As we continue to think about spirituality and faithfulness, I think it is important to talk about spiritual practice. As I have written many times before, for me, I like an active spiritual practice. Preaching or hiking, but I need to be doing something in order to connect with God. To sit in quiet is something that I realized was not my thing. Knowing this about myself helps me to know why sometimes I will feel incredibly close to God and why at times I feel removed. I say this as a preamble of sorts to the letter this week, because it is about spiritual practices and the development of individual faith.
A few years back I was offered a class called 'Writing' as Spiritual Practice. Since a noted author and theologian taught the class, I took it, even though I was not sure that I could make writing a spiritual endeavor. While I do love to write, my learning disabilities constantly make me very self-conscious of my work and the sometimes-painstaking process of writing always seemed to be more about form and development, than God.
So when I saw the syllabus and recognized “The Elements of Style,” by Strunk and White, I almost withdrew from the class. Fortunately, that term there was not a better option and I continued with the class. What happened in that class was one of the most remarkable moments of my life. At that point, I had been ordained 9 years and much of my personal spiritual life was going through a survival period. I did what I needed to do to keep connected with God, but it seemed that my faith life was a struggle: no matter what I did I could not feel connected.
On the first day of class, we began by writing, not journaling; just writing whatever came to our heads. From there we wrote, read, rewrote and so on for two weeks. Sometimes we had starters (a sentence or two to give direction) and sometimes we did not. On one hand, I struggled every moment of the class, but on the other hand, I felt by the end of the class that I had been freed from a prison that kept me from connecting to God. As I wrote more and more, my friends would read and reflect back where they saw God in my writing and helped me identify the issues that were ultimately keeping me from connecting with God.
This class marked a turning point in my ministry because it witnessed to me through the structure within the class the importance of writing and listening to the faith of others and hearing the ways in which they could witness back to me about my faith. Interestingly, in almost every instance, those who I shared my writing with would highlight a struggle or moment of grace that I had not seen, even though I had written about it. This witness came to make me stronger in what I believed and would serve to be an incredible tool over the times that I have struggled with my faith.
It is interesting that this worked so well for me, but then again, writing, reading, and talking are all very active modes of spirituality and in the strongest of ways, the practice I learned in that class allowed me to connect in on a much deeper level. However, saying that, I know that not all spiritual practices work for me. I have, for instance, tried over the years to do contemplative spiritual practices and I can never connect to God through those. It does not make them bad or to be avoided because they do not work for me, I just know that is not my thing, where writing, sports, exercise, talking, preaching, etc. are ways in which I connect the strongest to God. I say this because even though I feel very connected to God when I write, or do any of the other things I do for spiritual focus, it is not always easy. In fact, it is usually quite difficult. However, when I finish I know where I am in my faith.
Rev. Dr. Bryan James Franzen