The Pain of Spiritual Disconnection
By Dr. Steve & Renée Graham
Have you ever found yourself frustrated by your computer? Unless you are particularly techno-savvy, I imagine you might have moments that strain your patience. Maybe you have found yourself in bed at night trying to catch up on some emails, and — out of nowhere — you lose your internet connection. What? Why? “It was here just a minute ago!”
In my case, I resort to becoming a computer diagnostician, following the decision tree given to me by technicians over the years: refresh, reboot, repeat. Nothing. Then comes the move to the router. Do I simply hit the reset button or do I unplug everything, take out the battery, then hit reset…or do I replug everything and then hit reset? I try some combination of the above. Still nothing. I try again, then watch the lights do their flash dance, hoping (with my fingers crossed) that they stay lit. No such luck. I then call my cable company, listen to the laborious menu, punch or say the right numbers, and hope to hear a real person’s voice on the other end of the phone. Meanwhile, I am told again and again by the recorded voice that most problems can be resolved simply by unplugging and replugging your equipment. Hmmm. Eventually the human speaks to me and usually, within thirty minutes everything has been restored. They have pulled off a miracle! I am so grateful and delighted to be reconnected once again. The joy of connection; the agony of disconnection!
Often when meeting with couples whose relationships are in trouble, it is not unusual to find that another relationship is also experiencing a disconnect: the one with God. Perhaps you have felt disappointed with God. Perhaps you have been wounded by the Church. Perhaps you have intellectual doubts or find yourself in a community that values skepticism or devalues spiritual devotion, and so you have pulled back. Perhaps you just got busy. Maybe you even experience God as hostile. Or irrelevant?
Over the years people have confided in me many different reasons for their sense of distance from God. I truly do understand. At times over the years, I have found myself far away from God for all of the above reasons and more. If I didn’t know better, I might imagine there was some type of activity scheming to keep people from having an authentic, intimate connection with God (but that is a topic for a later article). For whatever reason, you have disconnected from God. Is there a reset? Do you want one?
We have all — every one of us — been tempted or will eventually be tempted to give up on our faith, to give up on our relationship with God. We are tempted to jettison these spiritual notions in an attempt to find more freedom or consistency or peace. But, what if there is good reason to fight through our doubts and anger? What if our route back to God makes all the difference in the world for us? What if that connection is the one that makes all the other lights go on?
Is Faith “Fire Insurance” Only?
Yes, that’s a rhetorical question, but we often live as if it’s a reality. Many who claim to know God report little or no sense of closeness with Him. Some are content to have their eternal bases covered (otherwise known as “fire insurance”), but have never truly experienced God. They live on the periphery of spirituality, often having just enough exposure to the things of God to convince themselves that they know the full dimensions of His offer of intimacy. My experience with couples struggling in their marriages suggests that as each partner moves closer to God, many of the marital issues seem less immovable. Therefore, I would like to take some time to build on this notion of connection with God.
God’s True Offer
If you have felt distant both from God and your spouse, perhaps you are weary of settling for business as usual. You may yearn to know deeply that Someone outside of time and space has more for you to experience, more love, more peace, more joy, than what you have known. Then what? Where do you find this experience? How do you tap into it?
Jesus beckons us to have an intimate relationship with Him. “Live in me. Make your home in me just as I do in you” (John 15:4, The Message). The NIV version says it differently: “Remain in me, and I will remain in you.” Eleven times in seven verses (John 15:4-10) He uses the word remain. This word requires some teasing apart: it means more than simply to stay put, like a command we would give our dogs. Rather, from the Greek verb, meno, it carries a depth of meaning: remain carries the idea of abiding, or living, with someone; to stay with, to wait for, to endure, to continue. These are relational concepts! Jesus is proposing a forever living arrangement: we in Him and He in us.
Connection, Our Deepest Hunger
We are hungry creatures. We were created that way. I have to be recharged more often than my laptop! We are constantly looking for food to sate our hunger and liquid to quench our thirst, but we are hungry for far more than food and drink. I would like to suggest two other essential appetites we all have: 1) the hunger for intimate connections with others (God and other people) and 2) the hunger for meaning in our lives. Almost from birth babies will make eye contact, signaling the need for human connection, but then, will also divert their eyes to examine the world around them. Human beings seek to fill these four basic hungers (at least): food, drink, relationships, and personal meaning. What is bizarre is that sometimes it is quite difficult to discern which of these four hungers is most gnawing at us!
Arguably, this hunger for an intimate connection with God, our spiritual hunger, is the greatest, most important, most misunderstood, and often most ignored of all our appetites. Spiritually, many of us are quite malnourished or starving. Often, because we have not been shown how to tune into this hunger and identify it as such, we discover how ravenous we are only when we find ourselves depleted or hopeless.
You Are What You Eat
My wife and I have been fortunate enough over the last several years to work with an incredible nutritionist who also specializes in functional medicine (what is going on at the cellular level, as I understand it). I have often wondered if she looks at her clients with amazement, wondering, “You’re really eating that?” We discovered that we had been feasting on foods that filled our bellies, but were also setting us up for significant health challenges. To imagine that we might have been so wrong about what we were eating has been for us overwhelming at times.
If we can be deceived about the physical foods we consume, imagine how we may be abusing spiritual sustenance! Like a good nutritionist, I wonder if God watches us with utter dismay: “You’re really eating that?” As with our typical food diet, the typical spiritual diet also can be loaded with toxic ingredients: we load up on busyness, achievement, duty, obligation, fear, insecurity, judgment, deception, jealousy, legalism, twisted and/or ignored Scripture, emotional distance, food, medications or chemical substances, and high fructose corn syrup (isn’t that in everything?). We simply do not recognize such cravings as spiritual, nor do we know how to fill that hunger, so we ingest anything we can think of to stop our souls from growling.
Finger Licken’ Good
Periodically, research into what brings happiness and meaning will spotlight this hunger. Most recently, a study conducted across ten European countries once again determined that “increased participation in religious organizations predicted a decline in depressive symptoms …while participation in political/community organizations was associated with an increase in depressive symptoms.”1 In other words, the more involvement with your faith community, the greater the likelihood for sustained happiness. This was not true with other social endeavors.
St. Augustine, the great North African bishop of the fourth and fifth centuries, in his autobiography, Confessions, explains this phenomenon: “You have made us for Yourself, O Lord, and our heart is restless until it finds rest in You” (Book 1). Before becoming a Christian, Augustine partied! He is called the patron saint of brewers because he drank so much prior to his conversion. Augustine tells us that the secret of living a life connected with God, a life fully alive, is desire. He teaches us not to minimize desire, but, in fact, to pay attention to our desires. We can recognize this primary desire and then … eat! So, how exactly do we do this?
Throughout history, people everywhere have sought a connection with God. The early Christians followed a four-fold process of moving toward God that might be a good starting point for us: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer” (Acts 2:42, NIV). Using the above four-fold practice as a model, we would like to invite anyone who is hungry for more of God to try these four simple ways to recognize His presence in your life. Let’s begin with the first of these powerful invitations: the apostles’ teaching.
Traditionally, pursuing the apostles’ teaching, or doctrine, means reading and meditating on the Scriptures, the sacred writings inspired by God. As you can imagine, throughout the ages, people have developed a number of methods to do this. The approach we would like to explore (other paths are listed below) is called lectio divina. Many are familiar with it, but — just so we’re on the same page — we’ll first offer a definition.
An ancient Christian practice, in Latin it means “divine reading,” and, quite simply, it is a slow,
repetitive reading of a short piece of Scripture while we quiet our minds and hearts to hear
God’s voice and be in His Presence. It is an encounter with, not the study of, Scripture because
the living God comes to us through the sacred text. Instead of reading to get information, we let the text master us. Lectio divina is a form of Christian meditation. In his book, Mystically Wired, Ken Wilson writes, “Scripture is designed for meditation. These are living words that we are meant to enter through meditation. They are revelatory, light-bathed, God-breathed words that can lead us into God’s presence” (p. 102).
Slow down and try out a new way of experiencing God. Leave the to-do list behind; quiet your mind and read slowly. Try reading out loud if you are alone. If you want to go further with lectio divina, there are four movements, which are described clearly on the website of the Order of Carmelites: http://ocarm.org/en/content/lectio/what-lectio-divina.
Below is a short list of other ways to approach Scripture:
Daily bible reading: there are many excellent, free online tools. One of our favorites is www.biblegateway.com where you may find or construct a reading plan for you.
Scripture memorization: one of the easiest (and, frankly, most fun) ways of memorizing
Scripture can be found on www.scripturetyper.com, also available as an app for your phone.
The daily office: if you enjoy a liturgical approach to Scripture, the daily office is very helpful. You can get it online or by app by going to www.missionstclare.com.
Written meditations: one of the most popular is Our Daily Bread (odb.org), but
www.crosswalkcom/devotionals offers a variety from which you may choose.
Scripture in song: a great deal of Scripture has been put to music across the centuries. Search YouTube and Pandora for songs.
Teaching and preaching: podcasts and YouTube videos are just two ways to open yourself up to teaching and preaching to assist in your daily connection with God.
Set aside a little time (at least) each day to encounter God in this way. Doing it with your partner (or a friend) can move you both toward God as well as intimacy with each other.
This is the next piece of the four-fold activity in Acts 2. Fellowship has to do with community, but the meaning has become a bit distorted as today we largely associate it with potluck dinners or parties. While the idea of enjoying one another’s company is wonderful, it may not be exactly what the early church was up to. Fellowship, in the Greek text, is koinonia, which has at its core the idea of sharing something — or in this case — Someone, in common. When the early church fellowshipped, they shared with each other what they had received from the Lord. Fellowship is not simply a social gathering; it is an intimate connection with others, with God as both the source of and reason for the association.
Luke reports that, “all the believers were together and had everything in common” (Acts 2:44, emphasis added). The word common is the root, koine. This sharing together met needs, all types of needs. This type of fellowship is designed to share God and His resources with one another. God has outfitted His people with spiritual gifts or capacities designed to build up others, and has empowered His people with the heart-filled desire to move toward others in loving ways. Read the New Testament and it won’t be long before you come across the phrase, “one another,” used 59 times throughout its pages. Every time we move in one of these gifts or in love toward another, we are fellowshipping. Below we would like to focus on three ways to share God that you may not think of typically as fellowship: spiritual direction, pastoral care, and psychotherapy.
Spiritual direction, as it is called today, has its roots in the early church. For those not familiar with it, spiritual direction is akin to discipleship, but different in that it’s mostly a listening ministry; the spiritual director listens to the person as well as the Holy Spirit. A spiritual director helps a person respond to God’s deep and personal invitation. A session might look like this: the spiritual director and the person would meet in a private place (as anything said is completely confidential). Many times the director will open with prayer, often to include some silent time. Then the person will talk about his or her life, events, thoughts, and feelings — good and bad, and what he or she thinks God is doing (or not doing!). The director listens, ask questions, and make comments as prompted by the Holy Spirit, and you have undivided attention and care directed toward you and your concerns.
The way to a deeper walk with God is not usually a smooth road, and having a trained spiritual director who is deep into the journey can help you experience the love and presence of God in your daily life. “Spiritual direction is the contemplative practice of helping another person or group to awaken to the mystery called God in all of life, and to respond to that discovery in a growing relationship of freedom and commitment” (James Keegan, SJ). A spiritual director named Joann Crowley tells us, “As a process of mutual discovery and disclosure, spiritual direction opens new horizons of self-knowledge, compassion, and deep oneness with the Spirit of God.” If you are interested in learning more about spiritual direction, there is a page on my website, or go to http://www.sdiworld.org/find-a-spiritual-director/what-is-spiritual-direction.
When you are able to speak openly and honestly about your concerns with a trusted pastor or trained lay leader, you make yourself open to the giving and receiving that defines real fellowship. In those moments, the presence of God, His words and love, are with you both. It is a wonderfully holy moment.
Does it seem odd to you to refer to psychotherapy as a type of fellowship? Of these three, psychotherapy is often the most intimate connection. Usually, you and your therapist will meet more frequently than you would with a spiritual director or pastor, and the scope of what you discuss is usually broader and the depth considerable. In a relationship with a good therapist, you ought to feel genuinely accepted and safe. In this environment, both share: the therapist shares his or her heart and mind with you; you share your heart and mind with your therapist. The focus of both of your hearts and minds is … well, you! This is a picture of God’s love, of a parent’s love, of how the children of God are supposed to love.
We mention these three examples of fellowship because so many of us need this type of intimate connection with others we can trust to fill ourselves up … again and again, that we may turn around and share what we have received with others. This is the rhythm of fellowship: receive, give, receive, give. This is sharing. This is sharing God with each other.
Breaking of Bread
The third piece of the four-fold activity in Acts was instituted by Jesus himself. At the Last Supper, Jesus met with his apostles, had a meal with them that we now know as the Lord’s Supper, Communion, or the Eucharist. The early church, following this example, had a common meal together and then celebrated this memorial meal of bread and wine. Eating is such a physical thing to do, and that is the point: to remember the Lord in this physical manner.
The Apostle John stresses the union of divine and human, of spirit and flesh: the Word, the second member of the Godhead, became flesh (John 1:14a). This is the Incarnation, or en-flesh-ment, of God. In a letter written later, John writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched, this we proclaim concerning the Word of life” (I John 1:1, NIV). John is telling us that God has embraced the physical, the fleshly, that the divide between sacred and common is an artificial one. And so, connecting with God is not something intended to be otherworldly or only spiritual. Rather, it invites our total humanity, body, soul, and spirit.
On the first Saturday of December of 2015, our church hosted an advent retreat. One of its major emphases was to love God with our bodies — and we were given carte blanche to do so. We found ourselves kneeling, standing, singing, dancing, lifting our hands and arms, bowing low, and looking at sacred art. I came away from this experience realizing that when I kneel, my body tells my mind something powerful that I don’t quite understand.
Does your prayer time calm you, center you in God’s love? Do you find prayer a duty, more stressful than joyful? Do you experience prayer as just a concentrated time of ruminating on your worries? You’re not alone, but this is not God’s wish. Ken Wilson tells us, “The best way to quiet the running monologue…is not to tell it to be quiet, but to focus instead on one thing for an extended period” (Mystically Wired, p. 98). One way to do this is to engage in centering prayer. We’d like to focus on this as the final element of the four-fold activity spoken of in Acts.
The root of all prayer is interior silence. Though we think of prayer as thoughts or feelings expressed in words, this is only one expression. Centering prayer can open the way for an unfiltered connection with God. Thomas Keating describes it as “a method of silent prayer that prepares us to receive the gift of contemplative prayer, prayer in which we experience God’s presence within us, closer than breathing, closer than thinking, closer than consciousness itself. This method of prayer is both a relationship with God and a discipline to foster that relationship”2. One of my joys as a spiritual director (Renée) is seeing people find a spiritual practice that truly feeds them; I watch as ordinary people are transformed. Centering prayer is one of those practices, and it’s not just for a select few: this is a tradition with roots in the early church, meant for every Christian.
For those not familiar with it, centering prayer is silent prayer where we still our internal world to touch God, simply to be in His presence. It has been referred to as the prayer of rest. Thomas Keating calls centering prayer the “poor man’s therapy” because, when practiced consistently, it will heal and transform you! It does not replace, but rather gives depth to all other kinds of prayer.
Here’s how it’s done:
1. Sit comfortably in a private space (where you won’t be interrupted) with your eyes closed.
2. Choose a word that is sacred to you, one that represents your intention to be with God and be open to His mysterious work in you. Whenever your mind wanders to other things — and it will, expect it to! — simply return gently to your sacred word.
3. At the end, sit for another minute or so. What are your impressions? Where is God’s invitation for you today?
Twenty minutes is the recommended length (ideally, twice a day). For the rest of your day, go ahead and stress yourself out if you must, but for this twenty-minute interlude, put it all away and simply be present to The Presence. For a more thorough description, go to www.contemplativeoutreach.org. This website also has a free centering-prayer app that you can download to your mobile phone. There you can choose tones to begin and end your prayer time, as well as customize other preferences.
Other Types of Prayer
Various types of prayer filled the early church. The following can help toward Paul’s encouragement to “pray continually” (I Thessalonians 5:17, NIV):
The Lord’s Prayer: sometimes called the “Our Father,” many are familiar with this prayer. We would like to suggest that you try something different, adding to your experience of praying this prayer: try connecting each phrase with a deep, slow, calming breath. “Here’s the secret part: your brain will offer less resistance to the idea of praying at intervals through the day, because your brain will learn that prayer is relaxing – that it feels good” (Ken Wilson, Mystically Wired, p. 141). Ken suggests dividing the Lord’s Prayer into five deep breaths: the inhale is on the first part of every phrase, and the exhale on the second.
The Jesus Prayer: we are not certain how far back this prayer goes, but we certainly know that it was used in early monastic practices. It appears that the most popular version is: “Lord Jesus Christ, son of the living God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” Believers would pray this prayer repeatedly throughout their day as a way of fixing their hearts on God.
The Yahweh Prayer: sometimes called the breath prayer, breathe in for the first syllable (Yah) and breathe out for the second (weh), to repeat the name of God as a way of praying throughout the day.
Praying in the Spirit: after Paul teaches us to put on the armor of God to withstand the assaults of this world, he tells us to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests” (Ephesians 6:18a, NIV). For many, this is an encouragement to pray in a prayer language or in tongues. If this is not part of your prayer repertoire, then still your heart and invite the Holy Spirit’s intercessions.
The A.C.T.S. Prayer: popularized several decades ago, each letter represents an important theme in prayer (many would suggest praying in this order as well): A = adoration, C = confession, T = thanksgiving, S = supplication.
Two-Way Journaling: for those longing to hear the voice of God, two-way journaling provides such an opportunity. Dr. Mark Virkler of Communion with God Ministries has invested much of his ministry helping people hear the voice of God, and his website, www.cwgministries.org, provides many resources about hearing from God. There is also his teaching on YouTube: “Mark Virkler – 4 Keys to Hearing God’s Voice.” In addition, musician Julie True, working with Dr. Virkler, has a beautiful accompaniment to assist, also on YouTube: “A Visionary Stroll Along the Sea of Galilee.” The essence of two-way journaling is writing your thoughts to God, focusing on Him and jotting down words that flow into your mind. Try it. Many (including me!) have been amazed at the intimacy with God that this brings to them.
Your Life: A Living Sacrament
And so, the early church did something physical, fleshly: they ate and they baptized with water. With time, the church added five additional “sacraments.” Reformed churches tend to hold onto the original two, communion and baptism, and minimize the rest. Indeed, Jesus Himself gave special significance to these two physical acts; however, as Creator of the whole world, our hunch is that when He is remembered in the doing, a world of physical acts can be sacraments. So, take communion regularly, encounter God in baptism (yours and others’), sing, smell, taste, touch, bow, kneel, raise your hands, lay your hands on someone and pray or encourage. Experience God with your body!
Going from spiritual disconnection to connection is an inward journey, but one that reshapes all our relationships. We have offered some ways to connect, and hope that you find one that meets you where you are.
1. Croezen, S., Avendano, M., Burdorf, A., & van Lenthe, F. (2015). Social participation and depression in old age: A fixed-effects analysis in 10 European countries. American Journal of Epidemiology, 182(2), 168-176. doi:10.1093/aje/kwv015.