“Muscle Memory” for the Soul

Because my daughter Anah does not have the cognitive ability (yet) to figure things out by reason or logic, then the only way to teach her a new skill is to repeat it so often that she eventually memorizes it. And if it’s a physical skill like taking a bath or brushing her teeth, we have to put our hands over hers and make her actually do the movement that is required until her body just knows what to do. When a set of physical movements is so ingrained that she can do it almost automatically (without thinking about each step), we say it is in her “muscle memory.”

I ran across this quote in the Spiritual Disciplines Handbook the other day that used the term “soul memory” to speak of something similar to muscle memory:

Spiritual discipline, then, is developing soul reflexes so that we know how to live. We discipline ourselves to develop soul memory in normal times so that we’ll be equipped for the times of high demand or deep crisis.                 [pg 135]

Muscle memory is when my daughter’s hands are so trained in the steps of washing herself in a bath that she can do it on her own even if she doesn’t logically understand what she is doing or why she is doing it. In the same way, soul memory is when my heart is so trained in the ways of loving God and loving others that they just come out of my character without me thinking about it or trying really hard. To love God and love others in the ways that He commands me to in His Word is not just difficult–it’s impossible. But as I train my soul incrementally and repetitively over a long time, God’s Spirit transforms my character in such a way that obedience to those commands becomes almost automatic and easy because it is ingrained in soul memory through all that practice.

So reading my Bible and memorizing portions of it is not just something I’m supposed to do to be a good Christian. Rather, it is one way that I train my soul to know and trust in the God who has created me. Going on solitude retreats is not just getting away from it all so that I can rest, but it is another way of training my soul to be open to whatever God may be directing my attention toward. Eliminating TV is not just to free up more time for myself, but it is a way of training my soul to be more fully present to the people around me. As I practice these disciplines (and many others) over and over, I am gradually developing soul memory–habits of the heart that are bent toward loving and trusting God, and toward loving others the way Christ has loved me.

Thanksgiving Dessert

My favorite part of Thanksgiving this year didn’t actually happen on Thanksgiving Day, but a couple days afterward. It may not seem like a big deal, but for my family, it felt like a significant breakthrough.

Our 11-year-old daughter Anah has Down Syndrome, which brings some cognitive delays, but her bigger issue is that all her formative years were spent in an orphanage and from that she has learned to be helpless even in areas where she has the capacity to understand or to act. So for the past four years, we have been trying to train–actually un-train and then re-train–certain behaviors in her. Mealtimes have been one major training battlefield.

One of the behaviors we are trying to instill in Anah is to ask for more food or for dessert, rather than just looking at us and smiling (which is what she has used to get her way previously, even though she is fully capable of using words to ask). She has learned to mimic what we tell her she must say, but still hasn’t seemed to grasp the significance of what she is saying.

But a couple days ago the lightbulb went on for her! We had several dessert items left from Thanksgiving, so we were eating some pastries but there were some cookies on the table also. Everyone in the family usually models what we want Anah to say (“Mommy, please cake?”) and half the time she still doesn’t get it, but this time she looked at her mom with a big smile and immediately said “Mama, please cake?” We cheered for her, gave her a piece of the pastry, and proceeded to eat ours too. As soon as the pastry was gone, Anah looked up again with another big smile, and without hesitatingimg_1178 said “Mama, please cookie?” We were blown away–she has never done that before! It seemed like something finally clicked in her head and she understood what those words actually meant.

We have been praying for a long time that God would awaken Anah from her mindlessness and learned helplessness, and this was a huge answer to prayer–definitely something to be thankful for!

Today also, Anah was playing with some puppets and my son remarked that it looked like she was actually playing with them, rather than mindlessly repeating motions devoid of meaning (which is her usual mode of “play”).

I am thankful.

 

3 Attitudes that Kill Thanksgiving

Entitlement: If I think that I deserve more (or better), or if I think that I have earned all I own by my hard work, or if I believe that God owes me a good life, then I will feel entitled to more and will not be thankful for what I do have. But, if I see all that I have as a generous gift from a gracious God, I will be thankful for it because I know I don’t deserve it and I haven’t somehow earned it and God doesn’t owe it to me. It is a gift, and therefore I am thankful. 

Comparison: If I am constantly comparing myself with others–by noticing that someone is better dressed than me or eats better than me or lives in a nicer home than me or serves more than me or seems to be happier than me–I will never be satisfied and certainly never thankful. But if I think deeply about the blessings God has bestowed on me and meditate on all the ways that He has surprised me with His mercy, my heart will well up in thanksgiving for His goodness to me.

The Upgrade Mentality (a.k.a. Newer-Is-Always-Better): If I am constantly sucked into the marketing that promises I will save so much time if I have this new gadget, or my health will be so much better if I follow this new diet, or my Christian life will be so much more fulfilling if I read this new book, then thankfulness will be a fleeting idea that gets tossed aside like last year’s iPhone. But if I learn to see the value in enjoying deeply what I already have, and start to actually utilize things instead of just consuming them, and discover the relational joy that comes in making something together as a family, then thankfulness will take root and flourish like a shade tree that’s been growing for a century.

No Such Thing as a Mature Christian

In my study of Ephesians lately, I’ve been struck by how much I tend to read it through the lens of my Western individualistic thinking. Paul is emphasizing unity in this letter–union with Christ that plays out in unity with one another. So in chapter 4 when he teaches about maturity in Christ, it’s not an individual maturity he’s thinking of, but a collective maturity…the maturity of the Body of Christ together (made up of many parts).

Here’s what Paul says, along with my own notations to point out this emphasis:

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints [plural] for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, 14 so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. 15 Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, 16 from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.

If Christians truly are the Body of Christ, then that metaphor says a lot about how we grow and mature. In a physical body, if one part grows at a different rate than the other parts, we don’t call that maturity, we call it deformity! If a one-year-old had a full set of adult teeth, we would think that strange rather than applauding the teeth for being mature. If a toddler girl had one foot that was a women’s size 9, that would be a problem not a source of rejoicing. So it seems that Paul is saying here that maturity in Christ is not just an individual matter but a corporate matter. Our goal is not to aim for individual maturity, but maturity together as the Body of Christ.

This is not to put all Christians on the same level and deny that someone like John Piper has a greater maturity in Christ than me. But rather the point is to shift our focus from an individualistic “All I’m concerned about is my own maturity in Christ” to a corporate recognition that if my brother or sister in Christ is struggling to grow, and my maturing process is intimately linked to their process of maturity, then I cannot just ignore their struggle but instead I have a part to play in their growth toward maturity.

If maturity is defined by the Body not by the individual, then there is no such thing as merely a mature Christian–there are only mature Christians connected and growing together in Christ.

Planning a Personal Retreat

In our noisy, busy, shallow and disconnected culture, retreats are a valuable and foundational discipline that create unhurried spaces for our hearts to go deeper with God and with one another. If the only time we retreat, though, is when we can join a formal retreat planned by someone else, our retreating will be rather infrequent–and thus less effective in our lives.

Taking a personal retreat can provide the solution. A personal retreat is just that–a retreat taken personally. It is not dependent on someone else planning it or on a group coming together for an event, rather it can fit into the regular rhythm of your life. It can be for a couple of hours or a couple of days. It can be as near as the local park or as far as a retreat center in the mountains. It can be alone or with a few friends. It can be as simple or complex as you design it to be…because it’s a personal retreat.

Fountain.JPGSo how do you go about planning a personal retreat? In general, I like to say you need a Place, a Plan, and a few People.

Finding a conducive Place can actually be a tricky thing. Home is not usually a good place, because there are too many familiar distractions and pressures. A coffee shop or restaurant can be an OK place but usually has music playing and lots of people, so it’s not very conducive to quieting your heart before God. An outside place like the beach or a park can be good, but sometimes weather or bugs or just the hardness of a picnic bench makes it difficult to stay for a longer period of time. For me, either a retreat center or a library or a campus chapel have been the best places, because you can be alone and quiet, but it’s more comfortable and has a bathroom nearby, so you don’t have to be constantly moving around or changing places.

Then you need a Plan. Ask yourself what your purpose is in going on a personal retreat. Even if you’re goal is to do nothing and just to rest or listen to God, that’s still a purpose that will dictate something of what you do or don’t do. So take some time to pray about what God wants you to focus on when you go, and then collect some ideas or materials that will help you toward that focus. A big part of the purpose of retreating is to make space for God to work in unexpected ways in you, so resist the urge to pack the day so full that there’s no breathing room. And of course hold your plan lightly—make a plan, but submit yourself to what God may have for you that’s not on your plan.

And finally you need People. Not necessarily people to go along with you, though that can work. But what I’m thinking of is more like people who will support you in this—a handful of friends who know when and where and why you’re going, and who will pray for you and hold you to it and ask you about it. This is vital so that the retreat doesn’t just stay as a “mountaintop experience” but can come back down to affect the reality of your everyday life.

For a more detailed explanation of retreat, see this post from Unhurried Living.
For a list of retreat centers by state, look at this CT article.

A Painful Poem

As a child in school, I dreaded the part of English class in which we had to write poetry–I was too precise and rule-bound, and the free-flowing creativity of poetry made me freeze up. So the poetry I tried to produce in those classes was probably quite painful for my teachers to read.

But the poem I want to share here is not painful because it’s poorly written. (In fact, it’s not written by me, so there is a much greater likelihood that it’s not painful poetry.) Rather, the reason I call it a painful poem is because it comes out of much pain and gives perspective on pain. And it was written for–and gifted to–a woman whose genuine joy in the midst of tremendous pain stands in stark contrast to my oft-complaining spirit in suffering that does not come close to hers.

This was written by Nan Powlison, and given to Joni Eareckson Tada as a birthday gift. Joni was speaking at the CCEF National Conference (which I was privileged to attend last month), and her birthday landed on the second day of the conference. So at the end of the evening session, in which David Powlison (Executive Director of CCEF and one of my favorite teachers) had been dialoguing  with Joni about joy and sorrow and suffering, Nan (David’s wife) came out to present this poem to Joni, in celebration of her birthday.

Joni is not first and foremost a quadriplegic, nor is she primarily an artist or an author or an advocate, but she is a woman whose life is defined by her relationship with God and her deep trust and delight in Him. But because she is also an artist, and because she suffers from quadriplegia and chronic pain, this poem from Nan is so beautifully descriptive of Joni’s deep desire.

Draw me into you, Lord

Rough me in and draw me

Sketch me and erase me

Sketch me and erase me

Trace me positive in negative space

Balanced

Composed

Defined

By shades and shadows

A light design

Then fling me out

Across your page

Bold strokes for service

‘Til they see

Your face in mine

Draw me, Lord

(Nan Powlison)

Just Do It!

Character–whether good or bad–is simply the accumulation of habits over time.

Godly character is not formed in a moment, merely by an act of the will to choose what is right. But when that act of the will to choose what is right is repeated hundreds (or thousands) of times over the course of many years–that is what gradually forms a Godly character.

Bad character is not formed in a moment either, by one impulsive act or choice to sin. Rather, bad character is formed gradually through repeated decisions to sin over the course of many years.

Sometimes, if I’m talking with someone further along in their Christian maturity than me, I get the impression that, in their mind, what I’m struggling with is really no big deal. Therefore their counsel to me might come across as dismissive or simplistic, like the answer is obvious and I need to just do it! If I’m honest, though, I realize I probably do the same thing if I’m giving counsel to someone younger than me. I forget how intensely I used to struggle with the same thing they are encountering, and how impossible it must seem to them to ever be free of it.

And I forget that the freedom I experience now did not come through a one-and-done decision that “Doggone it, I’m not going to do this anymore.” No, the freedom I now experience came very slowly over many years of practicing habits and making little everyday decisions to pursue what is right. And in the daily grind of those 1001 little choices, it did not feel like anything was changing or maturing, but habits were forming that were moving me toward a greater maturity in Christ.

So in those opportunities to speak into the life of someone who is younger in faith, carelessly dismissing their struggle and expecting them to just do the right thing is not very helpful for them, no matter how true or wise “just doing the right thing” would be. Instead, I need to help them see their little, moment-by-moment choices that are becoming habits that gradually form their character. Likewise, I need to help them imagine new little, moment-by-moment choices that in time would also become habits, but would move them toward a Godly character instead.

“Let us not grow weary of doing good, for in due season we will reap, if we do not give up.” Galatians 6:9