Saturday, September 23, 2017
Over the last weeks, we have been examining “Spirituality for Busy People.” We began this exploration by examining prayer and then we explored the scriptures as a source for spirituality. This Sunday, September 24th, we will look at a third form of spirituality, which I call, “Embodied Spirituality.”
From my perspective, spirituality refers to intentionally deepening and strengthening our relationship with the Divine, and a spiritual practice refers to a particular action. Rev. Jane Vennard says, “Spirituality is about growing, weaving, deepening, strengthening, and embracing fully our relationship with God.”[i] I really appreciate this understanding of spirituality, however, I would modify it by adding the qualifier, “intentional.” That is, spirituality is intentional growing, weaving, deepening, strengthening, and embracing fully our relationship with the Divine.
For me, an embodied spirituality refers to practices other than prayer and Bible study which incorporate our physical bodies. For example, I would suggest that sitting in a forest or meadow, using our five senses to intentionally experience the Divine through Creation would be a form of embodied spirituality. Similarly, fasting for a day in order to “create space in your life to attend to God”[ii] would be a form of embodied spirituality.
In developing the theme of embodied spirituality in my proclamation this week, my scriptural text will be from 1 Thessalonians 5: 12-22. This passage comes at the end of the Apostle Paul’s letter. It begins with a series of ethical admonitions, ranging from respecting their leaders to abstaining from repaying “evil for evil.” Then, the passage turns to three imperatives:
1. Rejoice always
2. pray without ceasing
3. give thanks in all circumstances
In my proclamation, I want to focus exclusively on the middle imperative, “pray without ceasing.” What does it mean to pray without ceasing?” Is it possible to pray continually throughout our lives, regardless of what other activities in which we are engaged? Certainly, praying without ceasing would entail some forms of embodied spiritual practices.
Throughout Christian history, there have been some monks and mystics who attempted to pray without ceasing throughout their lives. For instance, in The Way of a Pilgrim,[iii] a 19th century writing, the protagonist attempts to fulfill the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to “pray without ceasing.” The protagonist’s spiritual guide advises him to repeat the “Jesus prayer”[iv] 6,000 times a day. After he has mastered this challenge, the spiritual advisor increases the number of prayers to 12,000 times a day. Ultimately the spiritual novice finds that the prayer is constantly on his lips and mind—both when awake and when asleep. The prayer becomes as spontaneous as breathing.
Unfortunately, The Way of a Pilgrim appears foreign and contrived to the sensibilities of the typical twenty-first century American Christian. However, the approach of another historic Christian mystic may offer a more relevant approach for the contemporary context. “Brother Lawrence” was a 17th century French Carmelite. As a young man, poverty forced Brother Lawrence to become a soldier. Unfortunately, he was wounded and forced to leave the military. A simple and uneducated man, he eventually joined the Carmelite Order. For the rest of his life, Brother Lawrence spent most of his time in a Paris monastery.
He was assigned to the kitchen, where he cooked, washed dishes and scrubbed pots and pans. Over time, Brother Lawrence discovered a special spirituality in his mundane daily tasks. He began to see his kitchen tasks as an opportunity to place himself in the Presence of the Divine through his chores. “As the practice of placing himself in God’s presence gradually became habitual, he found that the distinction between time set aside for prayer and time designated for work became blurred.”[v] People began to notice Brother Lawrence’s profound holiness and so they sought him out for spiritual guidance and insight. Finally, four “conversations” with Brother Lawrence were published as The Practice of the Presence of God.[vi]
In thee “four conversations,” I believe that Brother Lawrence lays out some helpful guidelines for embodied spirituality:[vii]
1. Renounce the Love of Anything that is not God. For Brother Lawrence, we must empty ourselves of all other desires except that of loving God.
2. Practice God’s Presence Faithfully by Keeping the Soul’s Gaze Humbly and Trustfully Fixed on God. As Robin Maas explains, “Unable to pray effectively according to a set method or pattern, Brother Lawrence found that he could pray most successfully (and consistently) by placing himself, through an act of the imagination and by an impulse of love, in the presence of God.”[viii] In other words, Brother Lawrence imagined himself always in the Presence of God, even when he was hard at work, scrubbing pots.
3. We should Begin, Continue, and End Every Act We Perform by an ‘Inward Lifting of the Heart to God.’ Brother Lawrence adopted a practice of lifting up short prayers to God throughout his day, which effectively reminded him that he was in God’s Presence and that he was doing the work of God, even if he was peeling potatoes or washing dishes.
4. Perseverance. Brother Lawrence recognized that it is not easy to think of God throughout the day, regardless of the task to which we are engaged. Frequently, he found himself distracted and forgetful in his efforts to be constantly attuned with the Presence of God. But, he prescribes being easy with oneself; lifting up a prayer of confession to God; and continuing to work at becoming fully attuned to God.
As noted above, I believe that Brother Lawrence provides a template for contemporary 21st century Christians to practice an embodied spirituality. For example, we might apply Brother Lawrence’s insights to our daily commute:
a. As we get in our car, we might begin with a brief prayer, thanking God for our job we and the opportunity to work, while also asking a safe commute.
b. As we begin our drive, we could imagine that Jesus is present, in the car with us, sitting in the passenger seat.
c. When someone cuts us off in traffic, rather than blowing out horn, we might wave them ahead, mindful that Jesus is our passenger.
d. Rather than seeing stoplights as nuisances, we could see them as brief opportunities to for prayer. At the first light that stops us, we might lift up a prayer for those who are sick; at the second light we could pray for our country; at the third light we could pray for those who are hungry and homeless; at the fourth light for those who are lonely or grieving, and so forth.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, September 24th, as we reflect on embodied spirituality. In addition to developing Brother Lawrence’s insights, I will also make some other suggestions of ways in which we can practice an embodied spirituality. Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.
Come and join us. Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
[i] Jane E. Vennard, Praying with Body and Soul, A Way to Intimacy with God (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1998), 3.
[ii] Vennard, 22.
[iii] Anonymous, The Way of a Pilgrim and The Pilgrim Continues His Way, translated by R. M. French, with an Foreword by Huston Smith (New York: HarperCollins, 1991).
[iv] There are various forms of the “Jesus prayer.” The one I use goes like this: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me a sinner.”
[v] Robin Maas, “Practicum 8, “Practicing the Presence of God: Recollection in the Carmelite Tradition” in Spiritual Traditions for the Contemporary Church, edited by Robin Maas and Gabriel O’Donnell, O.P. (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1990), 261.
[vi] Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection, The Practice of the Presence of God translated by John J. Delaney with a Foreword by Henri Nouwen (New York: Image Book/Doubleday, 1977).
[vii] The following summary of Brother Lawrence’s “four conversations” is drawn from Robin Maas, 260-262.
[viii] Mass, 261.
Saturday, September 16, 2017
This week, September 17th, we continue our four-week focus, entitled” “Spirituality for Busy People.” Whereas last Sunday we began at a very basic level by reflecting on the role of prayer, this Sunday we explore how Scripture can shape and inform our spirituality.
In his book, The Way of Scripture, M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. proposes that the Divine becomes incarnate in the scriptural text, just as God becomes physically incarnate in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. As a metaphor to better understand how God becomes incarnate in scripture, Mulholland suggests that we could think of a composer, such as Beethoven, becoming incarnate in a symphony which he composed. Mulholland writes: “Beethoven heard the symphony in his being and wrote the score from his intimate relationship with the music that resonated within him. In other words, the symphony became ‘text.’”[i]
With this understanding of scripture, Mulholland proposes a different, spiritual way of reading and studying scripture. In this alternative approach to scripture, the goal is not education—understood as the taking in of more knowledge—but, instead, the goal is transformation. Rather, than studying the Bible in order to get more information about God and God’s Will for us as disciples of Christ, Mulholland suggests a “formational reading” of scripture. In this “formational reading,” we open ourselves to being challenged and encourage so that we are transformed by God incarnate in the text.
(In proposing this alternative form of Bible study, Mulholland does not intend to replace traditional Bible studies and the quest for a more informed understanding of scripture. Instead, for Mulholland, the two approaches are complement one another.)
To facilitate a transformation study of scripture, Mulholland proposes an emended form of the traditional Benedictine practice of Lectio divinia (Latin for “Divine Reading”). In Mulholland’s proposal, the Divine Reading process has six steps:
1. Silent centering
2. Reading the scriptural text
3. Meditating on the text
5. Contemplation of the text
6. Incarnation, understood as the Word becoming incarnated within us
In what follows, I basically follow Mulholland’s work for my own proposal. As an illustration of this form of biblical spirituality, consider this parable told by Jesus, as well as the context of the parable:
Just then a lawyer stood up to test Jesus. “Teacher,” he said, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?” He said to him, “What is written in the law? What do you read there?” He answered, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself.” And he said to him, “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live.” But wanting to justify himself, he asked Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So likewise a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with pity. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” He said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.” (Luke 10: 25-37)
Spiritual Bible Study for Transformation
1. Silent Centering. Divine Reading begins with a time of silence for centering one’s mind for scriptural study. We begin by clearing our minds of all distractions so that we can become really present to the Divine incarnated in the scripture. This centering process is fundamental to all Divine Reading, as well as prayer and meditation. Our brains do not like to be quiet and still. So, whenever we begin reflection and meditation, our brains try to fill us up with distractions, such as making a shopping list or worrying about a problem or thinking about what’s for dinner. The first step, then, is clearing our minds of the craziness of distractions so that we can be fully present to the Divine.
2. Reading. The second step is to read the text; in this case, the Parable of the Good Samaritan. As I read the story, I ask myself what God might be saying to me personally through the text. That is, we respond to what is read with our heart, rather than our rational intellect. I must ask myself, how does this text challenge or disorient me? How does the text give me joy or encouragement? Is there a way in which the text provides me with comfort and healing? How do I feel about this scripture? Another way of reading the scripture in a formational approach is to try and put yourself into the text; to try and imagine how you would have felt and reacted if you were a character in the story.
For instance, I could imagine myself as the lawyer who stood up to question Jesus. In the context of a public debate between Jesus and the lawyer, it is important to see that Jesus’ reply is a put down of the lawyer, causing him to lose face in public. We need to keep in mind that the lawyer is publicly recognized as an expert in Jewish law. But, Jesus response, “You are right,” actually assumes that Jesus understands the law more deeply and, therefore, is above the lawyer when it comes to the lawyer’s own area of expertise. So, I can imagine how embarrassed and humiliated I would feel. I identify with the lawyer in some ways.
Alternatively, I could imagine myself as a character in the parable. If I were the victim, I would imagine myself lying, face down in the ditch; my body aching from the beating; blood oozing from my wounds; bruises forming on my body. I would feel so helpless and alone. Or, I might imagine myself as the priest. Now, the priest was an important leader in his community. And, he would be expected to stop and offer assistance, but he does not stop. Why would I do that? Could it be that I have such pressing responsibilities that I am feeling overwhelmed and so I pretend like I don’t see the victim in order to avoid having to stop and getting even further behind in fulfilling all of my responsibilities? In some ways, as a pastor, I identify with the priest.
3. Meditating on the Text. The third step of Divine Reading is meditation on the scripture. In this stage, my focus shifts from the scripture to how I am reacting to the scripture. What are my reactions to the scripture? How is God encountering me in the text? How does the scripture challenge me to grow spiritually? In this step, we open ourselves to the mystery of God in the text.
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, I find that I have two reactions to the lawyer’s humiliation. My first reaction is to take delight in the lawyer’s humiliation. For me, the lawyer comes across as arrogant and full of himself. He thinks that he is important in his community because he is the expert in Jewish law. He thinks of himself as a leader in his community. He takes pride in his accomplishments. The lawyer’s self-worth is inter-connected with his expertise in the law and his high statue in his community. When Jesus offends him, the lawyer has a strong impulse to “justify himself.”
However, as I continue to meditate on the text, God confronts and challenges me with this thought: In the story, I am the lawyer. Until this reading of the Good Samaritan, I had always identified with the Samaritan, who heroically helps the wounded man. But, now a new perspective creeps into my mind. I am more like the lawyer. Just as the lawyer, I ground my self-worth in what I know and what I have accomplished in life. I take pride in my accomplishments; in my high educational level; in all that I am done. My value; my self-worth is all based upon what I know and what I have accomplished.
4. Prayer. If we think of meditation as our encounter with the Divine through the scriptural text, then prayer is our inner response to this encounter with God. Prayer may take the form of wrestling with God. At times, prayer is a struggle with the conflict between our perception of ourselves and God’s perception of who we are. Prayer is a dynamic dialogue with God, in which we open ourselves to God’s purposes for us.
In the Parable of the Good Samaritan, I struggle with this new challenge posed to me by the Divine within the scriptural text: Is it true that I am most like the lawyer in the story? If so, what does that mean about me and my relationship with the Divine?
5. Contemplation of the Text. The struggle and dialogue with the Divine through prayer leads to a transformative reflection on the scriptural text. We lose ourselves in the Divine in order to find our true selves. That is, we abandon our false, self-serving identity in order to discover our trues identity as beloved brothers and sisters in Christ.
In my struggle with the Parable of the Good Samaritan, I realize my true self is not dependent upon all that I know or all that I have accomplished or all the possessions that I own. I realize that my true self is not contingent upon being a “success.” Instead, I come to realize that I am important to God without having to know or accomplish or own. I am important to God and loved by God without having to be a success. That realization is radically liberating.
6. Incarnation, understood as the scriptural Word becoming incarnated within us. In this spiritual practice, the scriptural Word becomes incarnated within our very being. It is the profound unity of the Divine Word within us through the community of faith. Viewed in this way, incarnation is the outcome of a deepening relationship with the Divine in which the Divine presence is ever more fully touching the lives of others in a healing, transforming, freeing love. Incarnation is becoming the body of Christ in the world through the community of faith.
In my reflection on the Parable of the Good Samaritan, my realization that I am important to God without having to be a success at everything transforms who I am. Through achieving a greater unity with the Divine, my outlook, my perceptions, my attitude is changed. I realize that God loves me even when I fail and that realization is transformative. I grow closer in my relationship with the Divine because I realize that I don’t have to earn God’s love and acceptance. Further, I see the world differently. Since God loves me unconditionally, I am able to love the world more fully—and I experience greater joy.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, September 17th, as we reflect on the role of scripture as a resource for spirituality; part of our ongoing examination of a “Spirituality for Busy People.” Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.
Come and join us. Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
Saturday, September 9, 2017
This Sunday, September 10th, we start a new four-week focus, entitled: “Spirituality for Busy People.” We begin this Sunday at a very basic level by reflecting on prayer.
“What is prayer, exactly?” Perhaps the most straightforward definition of prayer is that it is communication with the Divine. This communication may be verbal, such as “The Lord’s Prayer” or when we lift up a prayer of petition for a friend who is very sick. Of course, true communication should always be at least two-way. It should never be one-way, in which only one party speaks and the other only listens. This is certainly true in communication with the Divine. Sometimes the Divine speaks to us through verbal communication, as when God spoke to the prophet Elijah in a “still, small voice” (see 1 Kings 19: 11-15).
While we normally think of communication as exchanging words with one another, not all communication is verbal. Sometimes we communicate with our eyes or a gesture or through our body language. Similarly, communication with the Divine need not always be verbal. For instance, sometimes I feel God communicating with me through nature. I experience God’s Presence in a brilliant early morning sunrise, in the majesty of a grand old oak tree, in the vivid colors of different fish swimming around a coral reef, when gazing up at the starry heavens on a clear evening, and in the smile of a newborn infant. In all of these ways and many more, I experience the Divine communicating with me without using words. Prayer, then, is communication with the Divine, both verbally and non-verbally.
Suppose that I have a friend who has been diagnosed with a very serious, perhaps even terminal, illness. I visit my friend in the hospital. We sit and talk, and my friend shares his fears of an uncertain prognosis with me. When it is time to end our visit I stand, grasp his hand, and say: “I will be praying for you in the days to come.” My friend thanks me, as I leave his hospital room. But, what does it mean to pray for someone who is sick?
As Christians, we believe in a God who loves us more profoundly than we can ever understand. We believe in a God who seeks the very best for us. And, we believe that God is all powerful and ultimately in control. Given this understanding of who God is, doesn’t my promise to pray for my friend appear a bit superfluous? Afterall, if God is all powerful and if God loves us so deeply, then doesn’t it make sense to assume that God already has my friend’s best interests at heart and that God is already caring for my friend? In some respects, we might assume that God knows better how to care for my friend than I do. So, why should I even pray for my friend, if we assume that God is already loving and caring for my friend? It’s not as though we have to nag God to care for those whom we love. God already loves our loved ones more than we do. So, why pray at all?
The 1993 film, Shadowlands is the story of C. S. Lewis, who was an Oxford University professor, author of the children’s fantasy book series, The Chronicles of Narnia, and a widely respected religious thinker. The film explores Lewis’ relationship with his wife, Joy, and how her struggle and death from cancer challenged his faith. In one scene from the film, C. S. Lewis’ friend remarks, “I know how hard you’ve been praying; and now God is answering your prayers.”
It seems to me that this brief scrap of dialogue captures the essence of why we pray from a Christian perspective. It’s not that we pray in order to change God; it’s not that we are trying to persuade—or, nag—God to do something. No. We pray to change ourselves. We pray in order to align our will with God’s will. To draw closer to the Divine by becoming one with the Divine through aligning our will and our intentions and our desires with God’s Will.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, September 10th, as we reflect on the role of prayer, and begin an examination of a “Spirituality for Busy People.” Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.
Come and join us. Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.
Saturday, September 2, 2017
This Sunday, September 3rd, we conclude our exploration of the resources which Christians have to confront their fears. Recall that on the first weekend of this series, I explored the Fear of Change, and what resources Christians have to overcome their fears of change. Last Sunday, August 27th, Beth Menhusen, our Associate Pastor, explored resources which Christians have for conquering their fear of the “other.” Finally, this weekend, I will look at our fear of failing. We have called this series, “Faith trumps Fear.”
To ground and inform our examination of the Fear of Failing, I invite you to join with me in a different way of interpreting Jesus’ parable of the talents (Matthew 25: 14-27). Of course, the parable of the talents will be familiar to many of my readers. It is the story of a rich man, who is preparing to go on a long journey. Before leaving for his journey, the rich man summons three of his servants. He gives each of them a particular sum of money to safeguard.
Now, the three servants in this parable were not slaves who worked in the field or cleaned the house or cooked the food. Instead, think of them as Administrators—or, investment bankers. The situation would be similar to today, when a very wealthy person—perhaps a professional athlete or someone who has invented a new computer application and then sold it for several million dollars—gives some of her surplus money to an investment banker and asks them to invest it. So, it would be reasonable for the rich man to expect that the three servant-investors will invest his money in some way and grow his wealth.
In its original usage, a “talent” referred to an extraordinary amount of money. When Jesus told this parable, Biblical scholars estimate that a talent would be the equivalent of the sum total of a worker’s wages for 15 years! In today’s economy, one talent equaled a little over half a million dollars.
In Jesus’ parable, the wealthy man gives each of the three servants various amounts of money, according to their expertise and ability. To the first servant-investor, he gives 5 talents ($2.5 million); to the second servant-investor, he gives 2 talents ($1 million); and to the third servant-investor, he gives 1 talent ($500,000).
After the owner leaves, the first servant, invested the money that he had been given and doubled it. Likewise, the second man invested the money he had been given and doubled it. However, the third servant secretly dug a hole in the ground and buried the money entrusted to his care. After a long interlude, the owner finally returns from his trip and asks for an accounting from the three servants. The first and second servant-investors return their original sum to the owner, along with an equal amount of profit which they have earned through shrewd investments. The owner is very pleased with both of these servant-investors.
However, the third servant returns the lone talent which the master had given him, saying: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so, I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” This response greatly angers the rich master. He wonders why the third servant did not invest the talent with bankers, so that at least he would have received his talent back with interest.
The parable of the talents is very popular among Christians. But, it is important that we take into account the context of this parable. Biblical scholars suggest that Jesus intended for this parable to be an allegory, explaining the Christian life and how Christian disciples should spend their time while waiting for Jesus to come again in his final glory. Writing in The New Interpreter’s Bible, M. Eugene Boring observes, “The meaning of being ‘good and faithful’ is not mere theological correctness, passive waiting, or strict obedience to clear instructions, but active responsibility that takes initiative and risk…”. That is, “good and faithful” disciples will take initiative and risk in order to build up the Kingdom of God on Earth, as we await Jesus’ final coming.[i]
Boring goes on to point out that in the parable, the rich man provides no instructions on what to do with the money while he is away. Each servant-investor must decide for himself how to be a good steward of what he has been given. The difference between the first two investor-servants and the third is that the first two were willing to take a risk, by investing the money which the Master had entrusted with them. By contrast, the third servant was unwilling to take any risk.
Why was the third servant unwilling to invest his Master’s money? In the parable, when the Master learns that his servant has done nothing to grow his investment, he accuses the servant of being a “wicked and lazy slave.” But, I disagree. I believe that in this parable the Master misunderstands his inept servant-investor. Instead of being a “wicked and lazy slave,” I believe that the servant-investor was simply paralyzed by the fear of failing. When he is called to give account of what he has done with the rich man’s money, he replies: “Master, I knew that you were a harsh man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you did not scatter seed; so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.” (Matthew 25: 24-25; my emphasis)
But, why was the third servant-investor so paralyzed by fear? When we look at this parable from the perspective that Jesus intended—that is, when we view this parable as an allegory for Christian life and discipleship—then, the huge difference between the first two servants and the third servant was one of faith. The first two servant-investors were not afraid to invest the money entrusted to them because they had faith. Whereas the third servant-investor lacked faith and so he lacked the courage to invest his Master’s money. He was paralyzed by fear.
When we approach life as Resurrection People, sustained by a faith that God loves us and that ultimately God’s love will prevail, then through our faith we can manage our fears. We no longer have to be paralyzed by fear. Instead, we can trust that God loves us and is caring for us and that, ultimately, God will prevail.
If you live in the Lincoln, Nebraska area and do not have a place of worship, then I invite you to come and join us this Sunday, September 3rd, as we reflect how God’s promise to provide for us and sustain us can help us control and manage our fears, including our fear of failing. Christ United Methodist Church is located at 4530 A Street in Lincoln, Nebraska. Our two traditional Worship Services are at 8:30 and 11:00 on Sunday morning.
Come and join us. Everyone is welcome and accepted because God loves us all.