Helping you find your way to emotional, relational,
and spiritual wholeness.

Playlists and Prayer

Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus (1 Thess. 5:16-18).

It happens without warning.  When I am listening to the radio or watching television.  I feel like it happens against my will; as if there are forces at work with the sole purpose of high jacking my attention. All it takes is a couple of musical notes and a few short phrases and my mind is captured. I am distracted in the shower, on the way to work and when I am trying to fall asleep:

“You can’t always get what you want . . . “

“Rollin, rollin, rollin on the river . . . “

“I believe in miracles, where you from, you sexy thing . . .”

Once in my head, it takes very little effort to carry a song with me throughout the day.  It is not always the same song. I have about twenty songs on my mental playlist. Until recently, I assumed my playlist had the same hypnotic effect on everyone. I didn’t realize how personal my list was until I told my friends about my playlist.  Most of my songs are not on their playlists. In fact, it seems many of us have such a list, but no two lists are the same. What captures my attention may not capture yours and vice versa.

What does this have to do with prayer? For many people, constant prayer is much more difficult than keeping company with the lyrics of their favorite band. Why is paying attention to God so difficult? Wouldn’t it be great if being aware of God’s presence was as easy as singing a song?

Is it possible to learn to pray in such a way that being present to God is as natural as singing a song? There is an ancient way of praying that has helped people throughout the centuries. It is called a Breath Prayer.  A Breath Prayer is a very personal prayer between you and God. By using a Breath Prayer you can learn to be aware of God all the time no matter what you are doing.

How can you learn to pray this way?  First, you discover your Breath Prayer.  Then you practice it regularly and soon you are as easily aware of God’s presence as “Well, shake it up, baby, now, (shake it up, baby), Twist and shout. (twist and shout) . . .”

Discovering Your Breath Prayer

  1. Sit in a comfortable position.  Close your eyes, and remind yourself that God loves you and that you are in God’s loving presence.  Recall a passage of scripture that puts you in a prayerful frame of mind. Consider “The Lord is my Shepherd” or “Be still and know that I am God.”
  2. With your eyes closed, imagine God is calling you by name.  Hear God asking you by name, “What do you want?”
  3. Answer God with what directly comes from your heart.  Your answer might be a single word, such as peace or love or forgiveness.  It could also be a phrase or brief sentence, such as “I want to feel your forgiveness” or “I want to know your love.” Your response to God’s question “What do you want?” becomes the heart of your prayer.
  4. Choose your favorite name or image for God. Choices commonly made include God, Jesus, Creator, Teacher, Lord, Spirit, Father, Shepherd.
  5. Combine your name for God with your answer to God’s question “What do you want?” You then have your prayer. For example: 

What I want

Name I Call God Possible Prayer

Peace

God Let me know your peace, O God.

Love

Jesus Jesus, let me feel your love.

Rest

Shepherd My Shepherd, let me rest in you.

When your prayer seems right for you, silently repeat it throughout the day. Praying the prayer all the time takes practice and persistence. It will begin like any habit; you will need to be intentional about saying it when your brush your teeth, drive in the car, and are waiting in line at the store.

Eventually, like a song you can’t get out of your head, you will begin to pray without ceasing and you will aware of God throughout your day.

– Steve Nickles, M.Div

www.crossrd.com

Hearing God

In my role as a spiritual director people often ask me questions about God and walking with God. They ask theology questions, questions about how to study the Bible, or could I recommend a good book on prayer.

But the question I get the most is “How do I know when God is speaking to me?” How do I know that it isn’t Satan, or my own selfish desires, or if I’m deluding myself? How do I know when God is speaking to me?

I tell them the way we come to recognize the voice of God is the same process we use to recognize anyone else’s voice. In the same way you learn to recognize the voice of your wife or a friend calling you on the phone; we learn to recognize God’s voice. I don’t need Caller ID to tell me when my wife, children or best friend is on the other end of a phone conversation. Familiarity builds recognition.

How does someone’s voice become familiar to us?

We begin by listening and paying attention. As we do this, there are certain things we need to listen for.

First, we listen for the quality of the Voice.

The Voice of God carries with it the weight of authority. Like Jesus when He told the raging sea to “Be Still” or when He commanded evil spirits to come out of a man or when He called Lazarus out of the tomb. When God speaks to us, it carries the weight of authority.

The voice of God doesn’t argue, or try to convince us to do something. God doesn’t rationalize or justify what He wants us to do. God does not try to manipulate us into obeying Him. Satan does, your sinful nature does, and the world does. But the voice of the God states it clearly without apology, without argument, without justifications. Listen for the quality of the Voice.

The voice of God also has a unique Spirit or tone about it.

Listen for the tone of the Voice In Matthew 11:29 Jesus says, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.” Gentle and Humble.

When God speaks to you the voice you hear will not be loud, hysterical, demanding, anxious, angry or frantic. God’s voice is gentle, calm and firm. In James 3:17 it says that “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy.” Pay attention to the tone of the Voice.

The third criteria for determining the source of the voice you are hearing is Content.

Listen for the Content of the Voice. In John 14:26, Jesus says that the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything Jesus has said.

The content of the voice of God will always conform to and be consistent with what Jesus has said and done. Any voice that does not sound like something Jesus would say is not a word from God.  Period!

As pastor Charles Stanley comments, “God’s voice will never tell us to engage in any activity or relationship that is inconsistent with the Holy Scriptures.” The Holy Spirit will never tell you to steal, to have an affair, to gossip, to slander, to avoid church, to not share your faith, to not read your Bible, to avoid prayer, to seek revenge, to not forgive someone, to be afraid of something God might say to you, or to judge someone. If these are the voices or thoughts going through your head, they are not from God.

Quality,Tone, and Content.

If it is God speaking, these three indicators will be in harmony with one another. If any of the three is a little off, you need to question the source of the voice and whether it has your best interest in mind.

God desires to be your friend; a friend who freely listens as you speak and one who wants you to recognize his voice when he speaks to you. A friend who’s voice you naturally recognize and respond to throughout your day. As you pay attention to the Quality, Tone, and Content of God’s voice you will learn to become familiar with God’s voice; as one friend to another.

 

 – Steve Nickles, M.Div

www.crossrd.com

Making Room for God

Guilty pleasures—something we really like doing, but feel guilty about; not because there is something wrong with it, but because we are afraid other people will judge us for having such lowbrow tastes. One of my favorite movies gets at the heart of guilty pleasures. In the movie What About Bob; Bill Murray’s character said there are two different types of people in the world, people who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t. Who would say they like Neil Diamond after that! I confess, I belong to the first group, but I won’t wear my concert t-shirt. TV reality shows qualify as guilty pleasures. Most of my friends like them but hate to admit it. Some like Amazing Race, Duck Dynasty, Hell’s Kitchen, Jersey Shore, The Bachelor, American Idol, or Storage Wars. I like some of these, but others I just don’t understand their appeal. There is one reality show I not only don’t get, but it causes me anxiety just to flip by it on my way to other shows. The show is called Hoarders. In case you don’t know, it is a show about people who for a variety of reasons cannot throw anything away and those who love them and want to help free them from their clutter prisons. The hoarders often have stacks of paper and garbage from floor to ceiling filling their homes. Even when it seems like there is no way they could possibly fit one more thing into their house, they manage to somehow find a nook or cranny to squeeze it into. Their philosophy is “there is always room for more.” The result of their hoarding is they often miss out on the most important things in life because they fear losing the inconsequential. I don’t like the show for two reasons. The first is I am not fond of clutter, the other is the show is a metaphor for life in the United States. Everyone I know is a time hoarder. We keep adding stuff to our lives without taking anything away. We keep cramming more and more activities into our lives even though we don’t have any room for it. Consequently, even our relationships are spoken of in terms of making time for this person or that. When someone asks me if I can we can get together for dinner this week; I like a hoarder with an over packed house, ask my wife if we can “fit it in” the calendar. Sometimes I view God from this same perspective. How will I fit God into my over-packed life? Prayer becomes about time management rather than me seeking out an intimate relationship with the God who created me. The title of this post is a bit misleading. You probably thought I was going to give you three tips for squeezing God into the plies of your life. There is only problem with trying to “make room for God”, God won’t cooperate it. After years of frustration I finally figured out why. God has no desire to fit into our lives. He will not go along with my attempts to fit him in like some neglected friend waiting to see if he is important enough to get on our calendar. This is what I discovered: God designed our relationship with him to work in only one way—with him at the center. So, what do we do? Well, instead of trying to add one more thing to your life to try and give God more attention why don’t you try doing what you are already but just a bit differently? How? Learn to be present to God in the midst of what you are doing. One of the primary ways we grow to know God is by being present to our thoughts. Why? God communicates to us through our thoughts, and we need to learn how to be present to our thoughts if we want to be present to God. Stay with me. Whether it’s encountering God in the reading the Bible, hearing a sermon, listening to a friend or hearing God’s still small voice, the primary vehicle of God’s communication to us is our thoughts. Unfortunately, we have become experts in the art of distraction. But if you want to know God you need to be trained by God to be present to your thoughts. Now, there are two basic approaches to learning how to be present to your thoughts; both are long-term investments in your relationship with God. Today we are going to focus on one. These are not quick fixes, but with God’s help you may start to see some changes right away. The way to make room for God is to Modify. What I do mean by modify? Instead of adding something to your already packed life, you intentionally decide to do what are already doing, but just a bit differently. You can pick of one of these ideas: Instead of driving with the radio on or texting, you learn to drive in silence and use the time to speak and listen to God. This will train you to be more comfortable with silence and instead of distracting you from God’s presence it will be a trigger to help you pay attention. When you go for a walk or exercise, unplug from your IPod a few times a week and use the time to listen and talk with God. At work, you can invite Jesus to help you do your job. I say this often, Jesus is smartest person who ever lived. The fact that He is God means there is no one smarter. And He wants to help you do the best job you can at work. You can modify Sundays. Instead of Sunday looking like every other day of week, intentionally carve out 2-3 hours of rest and make yourself available to God. Also, when you spend time with other people whether a friend, family member, or at your child’s sporting events leave your phone in the car. It will train you to be present to what is in front of you, the people, your thoughts, and the God who longs to reveal himself in every part of your life. Once a week, every week, fast from technology. Don’t freak out. I have a smart phone, I know all the rationalizations. But I encourage you to give it a try; you will be surprised at what good can happen. Is your life packed? Too packed for God? I don’t think so.

– Steven Nickles, M.Div.

www.crossrd.com

Blood-Letting, 8-Track Tapes, and Death

7.9.12 Steve NicklesDoes anybody really know what time it is
Does anybody really care (about time)
If so I can’t imagine why (Oh no, no)
We’ve all got time enough to cry
–Chicago

Throughout history there have been countless ideas and inventions, some have stayed with us, while others have been long abandoned. Many innovation were discarded were dangerous or stupid. Some practices have stuck around because time has proved their value to all people and places.

The medical community created many innovations throughout history to help improve your life. Consider the medical procedure called blood-letting. It was a gruesome practice used until the late 1800’s. The technique involved draining specific amounts of blood from strategic locations on the body based on the patient’s age and ailment. Cancer involved one strategy while insanity used another. The more severe the disease, the more blood was drained. Doctor prescribed the procedure, while Barbers performed the grisly task using sharp metal instruments or leeches. Yes, the same guys who trimmed your bangs drained your blood! Thankfully, modern medicine finally dismissed the practice as harmful and Fantastic Sam’s can now focus its full attention on perms and a “little taken off the top”.

Medicine is not the only progressive institution to create innovations to improve the quality of your life. Long before iPods and even CDs, 8-track tapes were designed to improve on the scratchy sound produced by records and stereo needles. 8-tracks were hyped as the technology of the future. Regrettably, I bought the hype and in my early teens I owned a dozen or so of these plastic sandwich-sized tape containers because of the “easy and convenient payment methods” of Columbia House music club. Each month I would push the “tape” into my new 8-track tape player I had to buy to play the tapes and listened to music club selections like: the Beach Boys, Elton John, Jim Croce, or Chicago. Though I felt cool to be using the latest technology; it was a frustrating way to listen to music. Once the 8-track player started it was nearly impossible to navigate back and forth between songs unless I was standing right next to my stereo. I was grateful when 8-tracks were replaced by cassettes, CDs and now I-tunes.

The Christian Church also had its fair share of bizarre and short-lived practices designed to help disciples become more like Jesus. Extreme acts of asceticism like pillar sitting, diving naked into the snow, and killing people who disagree with you are just a few of the previously accepted practices employed by those who claimed to follow Jesus for the past two millennia.

One practice you may not know about has been observed for 2000 years. On the surface, you might think its morbid and weird and you might be confused about why it has not been thrown on to history’s trash heap along with blood-letting and 8-tracks. But unlike draining blood and plastic music containers, this practice has proved useful and beneficial throughout all times and places for those who follow Jesus. The practice is called “Daily Remembering your Death”.

Why would anyone in their right mind spend any time focusing on their death? Because the fact is we are going to die and exercise, healthy eating, and cosmetic surgery cannot prevent it. Despite the latest medical advances only God knows how many days we have left on this earth. The practice of daily remembering your death will not prevent you from dying, but it ironically may help you to live. Reminding yourself of your impending death focuses priorities; can make you quicker to forgive an offense, encourage you to express your love to others, and helps you to be present to what God is doing in the moment instead of living in an imaginary future.

You may have never pondered this question, how do you practice remembering your death?
• Silently walk through a cemetery once a week
• Read Psalm 90 daily
• Write out your obituary

What could appear as a morbid habit, God can use to free you to live more joyfully. You will gain perspective on what is important and fleeting and you will learn how to love those around you because you will live in the reality that it may be your last chance to express it.
Lots of things come and go—including you. Focusing on the timeless practice of remembering your death can help you to be present to what is going on right in front of you instead of wasting a lot of time.

– Steve Nickles, M.Div.

Living the Questions

Our minivan is often a laboratory of life’s most important questions. While on our way to our many activities we try to pass the time by playing one of our favorite card games.  Some questions from the game are gross, while others are hilarious, but each one reveals something interesting about the person answering the question. Many of the answers are obvious, others we would rather not answer. How would you answer these questions from the card game You Gotta Be Kidding!

Would you rather use someone else’s clipped toenail as a toothpick or eat a teaspoon of eye crusties?

Would you rather do a mini cheer whenever someone says something nice to you or have to always wear a “kick-me” sign on your back?

Would you rather always have to pick your nose while talking to someone or always spit on people when you speak to them?

Life is filled with questions. Your response to them molds your decisions and often determines your life’s trajectory. Some questions are easily asked, quickly answered and easily forgotten while other questions latch on and won’t let go. Questions present themselves in a variety of forms and degrees of difficulty.

Some questions appear daily and are usually easy to answer:

  • What’s for dinner?
  • Paper or plastic?
  • Anyone call?
  • Have you seen my keys?
  • What time is it?
  • How are you doing?

Some questions are seasonal and are meant to start a conversation:

  • Are you dressing up for Halloween?
  • Have you finished your Christmas Shopping?
  • What are you giving up for Lent?
  • What are you doing for Memorial Day?
  • How many days left of school?
  • What are your plans for the summer?

Some questions accompany change and make you feel vulnerable:

  • How’s the packing going?
  • When are you leaving?
  • When’s the baby due?
  • When’s your last day?
  • How are you feeling today?
  • What did the doctor say?

But, there are some questions, you carry your whole life and affect everything:

  • What is God forming in me?
  • Where is God leading me?
  • What do I do now?
  • Why am I afraid?
  • What am I resisting?
  • When will God answer my prayer?

What do you do with the life-long questions?

The poet Rainer Maria Rilke wrote this advice to an aspiring young poet eager to rid himself of life’s uncomfortable questions:

Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and to try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don’t search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer. From Letters to a Young Poet

Some questions take a lifetime to answer.  Living the questions over a lifetime forms your faith and teaches you how to trust and walk with God. Spiritual directors can be helpful companions in the process of living out your questions.

What questions are you living right now? What would you rather do ignore them or live them? The answer is up to you.

-Steve Nickles, M.Div.

I don’t want to grow spiritually

Does this sound familiar?

  • I don’t feel like going to church.
  • What are we doing here anyway?
  • Everyone is irritating me.
  • The Spirit is not here like it used to be.
  • I have outgrown this _____________.
  • I don’t get anything from reading the Bible.
  • I think we should start looking for another church.
  • I am not being fed.
  • I know I should pray, but I just don’t feel like it.

There is a natural rhythm to all relationships.  We have seasons filled with passion and intimacy and other seasons marked by monotony, predictably and even boredom. Many factors can account for the fluctuations; not enough sleep, busyness, laziness, relational ruts, or neglect.

At other times we are merely experiencing the effects that accompany the seasons of having young children, financial stress, taking care of elderly parents, or graduate school. More often than not, if we wait a while, our relationships bounce back, but not always. If the dry season last a long time it may be indicative of a more serious issue—an issue capable of causing serious relational damage.

So, how do we tell the difference between a passing season and a destructive problem? It is not easy to figure it on our own. Most of us need a little help. We may need the input of a friend or a counselor to identify the real problem and some creative solutions.

The same rhythms show up in our relationship with God.

We all experience seasons in our relationship with God in which God seems close.  Prayer is fulfilling and transforming.  We are learning and growing and walking with God is the most important relationship in our life.  Each week we look forward to church. The people in our small group are our closest friends. Serving others is fruitful and satisfying. But also can experience difficult spiritual seasons. Prayer is hard work, people at church irritate us, and watching a Seinfeld episode for the twelfth time is more interesting than studying the book of Ephesians.

Sometimes we are going through a dry spell.  If that is the case, maybe we need to adjust the way we pray or it could be as simple as staying faithful to our spiritual habits and waiting it out.  Often within a few weeks or months, our passion for God returns and our spiritual life is reinvigorated.  But sometimes it’s not so simple.  Our struggles can be symptomatic of a more serious spiritual issue.  If left unchecked it can cause catastrophic consequences to our relationship with God.

What are we talking about? The condition is called Acedia. Acedia is a spiritual ailment in which we lose our interest in growing in our relationship with God.  It is a condition much deeper than simple spiritual dryness. It will not go away with time.  In fact, with time, if ignored, it gets worse.

What does Acedia look like? How do we know we have it? Acedia reveals itself in a number of ways but the most two common is laziness and restlessness. In laziness we will often lose our desire to pray, read the bible, go to church or even think about spiritual questions. It all can feel like too much work and not worth the effort. In the midst of Acedia, everything related to our relationship with God looks and feels dreary, grim, and listless.

Acedia also manifests itself with a general feeling of restlessness. Some people describe it as feeling “uncomfortable in their own skin”. During church, you might feel like running out of the building is the only reasonable response. When you try to pray or read the Bible your body and mind may fidget and long for something more satisfying to do. In extreme cases, you are tempted to think the only answer to your struggle is to find a new church or small group or to avoid church all together.

What is the source of Acedia? The source of Acedia is spiritual.  It shows up unannounced to those who are in the midst of trying to be faithful in their relationship with God and this is what makes it different from other spiritual ailments. The spiritual fathers and mothers of the third and fourth centuries called Acedia the “noon day demon” because it often affects people around mid-life.  It can also manifest itself at the mid-point of a ministry project or spiritual goal.

Acedia can also pounce on you at specific times of the year. Often it can creep in between Christmas and Lent or after Easter. These are both times of the year in which we have just completed a season of intense spiritual investment and we tend to become spiritually disoriented because we don’t have the external structures to focus our efforts like we do in Advent and Lent. The lack of structure makes us vulnerable to Acedia.

How do we respond to Acedia? Most importantly, Acedia should not be ignored. It needs to be confronted directly. If we ignore it, like many physical issues or injuries, it will not fix itself, it become much worse. If left alone it will wreak havoc on our relationship with God.

Two specific spiritual disciplines are necessary for combating Acedia. It depends upon how it reveals itself. The first is staying put and the second is getting active.  This advice might seem to contradict itself.  How can we get active and stay put at the same time?

Let me explain. If we are struggling with spiritual restlessness we need to practice learning to stay put for short periods of time each day. As we learn to stay put and resist the uncomfortable feeling of wanting to escape; God will empower us to overcome the temptation to run away from the internal struggle and will help us to grow through it. Running away either by looking for a new church or new anything will not remedy Acedia.

A similar process happens with spiritual laziness. If we are struggling with laziness we need to spend some time each day getting off the couch and doing something physical, like exercise or manual labor. Go for a walk, weed the garden, or mow the lawn; anything to get you off your seat for a while. God made us as spiritual and physical beings.  What we do physically affects us spiritually and vice-versa. Consistent physical activity over time can reinvigorate us spiritually.

If you are serious about addressing your Acedia I recommend you pick up the book Thoughts Matter by Mary Margaret Funk.  As the title indicates, the author helps us to understand how much our thoughts influence our relationship with God.  She has an excellent chapter on Acedia with some very helpful suggestions on how to work through it. Another helpful book is Acedia & me by Kathleen Norris. Norris shares her personal struggles with Acedia and helpful advice for overcoming it.

I know what you are thinking, for those struggling with Acedia the last thing in the world you want to do right now is read a book, but I need to encourage you, for your own sake and for the people around you, you need to take a positive step to address your  spiritual condition. If you don’t want to read a book, you might consider meeting with a Spiritual Director.

We all go through various seasons in our relationships with people and with God.  But it is important to know the difference between a temporary setback and when we need the help to break free from a more serious condition.  Most importantly, we need to realize there is hope and help available.  I pray for God to help you take the necessary steps toward spiritual health.

– Steve Nickles, M.Div.

What is Spiritual Direction and how can it help me?

 What is My First Session of Spiritual Direction Like?

I was on the fourth grade playground in the middle of a soccer game when it happened.  My teacher stopped the game and called out my name, “Steven Nickles, the Principal needs to see you in his office!”

I was a pretty good kid. For five years I had avoided walking through the door most of my friends had walked through at one time or another. My worst fear came true. I finally was going to see what happens on the other side of the big white door with the black letters “Principal” painted on it.

As I waited in the fluorescent lit hallway my mind jump from one question to another:

  • “What would he be like?”
  • “What would he ask me?”
  • “Will I be embarrassed?”
  • “Will I feel stupid?”

If you have never been to a spiritual director you might have similar questions as you wait in the lobby:

  • “Will I be tested on the Bible?”
  • “Will the spiritual director act like Yoda?”
  • “Will the office smell like incense?”
  • “Will he ask me questions I don’t want to answer?”

Thankfully meeting with a spiritual director is more like meeting a new friend for coffee than like going to the Principal’s office.  So, what happens in your first spiritual direction session?

First, I will meet you in the lobby and ask you if you want a cup of coffee.  Second, we will go into my office; sit down and I will say a short prayer.  Third, I will tell you a little about myself and what spiritual direction is about. Fourth, I will ask you a few questions like:

  • What led you to make the appointment?
  • What is your family like?
  • Where do you work?
  • What ways do you like to connect with God?
  • What do you think God is doing in your life right now?

You will do most of the talking. I will occasionally ask you a clarifying question like; “Where did you sense God in this? How did you feel when that happened?” “What do you think God was saying to you?”

I will never tell you what to do, or make you answer a question you don’t want to answer, but I might make a few suggestions about prayer or a book you could read.

Unlike waiting outside the Principal’s office, the time passes quickly.  At the end of our session I will pray again and ask you if you want to make another appointment. Before you answer me you might have a few thoughts: How did the time pass so quickly? I didn’t realize God was so active in my life. Why did I wait so long to start meeting with a spiritual director?

– Steven Nickles, M.Div.

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