Trust-Seeking a Deeper Relationship

“In fact, the words “belief” and “faith” in the Bible are just different ways of saying “trust.” And trust works, regardless of where our knowing happens to be.”

The preceding quote is from the book, The Sin of Certainty, by Peter Enns. I do believe that too many of us have placed our faith on a faulty premise. That premise being that we must be certain about what we believe.

Just think of how many denominations, how many different views within denominations, and how many different views about what faith is about in the lives of people who belong to these denominations have. Who is right? Who is wrong?

This is a key reason why I have been researching a relationship theology. I do believe that God is love. Love is centered in a relationship of trust rather than adherence to correct, certain beliefs. And while I still hold to an orthodoxy catholic (common Christian faith established in the early creeds) faith, I am not dogmatic about what I believe. I know that I can be wrong.

What has become extremely helpful to me since my near total breakdown and failed suicide has been a return to the Ignatian rules of discernment. These rules (that do not claim ultimate truth) provide a way for me to test the spirits, thoughts, ideas, desires, inclinations, and other things that come my way emotionally, mentally, spiritually. They are rules that rely on trust rather than certainty.

Through the use and mindfulness of the rules, I have a trustworthy method of seeking direction when in times of desolation and in experiencing the joy of consolation when God sends it my way. This has not lessened my love for the Scripture but it has lead me not to make the Bible more than I believe God intended for it to be.

I served as a pastor for forty years. I am not pastoring now. I do not know if I will ever pastor again. I doubt many churches steeped in an attitude of needing certainty would put up with me. I know I would not do things as I had done in the past. I would put much more emphasis on a sacramental/relational approach to discipleship and my pastoral care would be more focused on being part of the lives of members rather than being a professional religious.

Right now, the most important activity in my life is recovering from my injuries and working on my skills as a spiritual director. I will trust God as to where I go from here.

Oh, by the way, I would love to hear from some of you who read this blog. I promise I will reply.

Spiritual Warfare

I found the following definition of spiritual warfare on a webpage:

A definition of Spiritual Warfare

From a Christian perspective, spiritual warfare is the cosmic war of good versus evil: its battles are fought daily between God and Satan; between the Christian Church and the world system ruled by our spiritual enemy; and within every child of God, between the Holy Spirit and the lusts of the carnal flesh. The clear meanings of good and evil, as defined by God rather than man, are revealed within the verses of the Holy Bible and the life of Jesus Christ.

This definition is not accurate. There is not a battle going on between good and evil, between God and Satan. There is a battle going on between human beings, their own fallen nature and demonic forces. The only good is God and God does not have to battle against evil. As for a battle between the church and world forces ruled by our enemy, I am quite sure we can find the church actively working with the world forces today. The institutional church is more part of the problem than an aid in the human struggle.

So how would one define spiritual warfare?

I believe spiritual warfare is an individual and communal struggle against those things which would seek to impede us, distract us, and attempt to destroy our faith, our hope in God’s promises, and if possible, even our lives. It is a war in which there are no neutral parties. In this war human beings are either struggling to be victors or are struggling to limit the damage they experience as victims (knowingly or unknowingly).

Now, back to the church. The church as the catholic or universal body of Christ exists apart from the institutional structures that call themselves the church. The institutional church is a creation of humanity as primarily a social control institution and as a religious guild. In America today, with the loss of cultural pressures for all people to be a practicing church member, the religious guild has turned toward a consumer mentality much like that of competitive capitalism. Doctrinal identity is not as important as financial survivability. Not all local churches have given in to this mentality but most denominations have.

Still, within the institutional church there exist those individual Christians who for true communities that seek to do just, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. Most of the individuals who engage in this spiritual dynamic also have developed spiritual disciples that make it harder for their spiritual enemies to defeat and destroy them. These individuals have focused on developing a relationship with God that is alive and active. This relationship is one of paramount importance in these individual’s lives.

The strongest and most effective individuals are people who have a regular prayer practice, are biblically literate with a good theological grasp of what they believe and value, and are actively living lives that are service (other oriented) for the glory of God. The problem is that these people are becoming fewer and fewer. Extended struggles in which much of the fighting is done with limited support and peer hostility tends to drain and discourage those who are active in the fight. Still those whose commitment and fidelity to Jesus are firm and carry on.

Let’s face it, if we believe Scripture, the current condition is only going to get worse unless there is a revival of orthodox faith and practices. The enemy (both within and without) has been empowered by human laxity in spiritual matters. What happens next is up to the remnant of those who are still willing to stand.

I have become convinced that spiritual direction is perhaps the best (if not the best) resource available to help individuals and faith-based communities in winning spiritual battles. Spiritual direction aids in developing contemplative practices, developing tools for reflection and discernment, and developing resistance to culturally conditioned deceptions and destructive behaviors.

Relationship Theology: Post Five

“From the natural point of view we come to know God from the vestiges of Himself that He has left in the splendors of the visible universe: the blazing red sunset, the snow-covered mountain peaks, the graceful flight of a bird, the breathtakingly magnificent complexity of a single living cell. On a still more exalted level we know Him in the loveliness of the saints – but it remains a knowledge of the infinite through the finite.”
— Fr. Thomas Dubay, p.188-89 Fire Within

“But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the human heart conceived, what God has prepared for those who love him’— these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit; for the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.”    1 Corinthians 2:9-10

What should a person expect when they chose to attempt to follow the contemplative path? Are there step by step instructions that can be followed that will guarantee an mystical encounter with the living God? Will there be dream like visions and experiences of the Spirit that bring joy  beyond anything we have ever felt or desired? Can a person even be really confident that they will continue to experience such a state?

To be very honest, a person might follow the contemplative path and never, ever have these things happen to them, except for the testing of their confidence. You could spend a hours a day seeking the presence of the living God as we imagine God to be and never come to know the almost continual presence that is always there. This is the Mystery in which a contemplative gladly places their faith.

I wish I could remember where I copied the follow quote from for it calls us to a deeper understanding of the relationship God offers to us: “I saw God yesterday in a tulip. I felt God in the roots of a tree. I saw God in two children and one wonderful mother will walk the the sweet saint who mothered her. I saw God in a reflection on the past, a drive down memory lane. Yes, God was everywhere yet, I did not find God. It is always God who finds me.”

But what happens if we do not accept the relationship God offers or pervert it by taking it for granted or engaging in infidelity by joining ourselves to that which is not the relationship God desires?  This will be the subject of my next blog.

What is it like to survive a suicide?

Disclaimer: The following material may be hard to read. It is an account of an attempted suicide.

I cannot remember pulling the trigger. I cannot even remember the events leading up to the incident. All I can remember is that I was in pain, physical, emotional, psychological, and spiritual pain. The physical pain was in my lower back. It was a constant, at times throbbing, at times piercing pain that I was told I would have to learn to live with. I was not learning very well. I injured my back when I was forced to move myself out of a parsonage in fifteen days with almost no help.

The emotional pain was one of deep depression that made me feel useless and without purpose. I had been forced to retire after struggling with a toxic church and incompetent clerical support for two years. I was told I needed to take one for the team. I was abandoned with no support, no help.

The psychological pain was from the belief that I was a failure in life. I was a pastor who had been manipulated, accused of doing something I did not do, and rejected because my last name was Hispanic, and I did not fit into the perception of a pastor that this rural church had formed.

The spiritual pain, for those who understand, came from the likelihood of being demonically obsessed during my two years at that church. I wanted the pain to stop. I felt hopeless. I questioned my faith. Death seemed like the only logical answer. So, at one in the afternoon, in a state of mental illness, I took a .45 caliber pistol, put it under my chin and pulled the trigger.

The next thing I remember is waking up briefly in the ICU of the hospital and wondering where I was. I was told I lost consciousness completely on the way to the hospital due to loss of blood. My family was told I possibly would not survive. I was in a coma for eleven days. I had lost my left eye, part of my jaw and most of the teeth on the left side of my face. I experienced a TBI (traumatic brain injury) with a brain bleed. Still, to the wonder of the doctors and the relief of my family, I was alive. I had failed once again, however, this time for the better.

I cannot even describe the shame and guilt I felt. Why had I not died? How could the bullet not have taken my life? The doctors had no explanation. I underwent 10 hours of surgery after the incident. There are still fragments of the bullet (a self-defense round that was made to create a fatal wound where it hit) embedded in the bones of my face and skull. Yet, in less than a month I was walking (on my own power) out of the hospital and on my way home. I was a suicide survivor.

My suicide attempt was not a cry for help. It was not an effort to get attention. It was intended to be a personal execution. It was, I have no doubt, demonically influenced. This suicide attempt turned out to be an event in which God intervened.

God intervened? Yes, for there is no other explanation. God decided that I would not die. I am a walking miracle.

During my time in a coma I am certain I encountered the divine and the demonic. Many may believe I was just experiencing hallucinations brought on by the trauma of the gunshot wound, but my experience tells me otherwise. There was a struggle for my soul as I lie in the ICU on the verge of death. I can remember some of the struggle that was going on around me. In one encounter there was a struggle between the demonic and what I believe was an angel. The demonic claimed that I now belonged to the dark power because I had committed suicide and violated the law of the church. The angel answered back that I belonged to God and God’s grace trumped church law.

In another encounter, I was asked if I wanted to live. I answered yes. As death tried to pull me into its grasp, the one who asked me if I wanted to live told death I was going to live, that a price had been paid for my life. It was after this encounter that I woke up. I remember asking a nurse what had happened to me. She told me I had been shot. I asked her who shot me. She asked me if I knew and I answered “no”. She then said the report said that I had shot myself. “Oh”, was my reply. I knew she was right.

I am a believer in Jesus Christ. I am certain of my calling to ministry, as someone called to lead others to make disciples, strengthen the church, and help others in their spiritual formation. I have a doctorate in ministry. I have been a Certified Spiritual Director for four years. I had the mental knowledge to know suicide should not be how one deals with the challenges of life. How in the world could I reach a place of hopelessness in my life that I would try to kill myself? How could I do this to the ones I love?

I would counsel anyone who reads this to never, never think that they would not, could not end up in the same situation. The Scripture is true. “Discipline yourselves, keep alert. Like a roaring lion your adversary the devil prowls around, looking for someone to devour.” (1 Pet. 5:8 NRS) I had failed to be alert. Even though I sought to maintain an active life in prayer, even though I sought to be a faithful servant I allowed the Evil One to deceive me. I allowed my own insecurities to drag me down. I believed the lie that I no longer mattered and in fact was a burden to others by my being alive. I failed to live by the truth, “Therefore, my beloved, just as you have always obeyed me, not only in my presence, but much more now in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling;” (Phil. 2:12 NRS) I had lost hope.

As I was recovering in my hospital bed, I realized that I had reached a point that even though I was striving to give love to others, I did not love myself. I hated myself and thus opened myself to a mindset of self-destruction. I realized that I needed a strength I did not myself have. I returned to the promises of God’s love. I sought to begin to have compassion on myself. I fought against the guilt and self-accusations my mind threw my way. I began to reflect on my situation.

Yes, I had been betrayed, used, lied about, and cast aside by a segment of the church but that did not mean I had been abandoned by God. I was still one who had been called. No person, church member or self-serving clerical authority could take that away from me. Yes, I would still have to deal with physical pain and suffering, but that did not mean God was not with me and that I could not overcome its effects. I need to remember and live by the words:

And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. (Rom. 5:3-5 NRS) I also need to remember: For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom. 8:38-39 NRS)

And then came the discoveries I did not expect. I discovered both positive and negative things after my failed suicide attempt. I discovered just how much suffering, worry, and anguish it caused my family. I learned how they prayed and prayed. I awoke to their love and support, not to condemnation or judgment. For the first time in a long time I felt wanted, needed, and loved. This was a gift and affirmation from God. Also, so many people sent me notes on how I had helped them. They shared in my sorrow and pain. They offered words of comfort and hope. They affirmed I had been a presence of God for them in their time of need. Again, these are gifts of God.

Now, I am adapting to my new life. I have put together a safety net that includes family, friends, doctors, counselors, and spiritual direction. I am learning to live with sight in only one eye. I am coping with the damage I inflicted on my body. I am learning to live with pain without self-medication or a chemical crutch. And, most of all, I am learning to like, even love myself. God is not finished with me and has lavished on me mercy, grace, hope, and best of all limitless love.

Relationship Theology: Post Four

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“There are two loves, the love of God and the love of the world. If the love of the world takes possession of you, there is no way for the love of God to enter into you. Let the love of the world take the second place, and let the love of God dwell in you. Let the better love take over.”    — St. Augustine

The third element of true love is a commitment to transparency. This may seem nonsensical in the light of the omniscience nature of God since God knows everything but it is not. Transparency in this case is about our willingness to be total open to God though our being totally open and honest with ourselves.

Do not deceive yourselves. If you think that you are wise in this age, you should become fools so that you may become wise.
19 For the wisdom of this world is foolishness with God. For it is written, “He catches the wise in their craftiness,”
20 and again, “The Lord knows the thoughts of the wise, that they are futile.”    (1 Cor. 3:18-20 NRS)

We human beings are quite good at self deception. We have a tendency to believe what we want to believe no matter how far from the truth it may be. We are more than willing to listen to lives and deceptions.

Paul, James and John warn us about this:

Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes on those who are disobedient. (Eph. 5:6 NRS)

But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. (Jas. 1:22 NRS)

If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (1 Jn. 1:8 NRS)

When these verses are examined in context they call us to self-examination, to self-reflection which should lead to confession and a reorientation of our understanding and responses. This transparency allows the Holy Spirit to bring transformation in our lives.

Love does not force this transparency. It must be a willing decision on our part.

Relationship Theology: Post Three

jesus and nicodemeus

“The important thing is not to think much but to love much; and so do that which best stirs you to love.”— St. Teresa of Avila

The second key element in my working definition of love is a willingness to do anything positive for the one you love.

When you love someone you desire their happiness. You are willing to put effort into working for their happiness. Hopefully you understand this also means avoid behavior that brings them discomfort or sadness.

What does God ask from us? What can we do for God to let God know we love God?

He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Mic. 6:8 NRS)

Jesus said to his disciples “If you love me, you will keep my commandments. (Jn. 14:15 NRS)

I am afraid that most of our religious education is focused more on what we can know and reason with our minds rather that what we should feel and act on in our hearts. Far more hours are spent in a spectator role than in a participating role when it comes to seeking the happiness and joy of God. Too often I have heard individuals state that they have a fine relationship with God when they have done nothing to practice or maintain a loving relationship in the activities of their lives. They say, “I have grace and that is enough.” I cannot help but believe that this is a misuse of the gift of grace and is in fact a diabolical deception.

I did not grow up in a very loving home. In fact, the idea of love was used more as a manipulative tool than as an actual emotional experience. I did not love or was not loved if I did not follow the rules, stay out of trouble, or clean my room.  Not only was I unloving if I did not do these things, I faced the certainty of a punitive action so much so that I began to believe that love what only getting beat once a day rather than once an hour. Needless to say I grew up with a very perverted and distorted understanding of love that I am still working to overcome today.

I love my wife. Yet even though I love her I understand that I have done things that have hurt her very deeply. The only redemptive aspect of this part of our relationship is that her love for me trumps my foolish actions. This is grace. Her grace towards me motivates me to want to do things for her that bring her happiness and to seek to correct those behaviors that do not. I believe this is also a model for how I am learning to love God. I love God not because of any manipulation or coercion on God’s part. I love God because of who God is and because of my growing relationship with God. Therefore I seek to learn how to discern what justice God expects. I seek to learn what mercy really is and how it should be lived in my life and I do desire to walk with God, spend time with God and look for ways to demonstrate to God my devotion and commitment.

I believe it is in my spiritual interest to take an honest evaluation, and examen of life daily if not more often. It is through this examen that I reflect and meditate on those activities that are loving toward God and for God and which are not. This helps me keep the relationship more real and active. It provides opportunity to avoid deceptions and erroneous thinking about what my relationship with God should be.

The third element of my working definition of love is our willingness to be completely transparent with the One we love. I will cover this in my next blog.