daily struggle.

Some campers are ready for struggle; others are not. Each summer I have taken different men—ranging from 15 to 50 years of age—with me into the wilderness. What is fascinating is that some guys “get it”—wilderness camping is a lot of work, and each day faces new struggle. Others don’t—they presume this is going to be a trip for relaxing. Somehow they assume that camp sets itself up, meals cook themselves, and forest rangers carry our canoes on the long portages. When the reality of the wilderness hits them, they are shocked! They do not want to embrace the struggle, and they usually do not enjoy the adventure at all.

Struggle is central to wilderness camping. In order to see the glories of the wilderness, it takes a lot of effort. The privilege of waking up to the call of loons on a misty lake comes at a price. Life in the wilds is hard work and it challenges us with continual struggle.

Whole Bouquet of Struggles
Struggle is likewise a standard dynamic of the Christian life. Trials, tribulations and struggles of many kinds find their way to our door each day. The book of 1 Peter—which is all about trials and suffering—calls us to have joy in the midst of our struggles. “In this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials” (1 Peter 1:6).

The Greek word for “all kinds” or “various” trials means “various colors.” In effect, the Lord is telling us that we will have an assortment of trials in many colors—a whole bouquet of struggles in this life! That may entail persecution, but it also includes physical pain, frustrations, suffering and struggles of all kinds.

Contemporary Western Christians don’t like to hear this message of struggle. Our culture idolizes “comfort,” and we see the easy life as one of our inalienable rights. Therefore, we assume something is wrong when we go through difficulties.

Peter addresses this assumption as well. “Dear friends, do not be surprised at the painful trial you are suffering, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice that you participate in the sufferings of Christ, so that you may be overjoyed when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13). There should be nothing surprising about facing daily trails and struggles—that is part of life on this earth as we follow Christ.

The Path to Transformation

Struggle is a necessary path in our pilgrimage. Just like with wilderness camping, struggle is a fundamental dynamic of spiritual formation.

James also highlights the role of trials in our life. Just as Peter, James uses the same word for “many kinds” of trials, referring to that whole array—that whole bouquet—of difficulties that God uses in our lives. “Consider it pure joy, my brothers, whenever you face trails of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything” (James 1:2-4). If we embrace the trails that God allows in our lives, we will develop perseverance and be perfected in character.

When I am camping, I enjoy even the tough times because I know that facing the challenges affords me the opportunity to experience the unspoiled beauty of the wilderness. So, in my Christian walk I am learning to “count it all joy” when trials and problems present themselves on a regular basis. Embracing struggle is the Lord’s chosen path to the unblemished, mature spiritual formation that he is hammering out in my life!

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Detachment: Emptied in Order to be Filled

Detachment is the doorway into the deeper life. The reason we detach from created things is to that we are free us to love God with our whole being.

It should be noted that detachment is not an end in itself. The goal is not asceticism. Rather, we let go of created things to make ourselves empty inside so that the Creator has room to come in and fill us as never before.

God desires that we have “a free, receptive and uplifted spirit, not enchained by anything—neither by what we desire or what we love—a spirit that is ready to let go of everything except what God desires it to have,” notes Johannes Tauler. “Then, were we to own a whole kingdom, we would still remain genuinely poor in spirit with nothing hindering us from receiving God—so long as no temporal thing is the source of our peace and satisfaction. Rather we continually stretch out our hands of desire solely toward the merciful generosity of the pure Good, which is God himself. That alone can bring contentment in our will and our inner depths.” [1]

But if we are willing to empty ourselves, God will certainly fill us! “Empty yourself, so that you can be filled,” exhorts Tauler. “If we are in the state where our depths have been prepared, then, without doubt, God must fill them completely else the heavens would burst and fill the void. Much less does God allow it to remain empty—that would be contrary to his essence and his righteousness.” [2]

Today I am more thirsty for Jesus than I have ever been in my life. Having walked with the Lord for over forty years, I find myself craving him more than I did when I first entered a personal relationship with him.

I am so thirsty that it is painful! But that pain is a good thing—it is precisely such pain that stirs me out of complacency and energizes me to clean house! In reality, it is the Holy Spirit who does the housecleaning. At this point, I am glad to allow the Spirit to turn everything upside down in the process. Let him throw things out at will. Let me be emptied out as never before so I can be filled and might experience “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that [I] may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:18-19).

Will you join me? Will you allow God to detach you and empty you that he might fill you in ways that you never imaged?
1 Johannes Tauler Predigten: Vollständige Ausgabe,ed. Georg Hofmann (Freiburg: Herder, 1961), sermon 5, p. 56. The translation is my own.

2 Ibid., p. 17.

© 2011 Glenn E. Myers

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Detachment means Cleaning House . . . . . Insights from Johannes Tauler

If we want to enter into the deeper life—the abundant life—that Jesus promised us, we need to detach from anything and everything that would hold us back.

Cleaning House
Why is detachment such an essential spiritual discipline for those who desire to experience the deeper Christian life? The spiritual rhythm of detachment is like cleaning house.

When we first give ourselves to the Lord and invite him into our lives, it is as if we welcome Jesus into the “living room” of our hearts. We allow him to clean things up as we repent of coarser sins. Once we are “presentable” in Christian circles, we are often pretty well satisfied.

However, there are other rooms in our hearts that still need to be emptied. They are often filled with worldly things that we want to cling to—whether material possessions, people, our physical appearance or any number of petty little pleasures. While they may not be sinful in and of themselves, they take our time and attention. Like Frodo in Lord of the Rings, we begin stroking the ring and obsessing about whatever “our precious” might be, until it betrays us and begins to control us!

Emptying Ourselves
Therefore, we need to detach. We need to allow God’s Spirit to search our inner lives and clean house.

So long as we are clinging to popularity, power and pride, our hands are not open to receive what the Lord has to give us. If our thoughts are preoccupied with our own plans and projects, we are not receptive to God’s new direction for our lives. So long as our hearts are cluttered with things that we hold on to for security, we are not free to accept the fullness of the Almighty—the only one who can truly satisfy us.

Serious believers who desire to move forward in God need to “empty themselves of ‘self’ in all things and do not cling to anything—neither in their service to God or their manner and practice of devotion,” observes Johannes Tauler. They demand their own way “neither in what they do or what they let undone; neither in this nor that; neither in joy nor suffering. They receive all things from God in humble fear and again reach out to him completely in naked poverty of self, in willing surrender, and humble themselves under God’s will. They are satisfied with whatever God wills in all things—whether in peace or strife—for they focus completely on the good and pleasing will of God [Romans 12:2].” [1]

Empty is Uncomfortable
It is uncomfortable to be empty. We feel unfulfilled and lonely. This is the experience of withdrawal. Whatever we have used to get our “fix,” we will go through withdrawal when we detach from it.

But if we are willing to empty ourselves, God will certainly fill us! (continued next week . . . )
[1] Johannes Tauler Predigten: Vollständige Ausgabe,ed. Georg Hofmann (Freiburg: Herder, 1961), sermon 5, pp. 37. The translation is my own.

© 2011 Glenn E. Myers