Monday, October 21, 2013

Translating Presence

Someone asked me recently how I found time to write. I told them that it is how I pray. Most people spend their time of daily devotions in prayer and reading. They read scripture. They read devotional publications, like The Secret Place or The Upper Room. They read spiritual books. I write.

That doesn't mean I don’t also read. I am always in the middle of four or five books. It is not unusual for me sometimes to be reading ten books at the same time. I used to have piles of books piled around my reading chair in various stages of literary consumption. Nowadays my Kindle reader makes the space around my chair much less cluttered. My wife is grateful.

Over the years I have often returned to one of my favorite spiritual books: The Practice of the Presence of God by Brother Lawrence. I have read this small volume dozens of times. Lawrence was a French monk who lived in the seventeenth century. He wrote a book which I consider to be one of the greatest spiritual classics of all time.

But he wrote it a long time ago. English translations of the book have not kept up with the changes in language. Most commonly his work is found in an anonymous translation of the nineteen century. It is not easy to understand.

Therefore for the last few months, during my time of morning devotions, I have been rendering this great work into modern English. I have now published it under the title The Practice of the Presence of God in Modern English.

I was not able to translate it from the French. Therefore it does not pretend to be a scholarly work. It is a devotional labor of love. I did my best to translate the nineteenth century British English into twenty-first American English. I took it slowly – usually a paragraph a day. Sometimes I took only a sentence or two a day, praying over the words and their meaning.

I have read Lawrence’s words many times over the last forty years. His thoughts have shaped my thoughts. His practice has become my practice. I prayed his words the way I have prayed the psalms. As I prayed, I wrote his words in my words.

This is more than a translation of words. For me, writing is a translation of the presence of God into words. It is like prayer. Prayer – when one is forced to use human language – is an incarnation of Spirit into human vocabulary. 

Brother Lawrence incarnated the Presence of God better than most followers of Christ. I hope this edition of his book will help his words to be understood more clearly, so they may be translated into human lives today.

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Illusion of Spiritual Growth

As a pastor I have talked about spiritual growth throughout my ministry. I have encouraged people to grow toward spiritual maturity. I have personally pursued this lofty goal. I believed that I was on my way, even if I was not progressing as rapidly as I wished. Now I consider it an illusion.

Growth is a misunderstanding of the spiritual life. I do not need to grow. I need to shrink. I need to become less. John the Baptist said it best.  He said to his followers concerning Jesus, “He must increase; I must decrease.”

I do not need to add virtues, good deeds, or spiritual practices to my religious portfolio. I need to empty myself of my self. I need to lessen myself. If I am less, Christ can be more present in and through me.

It is not about gaining. It is about losing. The apostle Paul wrote, “Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him.” (Philippians 3:8)

I am “The Incredible Shrinking Man.” The less I am, the more Christ appears in my life. The goal (if I can talk in such terms) is to let Christ be everything. Even the concept of a goal is misleading. A goal assumes a process, and there is no process. There is only Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

That was the apostle Paul’s understanding of his spiritual life. He said, “I am crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” When I look closely at myself, I also see that I no longer live. When one is in Christ, the fiction of my autonomous separate existence ends.

When my daughter, Sarah, was little, I wrote a children’s book to read to her at bedtime. It is entitled “The Hidden Ones.” (I recently published it as a Kindle ebook for her to read to her son when he gets a little older. But others can read it also.) It is filled with fanciful fictional characters. I only recently realized that a fictional character also wrote it.

We write the story of our lives in our heads and hearts, and we believe it is true. It is a surprise (a pleasant one!) to realize that it is fiction. God is real. Our fictional persona only keeps us from seeing the truth about ourselves and God. Fiction is by definition untrue. Our lies separate us from God.

Christianity calls such separation sin. I use this term carefully these days because it is so misunderstood by religious and nonreligious people. But it is a good spiritual concept when understood correctly.

When we are reunited with God, the fiction ends. Christ invites us to embrace the truth. He said, "You shall know the truth, and the truth shall set you free." He asks us to take up our cross and follow him to Golgotha. That is the place where the self dies so that the risen Christ can live in us.