What Do New Grandchildren Have to do With Spiritual Life?
PODCAST VERSION: on The Spiritual Coaching Podcast
Like the ups and downs of a heart beat (or the season of life, or the day/night daily cycle), so too our spiritual life will and must encounter highs and lows. We cannot escape confusion and clarity, dark times and illuminating times, struggles and victories, boring persistence and uplifting praise. We are dead without them. If we are either too long on the mountain top or too long in the valley (all up or all down), the sign of life is drawn with a straight line. In other words, a flatline. There is no “heartbeat” without mountain tops AND valleys. Remaining too long on either extreme (or wishing we could) can lead to a flatlined life. Any life that flatlines (no heart beat) is dead.
4 Actions To Know, Live, Model, and Teach:
1) Spiritual life is as seasonal as natural life is – so expect it.
2) Spiritual life maintained at either extreme is death – so avoid it.
3) The seasons of spiritual life must be valued – so embrace them.
4) The seasons of spiritual life can be learned – so practice them.
As we begin season 4 of the podcast, we can now take some new approaches to delivering you worth-while content like going back to take a bigger swing at subjects already addressed. Today I will do just that by going all the way back to season 1 episode 5… “Spiritual Dryness and the Stages of Spiritual Stuckness”
I talked about those times when those who are loyal to Jesus Christ and their relationship with God, experience a cold heart, a dark valley, and what I rather ineloquently called “stuckness.” That troubling feeling that your relationship with God has inexplicably become strained or is even in jeopardy. Getting spiritually stuck is not necessarily a bad thing. Avoiding these inevitable and difficult days is not wise. Being stuck is not necessarily the result of punishment for sin or spiritual laziness or whatever negative explanation you attach to it. It may actually indicate God’s pleasure with you. If we remain spiritually “stuck” too long, Stage 1 “Stuckness” is followed by stage 2, “Stagnation,” which is not a place we want to remain for very long. Why? Because it is followed by stage 3, “Slippage.” We begin to lose spiritual ground. I guided you to not be too quick to help people escape the dryness, not get overly alarmed over being stuck until… the stuckness progresses into a prolonged period in stage 2 and beyond.
Where Did it Go?!
Today I want to take this further, deeper, into a conversation around the normalcy and necessity of highs and lows in the Christ-followers relationship with God. People will regularly come to spiritual coaches because they feel their relationship with God is stuck. They feel dry, or like God has abandoned them. Or worse, in their minds, they fear they have fallen, maybe due to some sin they cannot discover, from a place of superior maturity, backward into immaturity. Their spiritual sensitivity, excitement, passion, and pleasurable spiritual feelings have greatly diminished or have seemingly vanished completely. They feel they have lost something, that they should always feel the same spiritual elation or even an expanding level of spiritual satisfaction, gratification, joy, and delight continuously without abatement. Truth is, those kind of thoughts and expectations live mainly in the heads of spiritual infants.
That unrealistic thinking is immature for sure. When we experience such a time the believer has probably lost nothing but has more likely realized how immature they still are. The novelty and initial high have simply “worn off.” Nothing has changed really. They are just too sensually oriented toward their feelings. They base the judgement on their spiritual condition almost solely on how spiritual the feel, how celebrative, how up, how thrilled by life, how wonderful they feel spiritually speaking. This is particularly common for those new to relationship with God. When we are in our first days and months of life as a Christ-follower, we typically begin on the mountain top. That initial high is so extreme that when the unexpected low inevitably follows, it is crushingly low. Our feelings of devastation correspond to the degree of our disappointment. Since they have not been forewarned, the loss of initial bliss and passion is unexpected even though it is natural, normal, and necessary. If we have not been warned and did not see it coming, we have been poorly taught, cruelly unprepared, or simply uncared for.
Babies, Bleeps and Buzzers!
Let me explain. Within just a fifteen day span, Nancy and I welcomed not one but two new grand-daughters! Our youngest and oldest children both had baby girls. What an accommodating thing it is to have two at once. Nancy and I do not have to argue over who gets to hold the grandchild! We each get our own! On a side note, these and some other event, as well as a need for break from a year of weekly podcast, explains the longer than normal gap between episodes! So, for both of these glorious events I found myself in a hospital room listening to the beeps and buzzes from a myriad of alarms… And with the annoying signs of life persistently in the background, I watching the heartbeat monitors. Both mom’s and the babies heartbeats were displayed and scrutinized, along with a lot of other data that I did not understand. This allowed the nurses and doctors to carefully monitor their health leading up to, and through, the birth process.
Here is a quick medical lesson about Electrocardiograms from one who just now learned what they mean from a couple YouTube videos! Each EKG cycle, as the heart beats, includes a small bump, the more recognizable spike and accompanying low of the the formal heart beat, followed by another little bump. All measured from a flat line that is the control. Each of those three segments have their own names and communicate separate data that makes up the whole of each heart beat.. That first blip (“P” wave”) is the signal for the heart to beat. That is followed by the spike up when the heart contracts and pushes blood to the body, and the resulting low that dips below the line when the heart releases. Finally there is another blip that signals a relaxation phase. That rhythm scientifically proves and declares that life exists. Irregularities are not good. Deviation from the norm communicates that something has changed. Should any part of the heart beat fail to happen in its appointed place… The noise of those monitors in the background, that break through to the foreground when there is a lull in activity, are annoying yet necessary because they are the very signs of life.
Our Spiritual Heart Beat
Let’s reflect on that pattern, the beat that proves we are alive, from a spiritual perspective. Focusing just on the middle part, the actual heart beat, I call the spike a mountain top experience. The low that follows the dramatic spike and that drops below the line represents the valleys, the lows in life. Let’s also keep in mind that any illustration like this will not perfectly transfer over. Now, what if the spike that signals the contraction that pushes life to the body was the only part of the beat of life that we can identify? What if we were always on the mountain top, spiritually speaking? We always felt the pleasurable high of knowing that we are near and dear to God. What if the electrifying liver-shiver of supernatural sightings and experiences never faded? Because there would be no following low, no line that plumes to the valley, the line that signifies life always on the mountain top would continue on above the baseline… Straight. Flat. And when the heart beat flatlines… it signals the cataclysmic change that is death. Indeed, what you think I am saying, is what I am saying. A spiritual life lived always on the mountain top of feelings indicates spiritual death. Not the spiritual death that God saved us from, death of the spiritual life Christ won for us to live through that rescue.
What must follow in order for there to be the necessary signs of life? The inevitable and often excruciating low that always trials behind the amazing high. It is the ups and downs of life. Now, what if we hit that low and remained there indefinitely? Imagine life with no uplifting season. Imagine what it would be like if after the low of the beat of life, the rhythm froze and stagnated and never rose? If the low that follows the contraction of life and allows the heart to rest as it gets ready to pump life out again, if it were to just sit there and never move… The monitor would tell that story with another flat line… and the accompanying alarms that shrieks the news that death is near.
Life lived continuously stuck at either extreme is death. (REPEAT) Human life struggles to survive where it is externally frigid. Life struggles to survive where the scoring heart seldom relents. The metaphor fails at this point because God has designed some life to thrive at both extremes. But human life, as it came from the womb, cannot survive for long at all, for example, in the weightlessness of sub-zero space, or at the icy depths of the sea. Not without some kind of fabricated exo-sketetal skin to encase and preserve. No matter the extreme, the jarring truth is that a flatlined life is dead! Whether on the mountain top or in the valley low. Life lived in prolonged seasons on the mountain top of sensation or the valley of darkness and despair are both death. They must be visited only. Tent there, do not build a house. We must anticipate and even welcome the other extreme. If we do not, and prefer to remain at either pole, we will be forced to lie to ourselves about how alive we are, or we will be sidetracked by surprise when the change hits.
Valleys of Growth
Taking this a little further, a little beyond the metaphor, spiritual life only expands and grows in the valleys. We need a break from the difficult valleys through regular time on the mountain top. Up there in that thin atmosphere, where the veil between heaven and earth also seems thin, we praise and relish and bask in the glory. But we have little need to grow. All is well. The pressure, either in reality or in our awareness of it, is temporarily gone. Life is hunky-dory. We do not tend to run to God as readily in dependent faith when all is well as we do when all is not well. It is not a season for growth, it is a season to rest and restoration for our hearts.
Growth happens in the rough and tumble of life down in the jungle, in the valley far below. Down there is where we acutely feel our need for God. One, because he seems to be far away, which is not true. Or two, because we are faced with the cold realities of life and know that we are in trouble without him, which definitely is true. Will we depend on ourselves or will we learn to get out of God’s way and let him do his thing? Will we give in to the pressures and voices that draw us away from God or will we let them push us to him for comfort, wisdom, and patience? In the valley we face attack, stress and strain, and doubt from within and from without. We long to find out way back to that mountain top. But if we leave before God has finished his transforming work, we may have to face the same lesson we failed to learn the first time. If we “bug out” before God to leave the valley for a vacation in the mountains — having gotten tired, impatient, fearful, self-protective — we walk away from God and the transforming work he is doing.
Life Is Seasonal
To switch to a similar metaphor, life is seasonal. Spring, summer, fall, winter. The green and lushness of spring and summer leads to the grey and loss of fall and winter. Here in the northeast this is easy to remember. As the wife and I drive out into the countryside for a sunny summer Saturday away from it all, I often marvel at just how green and overgrown and full of life it all seems, given that it was just a few months earlier quite a different sight. Where the seasons come with rhythmic regularity it is easier to remember that death follows life and life follows death. How would we know the difference without their nemesis, their alter-ego? How would we know we are living without the reminder of what death is like?
One more metaphor, one that God built into the flow of life from the very beginning of time:
Genesis 1:31–2:3 31 Then God looked over all he had made, and he saw that it was very good! And evening passed and morning came, marking the sixth day. 1 So the creation of the heavens and the earth and everything in them was completed. 2 On the seventh day God had finished his work of creation, so he rested from all his work. 3 And God blessed the seventh day and declared it holy, because it was the day when he rested from all his work of creation. (NLT)
We see that God built this naturally rhythm of the seasons of nature, the sleep and wake cycle of our days, the heart beat of the minutes and seconds of life, into every part of life. No sense in trying to defy what God has programmed. These verses in Genesis show us that he built the same up and down into our weekly cycle. A little later in the Bible we discover that God expected this same kind of rhythm be built into the years on the same interval. Work your fields for six years and let them rest in the seven year. We also find that there was a 50 year jubilee after the 49 years of seven sevens had passed. Work, rest, celebrate what God has done, work, rest, celebrate what God has done, and so on.
Enough of the theory, let’s consider some actions… In fact…
4 Actions To Know, Live, Model, and Teach:
1) Spiritual life is as seasonal as natural life is – so expect it. Only death that ends our earthly existence breaks the cycle. Do not be surprised by the cycle of life. Wait and watch for it, prepare yourself like a squirrel storing up food for the winter. Anticipation of the natural flow of life will help limit the disequilibrium that the surprise will create if you do not see it coming. Expect it.
2) Spiritual life maintained at either extreme is death – so avoid it. Do not only value and seek mountain top experiences. That is potentially lazy and sensual. Do not so aggressively embrace the underdog or victim mentality, that you over-value the valley and cling to it like it is a medal, or a sign of your strength and courage. Avoid a prolonged stay at any extreme. Reject the desire for constant comfort and ease and instead seize true life with its painful and annoying and difficult yet necessary seasons. Embrace the growth as zealously as you embrace the rest, or vise-a-versa depending on your wiring. Live the seasonal life. Let your heart beat. Move between the highs and lows without complaint or resistance like they are life itself. Avoid the desire and attempts to settle down in either camp. Closely connected…
3) The seasons of spiritual life must be valued – so embrace them. Do not hurry through the seasons, do not wish too strongly that you were in the other season. Do not wish so strongly when in one season that the desire for the next season prevents living to the full the season you are in. So few people know how to be present in the moment that has been given them, especially if that moment is particularly difficult, troubling, or painful. But failure to feel, and grieve, and properly emote will eventually bring you back so you can finish the work. And life with piles of unexpressed emotions stored up inside is a life constantly touched by sorrow and grief and hurt. And it is inescapable even on the mountain top. Essentially, we live always in the valley because even when good comes and rest is possible, the weight we carry in our heart keeps us heavy and burdened. And life flatlined in the valley is death valley.
4) The seasons of spiritual life can be learned – so practice them. Prepare for the ups and downs of spiritual life by living the rhythms intentionally each day, week, and month. It will help you get good at making the transitions. Live each day by bookending it with sufficient periods of rest, relaxation and sleep. Work six days and at rest one. Make sure you are not going every night of the week. Take an extra day off every month beyond the sabbath, maybe to spend it with a spouse or friend, and enjoy life. Work hard the rest of the time. Do not work so you can play without playing so you can work.
We need to be both actively living and teaching the rhythmic seasons of life to those we coach. Without the ups and downs of the rhythmic beat of life there is only death. They need to understand that it is normal and healthy to experience intense seasons of growth that are eventually followed by lighter times of restful celebration… which are in turn followed again by new challenges, changes, and transformation in the valleys between the mountain tops.
The Annoying Signs of Life
Those who have ever been in a hospital room, especially at night when trying to sleep, know just how annoying the signs of life are! Nurses do not do tests on or check up on those who are dead. The dead are put into a freezer in the morgue, or a furnace in a crematory, where the living seldom go. Change both your attitude toward and the script that accompanies the seasons in your life, the heart beat that proves you are truly living.