This was written in October 2012 for Focus, the Newsletter of Leytonstone United Free Church.
‘Naked Spirituality’ by Brian D. McLaren.
A book that describes the different states of our spiritual life bringing it into practical daily life.
Here the worship in an African Pentecostal Church is described.
Imagine a dirt floor and no walls, but wooden posts supporting rough-hewn rafters that in turn support a vast tin roof that shade about a thousand cheap plastic lawn chairs arranged in rows.
..the place is empty now but for the last few hours, it has been rocking with joy.
……dust rose from the dancing feet in the rising heat…
and the singing-harmony, echo, rhythm, call, response, punctuated by shouts and ululations.
If you have ever worked up a sweat celebrating the goodness of God and life and love as they do in the African Pentecostal Church, you know what I am talking about, and if you haven’t, I hope someday you will.
This passage summed up all my memories of travels around Ghana and other parts of the world, where I was amazed at the joy, passion and freedom in worship.
Brian D. McLaren goes on to say
Why are the most blessed often the most restrained in their worship and why are those who have the least in terms of health, wealth and safety the most ready to ‘make a joyful noise and sing for joy to the Lord’?
Could it be that our accumulation of possessions and protections coat our souls like rubber gloves so that we touch, but do not feel?
This is one of the many interesting questions which arises during the book which aims to use a simple practical structure to deepen our spiritual lives. McLaren splits our spiritual lives into four seasons. Each season is split into three ideas represented by three words. Twelve words which chart out the spiritual life, and begs the question: where am I on this journey?
The first season is spring.
Simplicity- spring like season of spiritual awakening represented by HERE, THANKS, and O!
HERE: The practice of invocation and presentation: awakening to the presence of God.
THANKS: the practice of gratitude and appreciation: awakening to the goodness of God.
O!: the practice of worship and awe: awakening to the beauty and joy of God.
The second season is summer
Complexity: the summer-like season of spiritual strengthening
SORRY! : the practice of self-examination and confession: strengthening through failure
HELP! : the practice of expansion and petition: strengthening through weakness
PLEASE! : the practice of compassion and intercession: strengthening through empathy
Here are some more snippets from the book, I urge you to read it and it would make an excellent framework for a study group. When we’re in Stage Two, we don’t leave Stage One behind. We build upon it in three new movements of the soul. Without these three new skills or strengths, we remain dependent and immature, but with them, we learn increasing independence…. …The great strength of a Stage Two people: we share the can-do, ‘yes, we can!’ spirit.
What are the challenges of life? At the age eighteen, those challenges might include choosing a subject to study at university or navigating the complexities of romance. At twenty, they may involve a relationship that needs to be nurtured, a career, or finding a cause to work for. At thirty and forty, they might entail raising children, handling new opportunities at work, or caring for an unhappy spouse or difficult marriage. At fifty and sixty, life’s challenges might include aging parents or fading dreams, health setbacks or new freedoms. At seventy, eighty or ninety, they might involve surviving surgery or coping with grief or planning for the next holiday with the grandchildren.. or preparing for death. Whatever the challenges, Stage Two is about learning essential practices that help us to survive and thrive, not cave in or give up. What are the practices? First the ability to self examine, admit mistakes and process failure. Second is the habit of acknowledging our personal weakness and limitations. Third is the ability to empathise with others in their pain.
These are tough skills to learn and the book gives simple ways to incorporate them into daily life. I believe life is constantly giving challenges which enable us to use and master these ‘practices’ especially in our communities whether at church, work or home lives.
Here is the third season autumn.
Perplexity: The autumn-like season of spiritual surviving
WHEN?: the practice of aspiration, exasperation and desperation: surviving through delay
NO!: the practice of rage and refusal: surviving through disillusionment
WHY?: the practice of lament and agony: surviving through abandonment
In the spiritual spring of simplicity, life is a gentle river in which we flow merrily and prayer is the song we sing in joy. Everything feels under control. Then, in the spiritual summer of complexity, life becomes a stretch of rapids we must run, a game that we think we can win or a challenge we think we can master, and a prayer is a key element of our strategy. Through prayer we often shoot the rapids, win the game, master the challenge, regain control. Often but not always. Just as simplicity gave way to complexity , now complexity gives way to perplexity. Things are out of control and we can’t get them fixed anytime soon….. For example, in confession, what happens when our faults overwhelm us? What happens when we have sabotaged our success and wounded others we love through our stupidity?…. In petition, what happens when we’re praying, praying more fervently than we ever have, but the wisdom we need is not forthcoming, the self control we seek is deteriorating, endurance has blinked out like a spent candle and hope has stopped singing hours ago? Of in intercession, what happens when we do all in our power to help those in need, yet God seems well-meaning but distant and unwilling to help, or blankly, frankly non-existent in the face of a rising tide of pain? If the season of simplicity is like smooth sailing and complexity is like running rapids, sooner or later you smash into some rocks, you get swamped, you lose buoyancy. Your little boat of faith springs a leak and no matter how hard you bail through confession, petition and intercession, you have to acknowledge that the water level is rising and your boat is going down and the roar of more rapids awaits you downstream.
This autumn of perplexity is perhaps a state we can identify with, a loss of faith and hope, a scarey moment when the certain things in life suddenly reverse and we are filled with doubt. Brian McLaren makes the point that the Psalms 77 and 88 express this despair. Psalm 77 I cried out to God for help I cried out to God to hear me. When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands… Jesus suffered exactly these feeling in the garden of Gethsemane as he expressed doubt about what lay ahead. On the cross Jesus utters the words ‘ Why have you forsaken me’.
Do you see what this means for us? When we are in the middle of the dark tunnel crying Why? Why? Why? in the void, we are both alone and not alone. Jesus is with us, and through him, God is with us, even as we declare our doubt and faith in the same agonizing cry.
So why is it part of our spiritual journey to suffer this doubt and this void? …the creation of empty space makes way for movement, for new potential, for new empowerment.
Allowing us to move in the winter-like season of Harmony, a time of spiritual deepening, which will be looked at in the next Focus.
The fourth season of winter Harmony: The winter-like season of spiritual deepening
BEHOLD: the practice of meditation and wonder: deepening by seeing
YES: the practice of consecration and surrender: deepening by joining
(…) : the practice of contemplation and rest: deepening by being with
When Stage Three perplexity gives way to Stage Four harmony, there is a quiet transcendence- a transcendence that brings along or includes the previous stages rather than leaving them behind. So the right-versus-wrong dualism of Simplicity and the effective-versus-ineffective of Complexity and the honest-versus-dishonest relativism of Perplexity are taken up and expanded into something bigger in the harmony of Stage Four.
Behold is our simple word for the practice of meditation. It’s a call to notice, not just to glance. It’s an invitation to open your eyes, blink, linger and see in a new way.
Yes: Richard Rohr says this about prayer: Prayer is not primarily saying words or thinking thoughts. It is , rather, a stance, a way of being present. It is a way of living in the Presence, living in awareness of the Presence and even of enjoying the Presence. Presence knows Presence….All spiritual disciplines have one purpose: to get rid of the illusions so we can be present. These disciplines exist so that we can see what is, see all that is, see who we are, and see what is really happening right now. The spiritual life Richard Rohr describes is a yes! Life.
(….) And so the last of our simple words is no word at all. The withheld word. The unspoken word. The word that doesn’t need to be said. The breath without a sound. If you want to give it a descriptive word, perhaps BE would suffice as in, ‘Be still and know that I am god. Don’t think. Don’t speak: just be’. There is a story told about Mother Teresa, she was asked by a reporter, what she said to God when she prayed. She replied, ‘Mostly I just listen.’ The reporter followed up: and what does God say to you? ‘Mostly he just listens,’ she replied. Could it be that the loving, attentive, mutual listening of the soul and the Spirit constitute the greatest expression of spirituality?
I hope this review of Brian D McLaren’s book Naked Spirituality has been thought provoking and has made you curious to read further.