Tag Archives: Robert C. Roberts

Centering Down in Patience

Tuesday morning I visited a centering prayer group in a congregation near my home. I had discovered it on their church website and wanted to practice with them. Centering prayer is a Christian form of meditation in which the purpose is to silently wait in God’s presence. You can read more about centering prayer at http://www.centeringprayer.com.  After taking a Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Class I wanted to bring my meditation practice into a more explicit Christian context.

Jesus in the Center of Prayer

Jesus in the Center of Prayer

The seven women who gathered together were an eclectic group. They graciously welcomed me. The small chapel had a cross with candles and comfortable chairs for sitting quietly. The group is self-lead and we started with a brief devotional reading about being open to the love of Christ. They read it as a form of Lectio Devina, preparing one’s heart to listen. Then we sat in silent prayer together for about twenty minutes.  I appreciated a deep joy in sharing this time of centering down.

51KNK7QgraLRobert Roberts on his chapter on Patience in his book The Strengths of a Christian writes about how silent prayer is essential to developing the virtue of patience, the art dwelling gladly in the present moment.

Centering down is a matter of purifying your attention, collecting it into a focal point which is the God whose identity is known through Jesus Christ. As such, centering down is the practice of the presence of God and at the same time, the practice of patience defined as dwelling gladly in the present moment.  In centered prayer the individual is “absorbed,” though not in the sense of dissolved, in glad fellowship with God. (p. 73)

When I practice centering prayer I focus on my breathing, using a short prayer like “Jesus is Lord” or simply “Yah-weh” (the ancient Hebrew name for God – I am who I am – Exodus 3) with each breath. “Jesus” on the in breath; “is Lord” on the exhale. Recently I taught our congregation the simple prayer, “Papa is here,” based on the Lord’s Prayer where Jesus used the familiar word “abba” or “papa” in his address of God the Father. The exact words of prayer are not as important as consistent use of heart, mind and breath.

Like all who practice centering prayer, my mind wanders off on tangents and I need to gently bring it back to my breath and prayer. I don’t berate myself about the wandering but rather simple note it and come back to my prayer. I know that God knows my desire is to center on him and I believe He will bless my attempts. Like a good papa, God is patient with us.  Can we be patient with God?

How have you found ways to Center Down in patience?

Lord Jesus, let me be centered in you.

Today’s Wedding Anniversary

Carolyn and I at our son’s wedding in 2011.

Today is the 35th anniversary of my marriage to Carolyn McCrary Keller. We met in college, at the Haverford-Bryn Mawr Christian Fellowship, near Philadelphia. I always joked that she came from “Tea” with the President of Bryn Mawr, dressed to the nines, and I showed up in overalls and a backwards baseball cap. I was a senior bouncing around in my manic way greeting all the newcomers. Carolyn was with four or five other first year women from Bryn Mawr.

When Carolyn said that she was from Kansas City, MO, I told her a story about a prayer experience I had traveling through Kansas City. The story was short and not particularly profound, but Carolyn later wrote about it in her journal. The story had given her spiritual comfort as she was missing her Bible study group in Kansas City and wrote that my way of praying was similar to hers. The friendship and then the romance grew from there.

We were married by Carolyn’s father, a Presbyterian minister. His only premarital advice to us was, “You can walk down the aisle on your wedding day, fall flat on your face, and still pick yourself up and have a good marriage.” However he made sure Carolyn did not fall by proudly walking his oldest daughter doing the aisle of his Kansas City church and then turning around to preformed the wedding. It was all a blur to me, except for gazing at his beautiful daughter.

Robert C. Roberts thinks the best example of the spiritual virtue called perseverance or steadfastness is marriage:

When two people marry, they make an extraordinary commitment, a promise not just to stick together until death do them part (that in itself would be bold enough) but to love one another than long.

The marriage service warns that some of the bumps this love may encounter along the way: for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health, forsaking all others . . . . But these words are only slender indicatory beams of light pricking the darkness of the future. When we commit ourselves to married love, we have only the dimmest intimations of what will threaten to break commitment down—boredom, disappointment, inattention, work, sick children, changes in personality and interests of one or both parties—and the list could go on.

Like every married couple, Carolyn and I have our list. I have never embraced her love of opera; she has never backpacked in the mountains with me. We disagree on where to live in our metropolitan area. Still we remain steadfast in our love for one another, trusting in God’s grace and power to keep us together.

Last night we celebrated by going to the Guthrie Theater for the production of Roman Holiday. It is a romantic story of a princess who escapes her royal confines for 24 hours to experience Rome as a private citizen. She meets an American reporter who first tries to turn their budding friendship into an exclusive news story. As the day progresses the friendship turns towards romance, but the duties and obligations of the princess pulls them apart. It is a bitter-sweet ending.

What a contrast to decades of marriage. Yes, there can be many moments of Holiday bliss, but marriages persevere because husbands and wives stick to the duties and obligations of marriage even when bliss is hard to find. I am thankful that Carolyn has persevered in her love for me and pray that together we will experience many more years of marital joy.  I still like holding her hand when we pray together in our own way.

Lord Jesus, thank you for the gift of marriage and for your steadfast love.

Cultivating Gratitude

I have a grateful heart this morning. Yesterday retired Pastor Ken Rouf, a member of Resurrection, preached. He preached on gratitude and he gave me the gift of a Sunday free so that I could spend time with the family campers at Camp Wapogasset.

I am so grateful for the families who attended; their children gave me and others a workout during our evening “Olympic” games. We laughed as we tried to play field hockey with foam float tubes and as we raced to find our shoes. Each night at campfire, we sang with thankful hearts and joyful memories.

I am also grateful for the staff of Camp Wapo and for Sarah and Jon Storvick who helped to make this such a special week-end. Jon attended Camp Wapo as a camper a few decades ago and lead us in song each night. Sarah guided us in making family prayer boxes and in keeping the program fun and meaningful.

Gratitude is a Christian spiritual emotion that we can cultivate within our lives. An important aspect of such gratitude is not simply to be thankful for when things are going well, but also to be grateful during the challenging times as well. I confess that I struggle to be thankful when things are not going the way I want. I too easily see God as my “provider” and not as ALMIGHTY KING. Robert C. Roberts describe my problem this way,

A more suburbanite version of this resistance to Christian thanksgiving is the pattern of appreciating our prosperity, health, talents, and successes without being grateful to God for them. Perhaps we call them our “blessings,” but God remains to us a vague principle of their origin, rather than a Giver clear and present to our awareness. Or if God does seem to the individual a vivid personal presence, he is a sort of Super-Size Sugar-Daddy whose function in life is to provide the goodies in sufficient abundance. This kind of person may be a churchgoer, but the telltale mark of ingratitude is that when the “blessings” are reversed, when the hard times come, she tends to get angry at God and feel he has let her down. We might call this the Savage* syndrome, since the individual treats God as a convenient source of blessings, rather than as God. It is as though God owes her the blessings. If God fails to serve his essential purpose, he is guilty of the injustice of not doing his job. (Robert C. Roberts. Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Kindle Locations 1956-1962). Kindle Edition.)

God is the source of all joy and life. Perhaps our greatest thanksgiving each day could focus on the simple truth that God creates, redeems, and empowers us. Thanks be to God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

How do you practice gratitude?

For what are you grateful today?

*Richard Savage, an eighteenth-century English poet of whom Samuel Johnson wrote a short biography in which he described Savage as a man who always expected people to assist and lend to him.

What is Humility?

In the winter of 1863 General Ulysses S. Grant was promoted to lieutenant-general, a permanent promotion that had previously been given only to George Washington. Grant’s military success in the Mississippi River valley during the Civil War had earned him this distinct promotion. Through the early years of the war he had never been to Washington D.C. nor met President Lincoln, but in December he was called to Washington to receive his promotion and to command the entire Union Army. Grant had reached the top of the military ladder and a splendid reception was planned.

When Grant arrived in Washington that morning, no one was there to greet him at the train station. He and his son walked to a nearby hotel to book a room. The hotel clerk looked at the dusty, unkempt military officer before him and said he might have small upstairs room in the back of the hotel. Grant said this would be acceptable and signed the guest register. When the hotel clerk saw the signature, “Ulysses S. Grant,” he was aghast and tried to change the hotel arrangements. Grant didn’t care.

I offer this story because it demonstrates that humility is not so much an emotion as the absence of an emotion. Grant did not feel slighted or peeved that he did not receive instant recognition and respect from the hotel clerk. He did not see himself superior to the hotel clerk or look down on him with contempt. Grant was obviously a “superior” general to the hotel clerk (to be fair, the clerk probably never competed to be a “superior” general), but that “superiority” did not dictate how he treated the clerk in their daily affairs.

As Robert C. Roberts writes in Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues,

Humility is not itself an emotion, like joy or gratitude or contrition. A person could be a wonderful exemplar of humility without ever feeling humble; in fact, one who frequently feels humble is probably not very humble. But humility is an emotion-disposition – primarily a negative one, a disposition not to feel the emotions associated with caring a lot about one’s status. As an inclination to construe as my equal every person who is presented to me, humility is a disposition not to be downcast by the fact that someone is clearly ahead of me in the games of the world nor to find any satisfaction in noting that I am ahead of someone in those games.

It is the ability to have my self-comfort quite apart from any question about my place in the social pecking order (whether the criterion is accomplishments, education, beauty, money, power, fame, or position). . . . It is thus a self-confidence, one that runs far deeper than the tenuous self-confidence of the person who believes in himself because others look up to him. (Kindle Locations 1186-1196)

The best example of humility is Jesus Christ. As Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians

Jesus had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death – and the worst kind of death at that: a crucifixion (The Message: Phil 2:6-8)

Just prior to this humble description of Christ, Paul encourages us to “think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself.” Our thinking and our judgments effects how we respond to others and their comments. Even when one is the Commanding General of the Army.

Lord Jesus, thank you for your humble service. May I reflect you in my life today.

What is NOT Humility

Mac Davis had a country western hit called “Lord, its hard to be humble when you are perfect in every way.” The song was Davis’ tongue-in-cheek reflection on reaching the top of the ladder in the music business and being all alone. Humility is not a virtue embraced by most people who are climbing their social ladder, whether in school, sports, business or society. Yet humility is something the Christian faith advocates, “Humble yourself in the sight of the Lord” (James 4:10).

Robert C. Roberts in his book, Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtue, writes that in our culture we often confuse humility with humiliation. We think that a humble person must lack confidence in his abilities and judgments.

He does not initiate projects and human relationships. He would rather follow orders than give them, would rather have others make the decisions in his life. His failures (or his genes) have rendered him a psychologically passive personality, a Mr. Milquetoast who does not object to being told where to sit and wait, or even to being utilized as a convenient wiping-place for muddy feet. Anyone who undertook to cultivate this disposition in his children would be doing them a momentous disservice. This is not humility, but rather a deeply engrained and ramified humiliation. (Kindle Locations 1092-1094).

Roberts goes on to demonstrate that the opposite of humility is not self-confidence, initiative, or assertiveness, but rather always comparing one’s self to the people around you, to make sure you are further up the social ladder or pecking order than someone else. Attitudes such as:

pushiness, scorn of “inferiors,” rejoicing in the downfall of others, envy, resentment and grudge-bearing, ruthless ambition, haughtiness, shame at failure or disadvantageous comparison, and the need to excel others so as to think well of oneself.

We are taught by our culture to rank how well we are doing by the clothes we wear, the cars we drive, the schools our children attend or the jobs we do. To be top-ranked means I must be “better” than those who are lower in rank. Or I “scorn”  or “envy” those of higher rank because I am “beneath” them.

Roberts goes to describe what humility is and its significance for true spiritual fellowship.

Humility is the ability, without prejudice to one’s self-comfort, to admit one’s inferiority, in this or that respect, to another. And it is the ability, without increment to one’s self-comfort or prejudice to the quality of one’s relationship with another, to remark one’s superiority, in this or that respect, to another. As such, humility is a psychological principle of independence from others and a necessary ground of genuine fellowship with them, an emotional independence of one’s judgments concerning how one ranks vis-a-vis other human beings. (Kindle Locations 1118-1122).

Humility is the ability to see all people as equal in some fundamental way.

Next, I will post on the Christian source of humility.

What are some other ways that you believe humility has been misunderstood?

Lord Jesus, thank you for your humility that saves me.

The Grass Withers

Spring has arrived in Minnesota. The lilacs are in bloom and the trees are in bud. The grass has turned green and my days of mowing have begun. Vibrant life surrounds us.

Still, in the back of my mind, is this nagging sense. This season will pass. The trees in bud will drop their leaves. The grass will wither.  Spring is transitory and fleeting.

A voice says, “Cry out!” And I said, “What shall I cry?” All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever. Isaiah 40:6-8

Robert C. Roberts in his book Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues reflects on Isaiah’s message,

You are grass: your life is a blooming and a fading, a flourishing and a withering, a birthing and a dying. This thought frequents the human mind – though mostly in its recesses. Walking to work, peeling potatoes, chatting at a cozy party over a glass of wine, holding hands with your spouse, playing silly games with your children. And there’s the lurking thought: flesh fading and disappearing, withering grass. (Robert C. Roberts. Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues (Kindle Locations 663-665).

Our mortality can never be totally denied. We may try to push the thought of death far from our minds, yet death will come to us all. Roberts continues,

But at times this truth comes home with a special shock, and what is only a nagging uneasiness changes into outright terror: the sudden absurd death of a friend, a close brush with accidental death in the midst of play, a pain that I interpret as the first symptom of a dread disease. (Roberts, (Kindle Locations 665-667).

So if we are such transitory beings who know that death awaits us, why not just despair and turn to drugs, alcohol, sex or some other pain killer to escape that reality? Because God our creator has provide a steadfast hope for us.

A person who is inclined to view his own life honestly and admit without casting his eyes aside that all flesh is grass will welcome the thought of an enduring rock amidst the flux of things. Isaiah’s preaching, if we really hear it, touches our deepest need. He ministers to the worry that pervades all our thoughts. But why does he say that the word of our God endures forever? Wouldn’t it be enough to proclaim that God is eternal, that he stands forever? (Kindle Locations 678-679). Kindle Edition.

No, God’s eternal nature is not enough for us as humans, but rather God’s eternal connection to us, his word of steadfast love and mercy is what we need to heal our fear. God is not only eternal, but has created us with an eternal longing to be connected, to hear the message of God’s love.

When I die, I trust God’s first word to me will be, “Beloved child, welcome home.” And it will be a word that only God can speak and my heart hear.

Lord Jesus, calm my fear with your word of grace.

Spiritual Emotions?

I am reading Spiritual Emotions: A Psychology of Christian Virtues by Robert C. Roberts, preparing for a preaching series this summer. Twenty years ago I read his book, The Strengths of a Christian, which continues to shape how I look at the virtues of self-control, patience and perseverance. I posted on Strengths previously.

In Spiritual Emotions, Roberts asks the questions, can Christians shape or tend to our emotions? Or are they simply electro-chemical reactions in our brains that we have no control over? Can emotions be something that we cultivate and link to our Spiritual lives?

Roberts proposes that emotions are concern-based construals, a framework for interpreting a situation and responding  to it. I am reminded of an example of this in Stephen Covey’s classic, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. In the book, Covey described riding on a subway car and becoming very irritated with a father whose young children were acting out. The children’s behavior was loud and disruptive and Covey became more and more irritated, even angry, with the father for not intervening. Finally Covey confronted the father about the obnoxious behavior of his children. The father, who seemed preoccupied, looked over at his children and then responded, “Yes, I guess they are being unruly. You see, we just came from the hospital where their mother, my wife, died today.”

Suddenly Stephen Covey’s understanding (construal) changed from one of anger to one of compassionate understanding. At first he interpreted the situation one way, “an inattentive father,” that fostered anger within him. But his interpretation or construal changed when he realized that the father was inattentive due to grief, fostering compassion.

Now, according to Roberts, Stephen Covey had some choice in how to respond to the new information. He might have stayed angry, thinking that his subway ride was still being interrupted by these disruptive children and that it did not matter what the reason was. Most of us would see such a construal or interpretative framework as being selfish and un-Christian. Or Covey might have become embarrassed and upset, again focusing more on his own needs. Instead Covey made a choice (perhaps out of habit) to respond with compassion and offer assistance.

Emotions are not just feeling that arbitrarily hit us and we have no control over them. Neither can we automatically dictate what emotions we will have. They are fruit of the Holy Spirit, which we help cultivate and grow over time, practice and attentiveness.  I believe Robert’s book will help me in this practice.

Lord Jesus, shape my heart to be a harbor of love and not fear.

Integrity of Patience

As I reread Robert Roberts’ The Strength of a Christian, I notice my own impatience rising to the surface.  I want to glean some quick insight into the practice of patience, so that I can immediately apply it to my life.  I want patience NOW.  Roberts provides instruction on the practice of patience (that I will post tomorrow, be patient), but first Roberts makes a wise observation on the necessity of patience for becoming a whole person.

Patience is also a condition for the integration of the person. Like other strengths, patience gives our lives continuity and autonomy, enabling us to live not by impulse, or at the beck and call of environmental stimulus, but by some design.  The Christian design is of course the love of God and neighbor.  It is one thing to have noble sentiments, such as compassion and concern for one’s neighbor and gratitude to God, but quite another to be in the appropriate sense the author of these, the kind of person who through “interior strength” has etched this design upon life.  Only someone self-present in the way a patient person is can practice Christian life as a spirit does. (p. 56)

The strength of an oak tree

When I was in my twenties, I remember reading a Christian article about how God is more interested in growing mighty oak trees than in zucchini.   Zucchini are rather amazing plants in that they grow from seed to fruit rapidly. Yet they will not survive a hard frost.  Oaks take considerable more time.  Yet it is the oak that survives the winter and summer storms and bears witness to God’s glory, year after year, by being the oak it was created to be.    In the same way, as Christian, we are called to serve God faithfully, becoming fully what God created us to be.   Growth in Godly character is often seasonal, with long stretches where one wonders if God has forgotten you. This is where the integrity of patience comes to bear, trusting God is at work, even in the times of waiting and hoping.  I continue to pray and seek patience as God works on my character of becoming a strong oak (see Psalm 1).

Who has been a model of patience for you?

The Happiness of Patience

Happiness needs Patience

Robert C. Roberts gives me food for thought in his chapter on patience in The Strength of a Christian.  I had never really connected happiness and patience before.

Patience is a condition for happiness.  Some vices are enjoyable, or at least seem so at the moment you practice them.  For example, most people get a delicious pleasure out of invidious gossip.  But other vices are just thoroughly unpleasant.  Envy, for example, is evil through and through.  Someone would have to crazy to go looking for an opportunity to be envious.

Impatience is an unpleasant vice.  It is a state of more or less intense frustration: you want to be somewhere other, or doing something other or accomplishing something other, or in the company of someone other, than you are.  Some people’s impatience is limited to certain moment, but other people are beset with impatience about large segments and pervasive situations of their life: for example the mother of small children who just can’t wait until they grow up enough to go to school and get out of her hair. These are the ones whose impatience has made them unhappy people, rather than just people with unhappy moments.

By contrast, people who can dwell gladly in the present moment despite some desire, or what would normally be a reason to desire, to depart from it–are not frustrated.  Because they exercise patience, this present moment of life is something in which to rejoice and be glad.  The impulses to flee are under control, and they experience peace and self-acceptance.

This week at lunch my host said he had a choice when he got up that morning: whether to choose to have a great day or not.  I think part of that choice is to decide to be patient, to live in this day, hour, moment with these people and circumstances.  God will be in this day; will I be attentive, patient to discover and rejoice in his presence?

How has patience and happiness overlapped for you?

The Stength of Patience

One book that I reread is Robert C. Roberts, The Strength of a Christian.  In chapter three he gives an excellent definition and helpful wisdom on the virtue of patience.  He starts by quoting Paul’s famous chapter on love: Love is patient.  Patience gives strength to love so that we can truly love God, our neighbor and ourselves.

Patience is the ability to dwell gladly in the present moment when we have some desire  . . . to depart from it.  It takes patience to be a good duck hunter or scholar or even a good thief.  Waiting for the ducks to come near the blind may get boring, just as reading some theologians may be.  Patience is not only a Christian virtue but a virtue in the book of anybody who understands human life. 

Our life is full of beckonings from the future: The future says, “Come away from where you are; you are not moving fast enough, not accomplishing enough, not getting what you set out to get.  And is it not a bit boring where you are, and unpleasant and annoying in other ways? Come away, come away.”  And so a craftsman rushes his job, or the scholar lays aside the volume of Moltmann’s theology.  Some people are so deficient in patience that they flit from task to task or from entertainment to entertainment, never doing anything well or enjoying anything deeply.

Patience is a form of self-mastery that enables us to dwell in the present moment, to stay at the present task, to narrow our focus of vision so that our mind is not sundered by every passing impulse to quit the present and fly away.

Patience leads to strength and strength to patience

Roberts goes on to examine how we can achieve such self-mastery in our Christian lives.  I confess that I am struggling with patience as I work my physical therapy exercises.  I hope to run again and perhaps train for a marathon.  But all I can do is repeat over and over and over and over the exercises that my PT has given me.   I also need patience as I pastor in a new congregation, learning God’s story and culture within this great congregation.   So I am rereading and reflecting on Robert’s book.   I will share more in the coming week.

How and when have you learned patience and what role did God play in the learning?