interesting discussion on spiritual practices

i’m sure i’ll incite some strong responses with this post (which i’m not a huge fan of — “can’t we all just get along?”). but i do enjoy dialogue — it helps us grow, makes us examine our own beliefs and conclusions.

there’s been some interesting discussion attached to my post a few days back about whether or not ys is embracing eastern religions. my friend donna made a point that i thought was really helpful in bringing out an issue i’d like to highlight. here’s most of donna’s comment (she’s a great writer, huh?):

Gosh, Marko, I *totally* hear what you’re saying, bro’; but, gosh, I dunno… I’ll tell ya: some of this stuff sorta gives me the heebie-jeebies..?

I remember when Tim and I were new Christians. We drove cross-country back to our hometowns to share The Faith with our loved ones. We were SO excited, you know. Some of the first folks we visited were my old teacher/nuns. These dear women practically raised me, so I figured they’d be relieved to know I was a Christian now, even if I wasn’t the rosary-toting kind.

Boy was I in for a shocker: they had discarded their veils and some of their other nunnish trappings– and were sporting neatly-set, 50’s style HAIR-DO’s for pete’s sake! Too cute! I was so happy for them in their newfound wash-n-set freedom.

Curiously, however, along with The Liberated Nun Look they were also now ALL into the labyrinth walking, centering prayer, “Jesus magick,” let’s-get-one-with-the-universe stuff– no kidding, some of the same stuff that *I* was into waaay back in the mid-80s– when I was still *searching*!!!

Most shockingly, they were no longer Jesus-alone. (Well, okay, I guess back when I hung with them they were more like “Jesus-n-Mary alone”. But at least they *got* the No-one-cometh-to-the-Father-but-by-Me part, you know?) No kidding, Marko: they, also, were suddenly saying things like, “All truth is God’s truth”– but then they DID take that to the not-so-good place, you know?

Now I know *you* are not saying all-roads-lead-to-Heaven, but I know these ladies didn’t believe that at the beginning of their “spiritual stuff” journey either. So, like, what took ‘em there? (Maybe the veils had been tightly holding their brains together all those years, so that when they removed them, their brains loosened up and got all mixed up..?)

One of the nuns eagerly sent us home with a book she had just gotten published. It had the imprimatur on it and everything! We read it in the van and nearly drove off a cliff. TOTAL new-age crapola– the very kind of fluffy “spiritual” stuff I used to read during HER CLASS by tucking it into the RC theology book I was *supposed* to be reading!!!

my response:

i think you’re unknowingly doing what others who are afraid of spiritual practices are and have done — throwing the baby out with the bathwater. it’s guilt by association.

let me explain.

because some people mix legalism (clearly renounced by jesus) in with bible-reading, does that mean we should throw out the bible? of course not. because some people use “prayer” to pray some to god (as we christians understand and know god), but other times pray to spirits, the dead, saints, and whatever or whoever else; does that mean we throw out prayer? of course not. because some people mix in manipulation and judgementalism and even heresy with preaching, does that mean we throw out preaching? of course not. i could go on, but i think you get my line of reasoning here.

yes, there are people who utilize prayer and scripture and labyrinths and meditation and just about everything associated with christianity for spirituality that we would consider “other” than true christianity. what’s new? that’s been the case since the beginning of time, pretty much. paul and other bible writers often had to address this kind of extra-orthodox stuff in their letters — but (this is key), they don’t tell the christ-followers, “i guess you have to give up that spiritual practice, now that people are using it for non-jesus-reasons.”

none of that mis-use should cause us to retreat from christ-centered, jesus-only (in response to your jesus-plus phrase) ways and means. most of the prayer practices i’ve used, which have greatly deepened my understanding of and relationship with jesus, are rooted in historic christianity. if someone misuses them, well, that’s a bummer; but it just doesn’t make sense to distance ourselves from things that can deepen our faith because “those people” have or are using them for other purposes.

let the slippery-slope accusations begin!

22 thoughts on “interesting discussion on spiritual practices”

  1. I have really appreciated the discussion. It’s my contention that this whole thing is MOSTLY a disagreement based in a lack of knowledge and understanding. There is a false assumption among some that seems to believe that all church history is worthless, that the leaders of the past 20 centuries are inferior to the theologians of the 20th century.

    My hope is that the more we educate and fill with knowledge, perhaps the more people will see that what is being accomplished here isn’t new and isn’t impure at all. I mean, we can be idealistic, right?

  2. Hmmm. Good thoughts. I think we always have the freedom and grace to explore our spiritual practices in God. Sometimes we are far off and sometimes we are right on. I believe God gives us grace to engage him however it may look. He always seems to bring us back to the center when it gets “me focused” or “something else focused”. I also think the ways people attempt to connect with God are at times more indicative of their personality than the form.

  3. I think a lot of these types of discussions come down to what Paul said to the early church. He didn’t have a problem with eating meat that was offered to idols, but some early Christians did. It isn’t really a salvational issue. It is more of a personal approach. How you are comfortable worshiping God may make others uncomfortable. That doesn’t necessarily make either approach wrong (although if you are sacrificing virgins, I would have to say that that crosses a line) just different. It is, mostly, about the intention and heart of the person doing it. If you can truely worship God by having a ‘spiritual’ experience with God, then good for you, praise God! If ‘spiritualism’ doesn’t work for you, for whatever reason, that’s ok too. The above doesn’t apply to salvational issues. Then, there’s right and there’s wrong, no grey area. I think our backgrounds/personal history affects how we worship. I grew up in a church that didn’t clap during singing. The church I’m in now does. I don’t clap (normally) but I don’t mind if others do. (am I rambling? lol)

  4. I live a half hour from Amish country. They don’t use electricity, because the wires go to “sinful” places like bars. They also don’t have telephones in their homes. But wait, they DO have telephones in the barn for “business reasons”. They don’t drive cars. But they can ride in cars, and do. There are so many rules and regulations, one can hardly keep track of them. I have to go back to just a few things Jesus said: Love God, love each other, and go and make disciples. He didn’t say “love God, but not in a prayer labyrinth”. He didn’t say “love others, except for {insert your favorite sinner here}”. He didn’t say, “Go make disciples, but you can’t use multimedia to reach them.” I’m sure you get my drift. This whole discussion has been interesting, but the bottom line is simple: If it gets me closer to Jesus and closer to God, I’m in favor of it. Period.

    Rock on, YS! Woo Hoo!

  5. In helping us distinguish worldly practices from “Christian” ones, my professor at Multnomah Bible College said, “Non-Christians brush their teeth. Worldly people brush their teeth. Does that mean that we should stop brushing our teeth?”

    Of course brushing our teeth and practicing spiritual disciplines for the sake of drawing closer to God are completly different, but I agree: Don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

  6. I posted one of the negative responses in the other thread. I personally find the quick trotting out of the legalist accusation, while expected, to be offensive. I’m not much into judging worship styles and what not (burn your candles and incense and I might even join you from time to time). Centered around God and his truth is the key.

    Where I beg to differ on the spiritual disciplines is their origin and use in the occult world. I am very concerned that Christians are opening themselves up to problems with spiritual beings that are quite clever in disguising themselves. They have, after all, been around much longer than any of us.

    The “meat offered to idols” is not particularly helpful because the thing there carries no significance. However, the spiritual practice of something that originates in the occult is a whole other matter.

    Again, not trying to be legalistic or demonstrate ignorance, but just asking for the exercise of some discretion and caution. I don’t know why you can’t have a rich, full, deep, meaningful prayer life without the exercise of things that might open you up to something that is not of God.

    My $.02. Your mileage may vary.

    One other thing: I know that in various forms of contemplative prayer, you say a single word over and over. I know from observation of this that this will put people into an altered stated of consciousness regardless of whether they are Christian or not. How do you square this with the admonition of Jesus not to pray as the pagans do? Did that have as much to do with technique as with content?

    I know one of our pastors once went to a local labyrinth. It was not Christian and it was clear that there was demonic activity involved. Now, I suppose he could have been entirely wrong in his assessment of that situation (but seriously doubt it). It just seems to be unnecessary and potentially harmful.

    Have at me for my narrowmindedness and raining on everyone’s parade!

  7. John-
    I appreciate the spirit in which you wrote you email. I think where you and I differ is that I don’t believe that you open yourself up to anything that’s not of God if you are praying to Jesus, even if it does look different. I think there’s a lot of fear messages out there from many churches that makes people so afraid to try anything different or new. After all wasn’t it the pharisees that God blasted for their so called “correct” religious practices? I guess I can understand your line of thinking, but I’m willing to go a little further and “test the spirits”. no blasting here. Keep following God.

  8. Quite a while ago in my spiritual walk, I came to the conclusion that what constitutes sin is more intention than it is action. If the intention of eating meat was to give glory to the pagan god, then eating meat is sin. If the intention of eating meat is to gain nourishment, and if in your knowledge of God you recognize that the pagan god the meat was sacrificed to isn’t real anyways, then eating meat is not sin. There have always been Christians (and Pharisees before them) who felt better safe than sorry. I don’t think Jesus condemned the Pharisees for being extra careful in their religious practices, He condemned them for placing that baggage on other people. Basically what I am thinking in regard to all this is…If sin is, at least in part, defined by motive and not action, then worship is defined in the same manner. Regardless of the form of worship, it is not the action that is worship, but the heart behind it. If we are worship the almighty organ, guitar, worship leader…insert your idol…then it is not worship to God, it is worship of man and man’s things. It doesn’t matter that is Sunday Morning in a traditional church, it is not right, and Satan has decieved us. If we are using candles, incense, repetitive prayers, praying through scripture…whatever other “eastern” practice you want to bash…and we are focused on how “emergent” we are or how cutting edge (can you be cutting edge with thousand year old practices) we are, then it is again, not worship of God, but of rituals and religion. BUT…If we follow the principle of Col. 3:17 “and whatever you do, whether in word or in deed, do it all to the glory of God,” then not only is my guitar worship, and that organ that the old people love is worship, and the candles, and the incense, and whatever type of praying, and the things we do in service to God, and…you get the idea… Worship is about the subject of worship and the heart behind the worship. It is not about the specific action of worship. One thing I have learned from cross cultural missions is that we Westerners have destroyed some great cultures in the name of “correct worship”. For the people we did that favor to, they no longer worship in Spirit and in Truth, but in good old fashioned American Hymns. But at least they aren’t using those “eastern” practices and letting Satan slip in while God’s not paying attention.

    On a side note, I personally find many of the things labeled as “Eastern practices” in this whole discussion highly uncofortable. But I have tried them both as a Youth Minister/Worship leader with my students and as an individual in other settings. I find that shift from the “religious routine” to be both challenging and refreshing. I have never known of any tricks of Satan that are satisfying and refreshing in a long term sort of way. In fact, his things are more short term highs (can we say youth conferences) than long term refreshment.

  9. Mark, I think Donna’s comments were to the point. Although I agree that we should not ‘throw the baby out with the bathwater.’ As I said before you appear to be looking at all this from the point of a mature Christian who knows what he believes and why. A good number of YS event attendees are not that mature and there is a possibility some of the labyrinth type stuff may lead them in the wrong direction. Does this mean YS should drop the labyrinth? No way, just explain it better and make sure that it truly focuses on Christ (which I feel it does). I think YS’ move to stop putting on the Emergent conference and to not publish the books did a lot to help in sorting out the good from the not so good.

    The origin of the baby and the bath water saying comes from a time where there was only one bath tub and everyone took turns. Usually starting with the head of the household and working down to the youngest (or the baby). Many times the water would become so dirty that the baby could disappear in the water. Hence the saying ‘Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water.’

    Using that expression may be what I am trying to say is get the baby out of the dirty bath water before it gets sick or drowns.

    Mike …

  10. mike, have you been through the labyrinth we have at our conventions? i just — truly — don’t see how anyone could go through that and have ANY questions about whether or not it is 1000% christ-centered.

  11. i keep thinking about this post. i haven’t wanted to respond because it would be more ranting than a thoughtfull discussion. but i’m going to jump here.
    i grew up in a home where my parents were good old fundamental, traditional, church going, bible reading, “sin” avoiding, christians. according to the book, the book that says what to do and what not to do, they did everything they could to avoid stuff like eastern practices and such stuff. often they took it to the extreme, which actaully makes sense to me. if you are going to have a problem with eastern theology you whould have a problem with all the other ways we have embraced the world. so we didn’t “do” halloween, much of easter or christmas. they tried to avoid embracing anything that came from pagan rituals. and yet, i grew up being beat and abused and ignored to the extent of being raped by brothers and grandfathers and neighborhood boys. i also wretsled nightly with demons, whether percieved or real, in my room attacking me and raping me. so, i don’t see how narrowing down our christian religion to certain specific practices, which have only really been aroung for a few hundred years, will help us avoid whatever it is that we are trying to avoid by not walking a labrynth. freedom from sin and demons and such things, comes from intent of the heart not our actions. the jesus i read about protects and listens and answers a calling heart no matter where they are calling from and guides and directs each person who has the guts to cry out to him, even if it’s in the form of a chant. so, i don’t know, just felt like i needed to say something. sorry if it’s too much…

  12. i agree with sevita. i think god responds to anyone crying out for him whether they’re walking a labyrinth or in the middle of a traditional church service. but i also think that if you walk into either looking for demons or even ways just to avoid really connecting with god, you’ll likely find that too.

    i know people who’ve spent years learning about god and have never had a heart experience of knowing god. and i know people who’ve experienced god but don’t know much about him or his character. it seems like the practices of our faith have to include ways to both know about him as well as know and experience his presence personally.

  13. Mike – Marko was right when he asked if you’ve been through the labyrinth at YS. I worked at the labyrinth – the instructions given to participants – “You’re going on a guided prayer walk, leaving the world behind you, and encountering God in the center of the labyrinth. Then, in the center, if you so desire, are consecrated elements for Eucharist (or communion). Spend as much time with God as you like, then leave when you are ready to go back into the world with God.” How anyone can think that that is anything but Christian just wasn’t paying attention.

  14. Mark & Carl, while I did not get a chance to visit the Labyrinth at YS, I have spoken with those who have and I agree that it is ‘Christ centered.’ In fact I thought I made that point in my original post. My comments to Mark are in the way of expressing a few concerns I have and asking the YS staff use a little caution on what they present. The truth is YS has a lot of influence in the youth community and because of that needs to look at what they back. By The Way, this is something I feel they do most of the time.

    Please understand I am a BIG supporter of YS. I have attended YS conventions every year since the mid 80s. I promote their events and publications. All I am attempting to do is express my concerns to a group I have the highest respect for.

    In fact I made it a priority to personally introduce myself to Mark while at the Sacramento event.

    In His Grip, Mike …

  15. Comment to John. What “altered state of consciousness” are you referring to that Christians should avoid for fear of being possesed or influenced by demons? Is there any theological or psychological support for a “state of mind” or realm where the follower of Jesus who is seeking him with the right attitude is beyond his protection and help? This sounds heretical.

    I have been practicing contemplative prayer, among other disciplines, pretty regularly for the past 18 months. I have never had any demonic experiences. Just the opposite. It has been one method among others that has led me to a deeper relationship with Jesus and a clearer sense of how to love others. Was my state of mind altered? Absolutely! Kind of like putting on the mind of Christ.

    I doubt whether anyone would agree that a distracted, anxious, guilt-ridden, preoccupied, self-centered mind is conducive to prayer and obediance to the will of the Father. Jesus appeared to have some good reason to be distracted in his ministry. He went away semi-regularly for hours and days at a time to a solitary place to pray. I wonder what he did for those days and hours? Somehow I doubt he spent all of that time increasing his head knowledge about God and practicing intercessory and petitionary prayer. Wonder what he did, practically, to tune out the distractions and listen for directions from the Father? I wonder how many objections we would have to those methods if we knew them? I wonder if he taught them to his disciples? I wonder if they taught their disciples?

  16. Mark:

    Indeed, there are situations where I believe a Christian can place himself in a situation where he will not be protected. If I drive my car 80 to get to church, I shouldn’t expect protection. My ultimate goal may be good, but using the wrong path to get there.

    Putting yourself into an altered state of consciousness is similar, I supposee, to being drunk. When you are in that condition, you are opening yourself up. You suggest that as long as you are doing it to experience God, then it must be OK and you are within a zone of protection. I just don’t happen to share that view, probably because I question whether using such practices is seeking Jesus with the right attitude. That’s not heresy BTW.

    You suggest that Jesus may have engaged in such practices becasue he went away in solitude. That is speculation. We don’t know what he did. Did he go on these retreats to gain a deeper understanding of God? Probably not. He is God. He may have just gone away to rest you know. That seems to be what is indicated. Indeed, he seems to have a pretty well developed understanding of scripture throughout his ministry. I don’t think that understanding fell out of heaven into his brain (could have, but I doubt it). It could be it was there all along, but we do see instances of his studying the scriptures.

    So what he did in those times of solitude is an open question. I do know that he said that we should not pray as the pagans do. No open question there. There was probably a reason(s) for that. The reason for the warning just may be a whole lot deeper than you are willing to admit.

    Now, having said all of that, I am curious as to what you have learned exactly that you could not have learned from studying and meditating on scripture and putting on the mind of Christ that way? Is it possible to get to where you are doing that?

  17. (Thank you Marko for letting us have this little side bar discussion.)

    John: feel free to jump over to my blog or email me if you would like to carry this one on in more detail, which I would enjoy)

    The question of what Jesus did during his solitary times is not entirely open. The gospels do tell us that he went away to PRAY, not to catch up on his rest or to study. We also know that he did so in solitude, even away from his trusted friends and disciples. We also know he did this for hours. That being said, I think we agree that beyond that we have to intelligently speculate.

    I guess we need to define what prayer means and what “state of mind” would facilitate prayer. On the later, can I assume you agree that going into prayer times, or for that matter, life in general, with a distracted mind is not a good thing? I would be curious to know what you do to still your distracted mind in preparation to talk with God and when engaging in the world, and how well it is working for you. If whatever you do is working for you, I am glad, keep it up. However, if you struggle with it, as most do, there are some ways that have been used by Christians for centuries that have passed the safety and effectiveness test. On the surface, they share some characteristics of practices from other traditions as there are only so many ways to still what we have in common – a tendency to have a distracted mind.

    Is prayer defined as exclusively intercessory and petitionary in nature? Does listening in some manner play a role? Let’s both agree, let’s not pray as the pagans do.

    What have I learned exactly that I could not have learned from studying and meditating (sounds eastern!) on scripture? All I can tell you is that my typical spiritual routines (you know, the uncontroversial ones that even Lighthouse would not have a problem with – church, bible study, prayer (intecessory and petitionary)) took me only so far. Some other practices have been very helpful, so much so that I am tempted to say that I probably would not be where I am at without having done them. Mind you, I still study and meditate on scripture. Isn’t the important thing that I learned them? As a brother in Christ, aren’t you happy for me? I am finally learning what it means to be a disciple. I have finally moved from the head to the heart to action. I am finally learning how to love God and love my neighbor.

  18. As long as I seemed to be caught up in this brief point-counter point discussion, I might as well add a few more related to John’s recent post.

    First, no being drunk is not similar to contemplative-type prayer. I’ve experienced both and they are quite different. In the later, my judgment and performance is impaired, not to mention acting like an idiot and paying too high a price the next morning. In silent, solitary, contemplative-type prayer it is just the opposite. I become acutely aware of my surroundings, thoughts and feelings. Anxiety, worry, shame is dissipated (Jesus specifically told us to do this). It also helps me to be more mindful in my moment-by-moment interactions with others outside of my prayer time.

    Second, don’t confuse method with attitude. They are independent. Whatever methods you practice are as susceptible to being done with the wrong attitude as any other.

    Third, what I think is heresy is that if I ask for God’s spiritual protection when engaging in good faith to draw close to him I can enter some type of “zone” where God cannot provide it. Worst case scenerio would be that they (God and the evil one) are both present and waiting for us to respond (Job, Jesus).

    Fourth, it seems biblical that there are no “safe” spiritual practices. That is, where we are immune from temptation from the evil one. Jesus was tempted in the desert while fasting in solitude. Did he “open himself up” to this? To a certain degree, yes. It seems likely that he was confronted by the evil one precisely because he followed the Spirits leading into the desert and engaged in some contemplative practices (meant generically, not in details of a method). What was important was how he responded. Alternately, there is no virtue in leading a “safe” distracted life where we are clueless to both how the Spirit is working in and around us and when we are being tempted by the evil one.

    (having finished my point-counterpoint)

    I understand some believer’s hesitancy to do things that sound eastern or new age. But where exactly do you draw the line? Do you advocate eliminating all forms of contemplative practices or just certain ones? If just certain ones, which ones? How about just plain old silence and solitude, no mantras or bodily poses? (remember, I disagree with the premise of some “state of mind” that is uniquely the evil one’s domain when I am in God’s presence). Help me understand so that we can both draw closer to him than we are in an authentic way.

  19. Hahaha, I realize this thread is five years old, but for the record, today I disagree with my former post. I was SO wrong– sheesh!
    Grace, peace, love,

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