Tag Archives: psychology of spiritual formation

Trapped? Got a Noose around Your Neck?

You know the feeling: the noose slowly tightening around your neck, or that heavy ball and chain around your ankle, which you drag through the day.

Or, perhaps for you, it is the windowless room of your mind with that mean interrogator under the bare bulb, harping all day long and into the night: “You will never . . . You will always . . . You can’t … Who do you think you are?”

When I first heard the phrase, “areas of unfreedom,” I didn’t understand my teachers. (My spell checker doesn’t understand either.) I was just beginning to learn about the dynamics of spiritual growth, what in a simpler time we used to call discipleship or sanctification. “Huh? I’m free,” I thought. “This is the USA.”  The Spirit had yet to show my inner prison.

My jailors were the assumptions, unexamined beliefs, and negative thoughts which operated below my awareness. This gang of ignorant, fear mongers, and liars had formed a portion of my self identity, that is, who I thought I was, and what I could, or could not do with my life.

The other day one of these creepy little sadists gave me a swift kick in my solar plexus. Our teacher asked us to put our hands on the floor and kick our legs up into the air against a wall and balance on our arms.  “Just try it,” she said, urging us on, “like when you were a kid. Your arms are strong enough to hold you.”

“Oh, yes. I can do this!” I thought. I have done many head stands and arm balances in my life. “Now just bend over, straighten your arms, and kick yourself up against the wall. No problem.”

As I took a few steps toward the wall, a dark, choking fear suddenly rose up in me and stopped me in my tracks. I was stunned. It had been over twenty years since my last hand stand, but I had stayed in shape and my arms were stronger now than ever. Where had this fear come from? I was safe here. There were people to catch me, if I fell or stumbled. I was dumbfounded. How did this happen in me?

“You’re too old,” my jailor sneered. “You can’t do things like this anymore. Pay attention to me or you will hurt yourself.”

Most of us have places of impasse in our interior world, where we feel stuck, fated, or chained to a particular understanding of ourselves, which limits our future unnecessarily. Sometimes these aspects of how we see ourselves are unconscious. Though not apparent to us, such beliefs may deeply affect our lives.

I have a little pile of quotations and scripture verses above my desk. The other day I pulled this one out and put it on top.

And the day came when the risk
to remain tight in a bud was more painful than to bloom.

This is a poem by Anais Nin, a woman whose life I do not entirely recommend, but certainly demonstrates that wisdom is not the property of only the straight-laced and conventional.

The path of spiritual growth calls us to break out of the constraints of our tight little buds. There is a point where the risk of opening to an unknown possibility is less than the pain of remaining bent over in the tight room of a constraining self conception.

Nin’s words remind me of Jesus’ urgency to break the boundaries of his ministry and his own chosen human mortality with his words:

 I’ve come to start a fire on this earth—how I wish it were blazing right now! I’ve come to change everything, turn everything right side up—how I long for it to be finished!                   (Luke 12:50 Message)

Jesus expresses the urgency of his desire to burst beyond the expectations of his disciples and followers to fully express his purpose on the cross. There was so much more he had to offer than the healings, miracles, and teaching along those dusty roads and little villages.

The process of spiritual transformation confronts us over and over with those places of unfreedom in ourselves, which have us tied in knots, weighed down, or locked into a tiny cell. With a punch in the gut the Spirit may reveal how we are imposing limitations on ourselves, which have nothing to do with God’s will for us, but a lot to do with what others have told us, or assumptions we have picked up from the culture.

Paul reminds the Galatians, who were caging themselves with religious rules, “Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.” (Galatians 5:1 Message)

I am standing about six feet from the wall in my living room. My teacher thought I could do this. I know there are people older than I who do this. I have a choice. I can stay in the tight bud of my fear and be safe and be too old for this. Or I can keep trying until I do it.

Your goal might not be a handstand. For that matter, mine may not be a handstand either. I just whacked my foot on a piece of furniture, giving it another try.

However, more is at stake here than gymnastics. Spiritual growth requires flexibility, strength, and elasticity of soul. What might be keeping you in a constrained and incorrect conception of what you are capable of?

Simply recognizing the fear, or the faulty belief, allows it to dissipate. The sun is shining. Come on, sweetie, you know you can no longer resist its warming rays. You can do this.

I am yours, kicking up my heels, here in Kansas.

If would like to try a hand stand yourself, click here for a little help.

Will the Faith of a 13 Year Old Sustain Us?

Are you trying to cope in a grown up world with the faith of a thirteen year old? James Fowler and other scholars of faith and personality development have indicated for years that a majority of Christians possess the spiritual maturity of a thirteen year old. A recent survey by the Pew Forum has found that atheists know more about  major religions than Protestants and Roman Catholics, many of whom do not know the basics tenets of their own faiths.

How well does the faith of a thirteen year old hold up in a grown up world?

Not very well according to a recent survey conducted by the Barna Institute. The survey revealed that though many people are discussing and debating religious beliefs and practices, all the talk has resulted in very little change in people’s faith. Just 7% of those surveyed could cite any change that their faith has made in their lives in the past five years.

On the one hand about one-third of adults who experienced any change at all mentioned an increase in some aspect of their faith commitment. Fourteen percent said they had stepped up their commitment to the Christian faith, in general; 12% cited an increase in their religious activity; and 9% indicated their commitment to God had grown.

On the other hand 16% said they had moved away from Christianity; 11% noted that their feelings about or perceptions toward churches had deteriorated; and 8% admitted to decreasing their religious activity. Another 8% claimed to have changed churches or denominations during the past five years. Among those whose appreciation of or respect for churches declined, a majority specified the sexual abuse scandals within the Catholic church as the dominant factor in their change of heart . Barna Research

Writers in the field of human personality and faith development have observed for some time that most people’s understanding of faith and beliefs are established by age thirteen and do not much change over their life.  If my faith and the faith of most of the people around me is that of a thirteen year old, it seems a natural evolution to drop out in my twenties. On the other hand, if I choose to stay, what sort of impact on the world does a church with the faith maturity of thirteen olds make? Not much, it would seem, if the steep declines in church membership, respect for religious leaders, and positive cultural regard are any measure.

Though Jesus challenged his disciples to have faith like a child, he also challenged them to grow beyond childish ways by bringing their faith to bear on the complex religious and social issues of his time. He challenged his followers with paradox and ambiguity. He taught that there was something life-giving in death itself. In addition he called for self-sacrifice beyond the cognitive ability of thirteen year olds.

I know a clergy person, who told me she had a program on her computer that checked the style and word choice of her sermons for grade level. She aimed to write sermons easily understood by a third grader. That explains a lot to me. If all we give people in our churches is third grade faith and understanding, it is a wonder they stay around through high school, let alone the rest of their lives.

The Christianity of the first century was more than palliative care or an agenda for social change. Mature faith, tried and refined in the fire of personal and communal life, results in deep understanding and compassion for the human condition and deep reverence for all of life.

I have heard the faith taught by some churches called “a mile wide and an inch deep.” A sound bite world that worships immediacy has little patience for anything other than Christianity Lite. Hence the media depiction of faith traditions is often distorted, diluted, sensationalized snippets of a tradition only truly known and appreciated through years of living and allowing oneself to be changed by its teachings.

G.K. Chesterton once observed that, “It is not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting, it is that it has never been tried.” Our perilous time of mounting crises, crumbling institutions, and polarization require of us a faith much deeper, broader, and more nuanced than that of most thirteen year olds.

I do see many positive signs— a young woman named Gina who is seeking to have her life radically changed by God as she lives out of a back pack, traveling the world helping the poor; the family who travels to third world countries offering love and medical care; the young college graduate who went to Haiti to help build an orphanage and hauled drinking water for the workers each day. Other people submit to the transforming power of the St.Ignatius thirty-day retreat, or sit down with someone regularly to examine their spiritual life and the call of God. Many people are taking responsibility for developing their faith in creative ways, and often these occur outside traditional church settings.

Spiritual maturity helps us to answer such questions as – How do we help ourselves live with paradox and ambiguity? How do we increase our tolerance for the stranger and the alien? How do we meet suffering and deprivation in ways, which carry us beyond sullen entitlement, bitterness, and retaliation? How do we integrate increasingly complex realities with faith and generosity?

As a thirteen year old I believed the promises of scripture:  that God is good and wants goodness for us. I believed that God also has expectations for us to live with reverence, forgiveness, compassion, and self-giving love.

As a knocked down, punched out, disillusioned adult I also believed that suffering, evil, sin, loss, and disappointment are real. For me the cross, no less a scandal and folly today than 2000 years ago, stands between the polarities of the goodness of God and the harsh realities of life in this world. Strung between childlike trust and adult confrontation with sin and evil is a tightrope called faith. In the center of that tightrope we find the cross. No one may pass by without a crucifixion. Mature spirituality has learned to walk that narrow wire with precision and grace.

Despite our advances in technology, health care, science, industry, and commerce, we remain in some respects spiritual children. I believe among the most important skill called for in our time is not our intellectual expertise, but rather, mature faith manifested in how we respond to deprivation and loss, how we respond to our own lust and greed, and how we discover the inner resources of wisdom, character, and love that make us worthy to be entrusted with the great power that is ours as a community and individuals.

I am writing this blog in the public library of a small town in Iowa. A group of middle school kids sat down at the table near by. They are discussing how old they are and who is mature and who is not. They are working on a school assignment, but so far have not opened their books. They just took a break and asked me to watch their notebooks. The kids are funny, exasperating, and when they suddenly apologized to me for making too much noise, I fell in love with them. As endearing as I find them, I would hate to bank the future of Christianity on the faith on these children, or have to count on their leadership and wisdom to lead us in these tumultuous times.

As a matter of fact, they make me want to be the very best grown up I can possibly be for them.

I know a large number of grown ups in the faith – including you, my dears. Many are members of churches, quite a few are not. Some have nothing good to say about Christianity. But all are bringing, deep, resonant, intelligent faith to bear on the challenges and sorrows of this world. Thank you all so very much!

Become a fan of the The Sanctuary Foundation for Prayer
Read more about prayer www.fromholyground.org,  Tracking Holiness – Newsletter
Contact the author lross@fromholyground.org, www.fbook.me/sanctuary
Follow at http://twitter.com/lfross

The Conversion of Paul



 I fell to the ground and heard a voice saying to me,
“Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”
. . .  Since I could not see because of the brightness of that light,
those who were with me took my hand and led me to Damascus. Acts 22: 7,11

Point of Light

Struck by a sickening blow to the gut,
slamming against the pitiless rock
I went down to the ground.
My body lay in the dust
My body folded upon itself in the dust.
My heart smeared with the dust.
And I lay still in the dust,
closed upon the dust,
like the wing of some great, dead bird.

I fell down
rolled down
splayed down
split, spread down
across the ground
like butter.

Like a serpent
I went down
crawling over the ground
on my belly.

I went down to the ground
where the salamanders and skinks
scurry over the cold stone walk.

I went down to the ground
where the sow bugs curl and the beetles hide.
I went down to the ground
and swam with turtle
out of the depths
up into the light
stretched my neck long
and turned my face
to the sun.

When I was lifted up from the ground,
day became night.
I staggered
my sin was always before me.

You wonder if it happened,
if I really saw what I say I saw,
heard what I tell I heard.
You wonder if I am mad
or fabricating.

See here,
the proof is in my groping blindness
my stunned, numbed, nauseous soul
stumbling in a foreign land.

There are ones who can testify
that I saw well enough before
that I did not wear this unveiled shocked look of the newly blind.
There are ones who can remember the zeal and pulse of desire in me.

My mind,
shattered into brittle splinters,
discrete thoughts
save my existence.

In darkness I paced that long night.

Near dawn some
thing like scales, like slivers,
a tough membrane-like scum
shucked from my eyes.
And I saw for the first time
the world
like a worn pouch turned inside out.

When sight returned
there remained as a translucent cataract


Betwixt me and creation exists that dear face
and upon it I gaze unceasingly
and therein find All.

“It hurts you to kick against the goads,” he said.


What’s Going on Here? Drunk on Cheap Wine?


LightHarold, awestruck and elated, told me that he had seen God. He said that God showed him hidden mysteries. No, he was not psychotic. He was simply full of Holiness bigger than his britches. Divinity burst through his immature psyche in sparks and streaks. He scared most people, impressed others, and annoyed his pastor.

He was angry and frustrated with church authorities who did not ordain him on the spot. He fussed and wore his experience like a badge of martyrdom.  He was impatient about getting on with his life as a spiritual teacher or guru, and frustrated that no one seemed to recognize his superiority in this field.

A word for this fellow’s condition might be illumination, sometimes mistaken for the apex of the spiritual journey, but, rather, a roller coaster period characterized by swings of ego inflation and deflation which may last a number of years.  I recognized this because I have been through such a painful period a time or two myself. I don’t know how people stood me.

According to some models for understanding the process of transformation in Christ, illumination is the middle period of spiritual development, occurring between purgation and union. In my experience these passages of spiritual growth do not proceed in an orderly linear fashion, but rather circle, repeating, and weaving in and out as the Spirit’s expression in the specific life of an individual. A person’s transformation is related to God’s purposes and the particular aspects of a personality and life situations that need cleansing, healing, reordering, and setting free.

The church and the Bible describe this passage of spiritual development in many ways – the vision of God, an opening of the heart, being born again, accepting Jesus as one’s Lord, a spiritual awakening. Though there are many ways of describing it, most would agree it is not the culmination of the journey. An individual receives a sudden infusion of the Holy Spirit – not once or twice, but over and over. Sometimes people receive more than they can “metabolize” and become intoxicated with God. When it happened to the gathered disciples on Pentecost, people thought they were drunk.

They are speaking our languages, describing God’s mighty works!” Their heads were spinning; they couldn’t make head or tail of any of it. They talked back and forth, confused: “What’s going on here?” Others joked, “They’re drunk on cheap wine.” Acts 2:12-13, The Message

Such experiences, as Evelyn Underhill puts it, “fatigue the immature transcendental powers.” We get more of God than our personalities and bodies can handle. We lose our balance and appear a little wacky for a while. This happened to Paul on the road to Damascus when the voice of Christ knocked him off his horse and left him blind and blubbering. He had to lay low for a while as he integrated this experience. And even years afterwards, he was still a little hard to take.Conversion of Paul1 People have varying responses to large draughts of God. Not everyone becomes insufferable. In Harold’s case he felt that nobody really understood and knew God the way he did. To him all the other laborers in the vineyard, slogging away without a glimpse of the master, appeared as witless dullards. And I have to admit some of them probably were. Instead of focusing on what is wrong with those around them, some people respond to the Spirit infusion with a burst of creativity, an outpouring of  service, the expression of their gifts, or art of some kind. Then there are the hidden souls who only want to withdraw to sit in silence and solitude, where they feel alternately forgotten and useless, and enraptured and blissfully happy.  

However we respond to the bracing presence of the Holy Spirit blowing through our lives and being, there is likely more work to be done. This inglorious mundane work of dying to self and waiting irks us no end. We chaff and fuss as God slowly reshapes our motivations to conform to divine motivations. People do get drunk on the wine of God, but believe me the wine is not cheap.

Harold told me he had already died, done all that. I didn’t have the heart to disabuse him of his belief. First, because what did I know really? And second, what I would say would make no difference to him. I trusted God at work in him, more than anything I might prescribe.  Some kind of growth and transformation was afoot which I didn’t want to mess up.  I did have a sense there was some pruning ahead for him, and considerable surrender before sweet humility would blossom more fully in his being.  

Even though Harold began to get on my nerves, I felt compassion for him as one ought for anyone in this condition. He was pretty miserable. Over time the man calmed down and found his way to service. He became able to hold his degree of glory in one hand and the reality of his sin and brokenness in the other without tipping over and wallowing in one or the other. Instead of bursting with pride or sinking into a pit of despair, anger, and suffering he grew into the largeness of the gift of God’s revelation to him. He attained the strength of soul and groundedness in the soil of humility to grasp this paradox of the human condition: our frailty and our glory. That sort of balance and strength in Reality is something to behold.

Watching the purposes of God unfold in someone’s life as a spiritual director is a front row seat to seeing God and hidden mysteries. The winsome way of God with an individual soul keeps me, entertained and delighted, on the edge of my seat. Now I must be honest. I made Harold up. Any resemblance to any person, living or dead, is not intended and purely coincidental. If,  in an adaption of Carly Simon’s song, “you probably think this post is about you,” it is not.  I really have no idea what God is up to in your soul, except to say without a doubt it is something wondrous, breathtakingly beautiful, and beyond your wildest dreams. For the record, I am still working on finding my balance.