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Frank Laubach: Modern Christian Mystic

May 22, 2002

Hello everyone,

What I have chosen to send today may sound a little strange to our modern ears. We have a tendency to seek God in the fireworks and impressive displays of power, turning away in disappointment when we do not find him there. This has much to with the fact we have not cultivated the ability to listen to that still, small voice. Why is God so difficult to hear?

God’s ways are not our ways. God is goodness exemplified: “God is light. In God there is no darkness at all.”

We, on the other hand, often choke out the voice of God with our own insistence that things be done our way; our own pettiness, selfishness, naïveté, and pride put barriers between us and the Loving Father.

We expect to find God in awesome spectacles of might and miraculous messages without first learning to recognize God in the smile of a child or the everyday miracles of nature around us.

It is true that in order for God to speak to us, God must be the one who does the speaking. Yet it is clear God is continually speaking to people all the time: they have just never learned how to listen.

God’s path is a path that is higher, a path we do not often see, for it is so foreign to our ancestry, the blood of Adam and Eve still freely coursing through our veins all these untold centuries later.

Kierkegaard expresses some interesting sentiments on this subject. He sees a person’s “concentric,” inward journey as rising from a reliance on the sensual world, to the use of “sensate language appropriated metaphorically for spiritual use” to take us toward the Center (Creegan—“Spiritual Metaphor in ‘Love Builds Up’”). Indeed, everything that we know is built upon what we have encountered once we entered this world. This is common sense, really.

We were born into a world that contained trees and flowers and butterflies; we learned to accept these things as a given and elementary part of our existence, our language mirroring—even presupposing—their existence, and these things with their linguistic counterparts in turn become the basis for all our ideas: we have taken the very foundation for all our sensate knowledge for granted since the day we were born and do not question its right to exist.

When we learn new things, we necessarily build them on this ever expanding foundation of the old, the vast majority of teaching done through analogy and metaphor, relating two or more somewhat dissimilar things in order to explain a third and higher concept, just as all our understanding is based on the early years of simply soaking up and apprehending everything with which our senses were presented without question of validity. It was all built on the foundation of taking the world into which we were born as a given from our birth and building on what is—not what was not.

From this rationale, Kierkegaard’s conception of “concentric” stages (though not strictly linear: more dynamic and malleable as they ring the Center) makes perfect sense, for we grow from a being immersed in the sensual world to one capable of integrating the spiritual as well, through the stepping stone of the symbols of the sensual, no less.

Kierkegaard locates this lack of integration in the lower maturity level of the purely secular thinker, who has not yet learned to apprehend the unseen spiritual dimension—the higher and more central levels of reality. Stuck in the sensual world, their materialistic presuppositions, when applied to the same knowledge the believer’s faith embarks upon, blinds them to the reality of the love woven within.

Hence, it is not the knowledge itself, but the approach or “tool” applied to that knowledge that determines the validity of the outcome. Fear, foolish pride, or limiting suppositions holding them back, they have not yet learned to venture out in faith, hope, or love.

As Kierkegaard writes:

If it were so, as conceited sagacity, proud of not being deceived, thinks, that we should believe nothing that we cannot see with our physical eyes, then we first and foremost ought to give up believing in love. If we were to do so and do it out of fear lest we be deceived, would we not then be deceived? (Qtd. in Creegan, from Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. 5.)

Seeing the inward realization of an outwardly focused love as the beginning point for a spiritual awakening, Kierkegaard continues in “Love Believes All Things—and Yet Is Never Deceived”:

Light mindedness, inexperience, naïveté believe everything that is said; vanity, conceit, complacency believe everything flattering that is said; envy, malice, corruption believe everything evil that is said; mistrust believes nothing at all; experience will teach that it is most sagacious not to believe everything—but love believes all things. (Qtd. in Creegan, from Kierkegaard’s Works of Love. 226.)

As the title implies, love believes all things, and yet is not deceived. Yet how can this be? True love sees clearly because love of self has been supplanted. It does not stiffen with skepticism or suspicion (or any other method of self-preservation), it is not easily offended, it takes no thought of itself, it puts another first: and, at the risk of begging the question though no less true, it always sees clearly for it sees through the eyes of love. To see with love is to see as the Father sees.

We, on the other hand, do not often see through the eyes of love. Even as spiritual followers, we allow our own selfishness, pettiness—clutter of all sorts—to invade our lives. This turns our focus in on ourselves, which is not the essence of which Kierkegaard speaks, for the wide-open eyes of love seek an object of affection apart from themselves. (Indeed, love presupposes the existence of an object of affection.)

At times, nothing about spending time with God or seeking God’s purpose for our lives seems attractive or desirable. Instead, we feel cold, distant, and uncaring.

This week’s send comes from Devotional Classics: Selected Readings For Individuals and Groups. Recently pulling it from my dusty bookshelf, I found a scrap of paper stuck in the fold. Inspiration rarely strikes when it is convenient, so I have “writing doodles” scribbled on paper napkins and everything else imaginable: this “bookmark” was one such example, hastily transcribed on the back of an old Literature quiz on lunch break one day:

Smiling. A great mystery happens when you draw close to God. You lose the sense of self-consciousness you normally possess. As pretenses drop off, your spirit is buoyed quietly upward and higher and a pleasant sense of tranquillity settles over you. You find that as you move and walk, people watch you hungrily, drawn to you.

You will find a delightful accident—“Divine serendipity”—that when you meet the eye of another, a spontaneous and warm smile crosses your face, and for a moment in time, your souls unite in a smile deeper than words, for indeed, words would merely get into the way and destroy the Divine simplicity of the moment.

What is the secret? It is not buckling down, but loosening up: spending more time in prayer. Do not have time for prayer? An interesting paradox occurs when you first take this leap of faith, and focus—however awkwardly at first—your mind on prayer.

You see, the more time you spend in prayer and contemplation, the more time you have. Indeed, you may soon conclude your clock has been ticking backward. Your life operates now not according to the world of men around you, but according to the Spirit of the God within you.”

I was drawn up short, for I well remembered scrawling this paragraph, and I knew it reflected the truth. My sentiments, written several months prior, were along the same lines as Laubach’s in Devotional Classics: Selected Readings For Individuals and Groups: without further ado, here is Frank Laubach, modern-day Christian mystic. It is my prayer that his letters live on to challenge you in your steps toward the Source, Center, and Object of all affections.

Eric

P.S. Incidentally, you might be interested in reading Words of Love by Charles L. Creegan (the source article on Kierkegaard referenced in this newsletter); you might also wish to purchase Kierkegaard’s Works of Love, the book around which much of the article centers.


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Letters by a Modern Mystic Letters by a Modern Mystic

Frank C. Laubach

Introduction to the Author

(1884–1970)

In 1915 Frank Laubach went with his wife to the Philippine Islands as a missionary. After founding churches on the island of Mindanao, he established and became dean of Union College in Manila. In 1930 he returned to Mindanao to work with the Mohammedan Moros who regarded the Christian Filipinos as their enemies. Laubach, however, went with a heart filled with the presence of God and sought only to live among them, not trying to coerce them into Christianity, but living each moment with a sense of God’s presence.

It is estimated that through his educational efforts he was responsible for teaching one-half of the ninety thousand people in that area to read and write. More than that, he has brought thousands of people to a richer experience of God. The following reading comes from the letters he wrote during his Mindanao days.

1. Open Windows

January 3, 1930

To be able to look backward and say, “This, this has been the finest year of any life”—that is glorious! But anticipation! To be able to look ahead and say, “The present year can and will be better!”—that is more glorious! I have done nothing but open windows—God has done the rest. There has been a succession of marvelous experiences of the friendship of God. I resolved that I would succeed better this year with my experiment of filling every minute full of the thought of God than I succeeded last year. And I added another resolve—to be as wide open toward people and their need as I am toward God. Windows open outward as well as upward. Windows open especially downward where people need the most!

2. Submission: The First and Last Duty

January 20, 1930

Submission is the first and last duty of man. That is exactly what I have been needing in my Christian life. Two years ago a profound dissatisfaction led me to begin trying to line up my actions with the will of God about every fifteen minutes or every half hour. Other people to whom I confessed this intention said it was impossible. I judge from what I have said that few people are trying even that. But this year I have started out trying to live all my waking moments in conscious listening to the inner voice, asking without ceasing, “What, Father, do you desire said? What, Father, do you desire done this minute?”

3. Feeling God in Each Movement

January 26, 1930

For the past few days I have been experimenting in a more complete surrender than ever before. I am taking by deliberate act of will, enough time from each hour to give God much thought. Yesterday and today I have made a new adventure, which is not easy to express. I am feeling God in each movement, by an act of will—willing that He shall direct these fingers that now strike this typewriter—willing that He shall pour through my steps as I walk—willing that He shall direct my words as I speak, and my very jaws as I eat!

You will object to this intense introspection. Do not try it, unless you feel unsatisfied with your own relationship with God, but at least allow me to realize all the leadership of God I can. I am disgusted with the pettiness and futility of my unled self. If the way out is not more perfect slavery to God, then what is the way out? I am trying to be utterly free from everybody, free from my own self, but completely enslaved to the will of God every moment of this day.

4. Moment by Moment

We used to sing a song in the church in Benton which I liked, but which I never really practiced until now. It runs:

Moment by moment, I’m kept in His love;
Moment by moment I’ve life from above;
Looking to Jesus till glory doth shine;
Moment by moment, O Lord, I am Thine.

It is exactly that “moment by moment,” every waking moment, surrender, responsiveness, obedience, sensitiveness, pliability, “lost in His love,” that I now have the mind-bent to explore with all my might. It means two burning passions: First, to be like Jesus. Second, to respond to God as a violin responds to the bow of the master. Open your soul and entertain the glory of God and after a while that glory will be reflected in the world about you and in the very clouds above your head.

5. Only One Thing Now

January 29, 1930

I feel simply carried along each hour, doing my part in a plan which is far beyond myself. This sense of cooperation with God in the little things is what astonishes me. I seem to have to make sure of only one thing now, and every other thing “takes care of itself,” or I prefer to say what is more true, God takes care of all the rest. My part is to live in this hour in continuous inner conversation with God and in perfect responsiveness to His will. To make this hour gloriously rich. This seems to be all I need to think about.

6. Undiscovered Continents of Spiritual Living

March 1, 1930

The sense of being led by an unseen hand which takes mine while another hand reaches ahead and prepares the way, grows upon me daily. I do not need to strain at all to find opportunity. Perhaps a man who has been an ordained minister since 1914 ought to be ashamed to confess that he never felt the joy of hourly, minute by minute—now what shall I call it?—more than surrender.

It is a will act. I compel my mind to open out toward God. I wait and listen with determined sensitiveness. I fix my attention there, and sometimes it requires a long time early in the morning to attain that mental state. I determine not to get out of bed until that mind set, that concentration upon God, is settled. It also requires determination to keep it there. After a while, perhaps, it will become a habit, and the sense of effort will grow less. But why do I harp on this inner experience? Because I feel convinced that for me and for you who read there lie ahead undiscovered continents of spiritual living compared with which we are infants in arms.

But how “practical” is this for the average man? It seems now to me that yonder plowman could be like Calixto Sanidad, when he was a lonesome and mistreated plowboy, “with my eyes on the furrow, and my hands on the lines, but my thoughts on God.” The millions at looms and lathes could make the hours glorious. Some hour spent by some night watchman might be the most glorious ever lived on earth.

7. How Infinitely Richer

March 15, 1930

Every waking moment of the week I have been looking toward Him, with perhaps the exception of an hour or two. How infinitely richer this direct first hand grasping of God Himself is, than the old method which I used and recommended for years, the endless reading of devotional books. Almost it seems to me now that the very Bible cannot be read as a substitute for meeting God soul to soul and face to face.

8. Can It Be Done?

March 23, 1930

We can keep two things in mind at once. Indeed we cannot keep one thing in mind more than half a second. Mind is a flowing something. It oscillates. Concentration is merely the continuous return to the same problem from a million angles. So my problem is this: Can I bring God back in my mind-flow every few seconds so that God shall always be in my mind as an after image, shall always be one of the elements in every concept and precept? I choose to make the rest of my life an experiment in answering this question.

I do not invite anybody else to follow this arduous path. I wish many might. We need to know, for example, Can a laboring man successfully attain this continuous surrender to God? Can a man working at a machine pray for people all day long, and at the same time do His task efficiently? Can a mother wash dishes, care for the babies, continuously talking to God?

If you are like myself, this has been a pretty strong diet. So I will put something simpler and more attainable: “Any hour of any day may be made perfect by merely choosing. It is perfect if one looks to God that entire hour, waiting for His leadership all through the hour and trying hard to do every tiny thing exactly as God wishes it done.”

9. Difficulty and Failure

April 19, 1930

If this record of a soul [sic] struggle to find God is to be complete it must not omit the story of difficulty and failure. I have not succeeded very well so far. This week, for example, has not been one of the finest in my life, but I resolve not to give up the effort. Yet strain does not seem to do good. At this moment I feel something “let go” inside, and lo, God is here! It is a heart melting “here-ness,” a lovely whispering of father to child, and the reason I did not have it before was because I failed to let go.

10. Letting God Control

April 22, 1930

This morning I started out fresh, by finding a rich experience of God in the sunrise. Then I tried to let Him control my hands while I was shaving and dressing and eating breakfast. Now I am trying to let God control my hands as I pound the typewriter keys. There is nothing that we can do excepting to throw ourselves open to God. There is, there must be, so much more in Him than He can give us. It ought to be tremendously helpful to be able to acquire the habit of reaching out strongly after God’s thoughts, and to ask, “God, what have you to put into my mind now if only I can be large enough?” That waiting, eager attitude ought to give God the chance He needs.

Oh, this thing of keeping in constant touch with God, making Him the object of my thought and the companion of my conversations, is the most amazing thing I ever ran across. It is working. I cannot do it even half a day—not yet, but I believe I shall be doing it some day for the entire day. It is a matter of acquiring a new habit of thought. Now I like God’s presence so much that when for a half hour or so He slips out of mind—as He does many times a day, I feel as though I had deserted Him, and as though I had lost something very precious in my life.

Poetry Far More Beautiful

May 24, 1930

The day had been rich but strenuous, so I climbed “Signal Hill” back of my house talking and listening to God all the way up, all the way back, all the lovely half hour on the top. And God talked back! I let my tongue go loose and from it there flowed poetry far more beautiful than any I ever composed. It flowed without pausing and without ever a failing syllable for a half hour. I listened astonished and full of joy and gratitude. I wanted a dictaphone for I knew that I should not be able to remember it—and now I cannot. “Why,” someone may ask, “did God waste His poetry on you alone, when you could not carry it home?” You will have to ask God that question. I only know He did and I am happy in the memory.

Bible Selection: Psalm 139: 1–11 17–18, 23–24

O LORD, you have searched me and known me. 2You know when I sit down and when I rise up; you discern my thoughts from far away. 3You search out my path and my lying down, and are acquainted with all my ways. 4Even before a word is on my tongue, O LORD, you know it completely. 5You hem me in, behind and before, and lay your hand upon me. 6Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is so high that I cannot attain it.

7Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence? 8If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. 9If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, 10even there your hand shall lead me, and your right hand shall hold me fast.

17How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God! How vast is the sum of them! 18I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with you.

23Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. 24See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

Reflection Questions

The following questions can be used for discussion within a small group, or used for journal reflections by individuals.

  1. What led Frank Laubach to experiment with practicing God’s presence? (See section 2.) Describe how you feel about your spiritual life right now.
  2. Laubach refers to this practice as an act of the will. To what isi he directing his will? What thoughts? What actions?
  3. The author describes this practice as a habit. What thoughts are you in the habit of thinking? How does your thought life shape who you are?
  4. Laubach writes, “There is . . . so much more in Him than He can give us.” Over the past few years, what things has God given you? What keeps God from being able to give you more?
  5. According to Psalm 139, is there any place we can go to escape the presence of God? How do you feel about the constant presence of God?

Suggested Exercises

The following exercises can be done by individuals, shared between spiritual friends, or used in the context of a small group. Choose one or more of the following.

  1. Try Laubach’s experiment of thinking of God each moment. Try it for ten minutes. Try it for an hour. Try it for a whole day. Record your experiences.
  2. Submission, according to Laubach, was central to his experiment. As you go about your tasks this week, deliberately pause to listen for God’s counsel, and attempt to line up your actions with God’s will as often as you think of it.
  3. Put some reminder (e.g., a note, a cross, a Bible passage) in your work space that will trigger thoughts of God’s presence each time you glance at it throughout your workday.
  4. Make the prayer of the psalmist (Ps. 139: 23–24) your prayer this week. Ask God to search your heart and mind as you endeavor to live a whole and complete life.

Reflections

I marvel at the prayer experiences of Frank Laubach. Here is a giant of a man, a man who developed a method of literacy training that has been used worldwide, compassionately declaring, “I want to learn how to live so that to see someone is to pray for them.” He has helped me tremendously.

Even today, I like to thumb through his letters and journals until I encounter one of his prayer experiments that seems right for me for now. Perhaps it is an experiment in praying for people on a plane, inviting Jesus Christ to go from passenger to passenger, bringing His love into their lives. Then I’ll try it for a while and see what I learn. It’s a great adventure, this life of prayer, and Frank Laubach has pioneered the way for many of us.

Richard J. Foster's signature

Going Deeper

New Reader’s Press has undertaken the task of republishing some of Frank Laubach’s works in The Heritage Collection (Syracuse, NY, 1990). To date they have done The Story of Jesus in three parts: Jesus’ Birth and Ministry, Jesus’ Death and Resurrection, and The Parables of Jesus.

The only other Laubach writings in print include portions of his diary (Practicing His Presence, edited by Gene Edwards, Auburn, ME: Seed Sowers, 1973) and School Prayers, (Washington, DC: Public Affairs Press, 1969). For other works, scour libraries and used book stores. Look for titles such as Letters by a Modern Mystic, Game with Minutes, Learning the Vocabulary of God, and Prayer: The Mightiest Force in the World.

Excerpted from:

Devotional Classics: Selected Readings For Individuals and Groups. (Richard J. Foster & James Bryan Smith, Editors. HarperCollins, 1993.)

In turn, the above was excerpted from: Laubach, Frank C., Letters by a Modern Mystic.

You might also be interested in these additional titles by and about Frank Labauch: Autobiography of Jesus Christ, Forty Years With the Silent Billion, Each One Teach One: A Story About Frank Laubach, and Laubach Way to Reading: In the Valley.


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