This week, a friend and fellow traveller in the lands of human flourishing, Shaun Lambert, has released his new book, A Little Book of Sparks. Shaun is one of who has explored the Christian tradition of mindfulness more carefully and thoughtfully than most. He offers, in this book of daily readings, a narrative hung off the framework of Mark's Gospel, a daily journey into what it means to be 'watchful'. When he asked if I would write the forward to the book, I gladly agreed, not only because I have shared a little in Shaun's journey, but because I think he is opening up a layer on understanding of the Christian Gospel which has been closed to us for many centuries. I commend A Little Books of Sparks to all those who wish for a deeper knowledge of God in their lives.
Here's the link to A Little Book of Sparks
And here's an extract from Shaun's reading for the second day....
Day 2: The Empty Self – working on our self-awareness
As Christians we believe that we have a relational God, who lives in a community of love – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. As human beings we are made in God's image, which makes us relational creatures. It is interesting that evolutionary psychologists have also discovered that we are relational creatures.
The main condition we have to wrestle with is that we are empty. We will not be undone by empty talk, or being empty-handed in the current economic crisis, but by our empty selves.
Some philosophers and psychologists, Christian and otherwise, characterise the post-war self as an empty one. We need a D-day of the soul, where God's love invades us and occupies the territory we currently fill with consumer goods, unneeded food, artificial stimulants and busyness.
Obesity is an increasingly recognised national problem. In addition, there are many who embody emptiness by refusing food.
Jesus warned of the danger of emptiness, and more profoundly than just running on empty. In the parable of the Ten Virgins, the foolish ones are those with the empty lamps, who have no interior life (Matthew 25:8). In Matthew 12 the evil spirit which comes out of a man returns with seven others worse than itself to fill the empty soul (verses 43–45). Our inner emptiness is implied when the Bible affirms the importance of being filled by the Holy Spirit (Acts 2:4).
The way out of this economic crisis, according to some, is for us, the consumers, to spend our way out of trouble.
Our government, as with others in the West, constructed a post-war economy based on the production of far more consumer goods than required to fuel economic growth. This was fanned by the growth in easy credit and the rise of an advertising industry proficient in psychological manipulation. Every advert tells us that we are empty unless we fill ourselves with their product.
There is a spiritual solution. Instead of mindlessly existing as vacuum cleaners sucking up all the consumer items we can, attempting and failing to fill our emptiness, we can cultivate the watchfulness that Jesus commends (Mark 13:37).
Not many modern books on prayer stress the importance of cultivating this attention, but in the Philokalia – a collection of Christian texts written between the fourth and the 15th centuries – a state of watchfulness is considered the hallmark of sanctity.
Lacking this awakened attention, we are seemingly unaware of this construct of our time, the empty self – which afflicts Christians as much as it does any secular person.
Ray Mears, the survival expert, talks about a vanishing world of wilderness, wisdom, and bushcraft. The watchfulness Jesus teaches us is bushcraft of the soul.
The minimum night watch in biblical times was three hours. If you failed to stay attentive you could be beaten and have your clothes set on fire. This adds poignancy to Jesus' lament to Peter, 'Could you not keep watch for one hour?' (Mark 14:37).
The average attention span today is assessed at between seven and 11 minutes, although it can be measured in seconds for internet browsing.
The question to ask ourselves is, 'With what am I filling my empty self?'
I know for myself that not owning my own house has shown me how I would long to fill my inner emptiness with home ownership. A few years ago, getting rid of my car showed me how much I filled my emptiness with the status and freedom of car ownership.
In our society these things have ceased to be icons of God's grace and have become idols that replace the space God is to fill within us. Contemplate taking them away and suddenly the presence of God is intensified in us.
If we seek first the kingdom of God, if the inexhaustible tongue of fire that is the Holy Spirit rests on us, we can resist the siren call of consumerism to fill our empty selves. Try it! Unlike the adverts, it works.
The riddle and the paradox of truth within the idea of an empty self is that we are in pain and incomplete, because we have an empty space within us where God should be. We are filling that space with the wrong things.
Shaun Lambert is a Baptist minister in Stanmore, NW London. He is part of the New Wine leader's network, and PREMIER Mind and Soul network.
For the last ten years he has studied integrative and relational counselling at Roehampton University. He wrote regularly for the Baptist Times. He believes that all truth is God's truth and that Christians need to be learners and thinkers who help critique and transform culture.
Shaun is currently researching the possibility of a PhD in New Testament studies focusing on watchfulness in Mark's gospel.
He is married to Clare and has two children, Zachary and Amy, and a dog called Coco.
(c) Simon P Walker 2011