Wednesday, June 29, 2016

A Wedding Story

Dear Friends,

June is the traditional month for weddings and I will always remember the time we were invited to Leslie’s* wedding in Harmony, Ca. A very quaint, rustic town of only 18 people, Harmony is located just south of Cambria and the entire “town” consisted of a boutique winery and a wedding chapel. The tiny chapel was filled with flowers and twinkle lights and it was a fairytale wedding. The reception was at the winery and all was gourmet and elegant. But years after the fairytale wedding, Prince Charming had turned into the hunchback ogre and the divorced Leslie was ready to get married again. The ink had barely dried on my denomination’s ordination papers when Leslie asked me to officiate. I remembered her last expensive and elegant Harmony Chapel wedding and immediately told her that I’d be happy to. She told me that it would be held at their favorite restaurant** in Palmdale and it had a garden area perfect for the wedding. I’m thinking fresh flowers and twinkle lights and an elegant reception dinner under the stars. This would be my first wedding as a minister. I sent my best suit to the cleaners.

  *  not her real name      ** not actually a real restaurant

The owner of the biker bar had done his best for Leslie and her biker husband-to-be and worked hard to make the weed covered back lot into an acceptable venue for a wedding. He’d tied up his two pit bulls over by the dumpster to avoid any dog bite lawsuits. He’d dragged some old fake Ficus trees and decaying artificial flowers out of the bar and arranged them around a patch of dirt in the corner of the yard. Guests were seated on folding metal chairs that had been out in the direct sun all day. Women with backless dresses or miniskirts screamed as they sat down. Empty beer kegs had been removed from a rusty steel storage shed so that the bride could use it as her changing room. The aluminum kegs stacked next to the ceremonial dirt patch added a festive ambiance. Leslie had changed into a white pantsuit and exited the shed, but as she walked through the weeds to where the procession was to began, she stepped in a pile of pit bull poop that squished up around the sides of her cute, pink western boots. The lovely bride said a word not normally used in the wedding ceremony and we were ready to begin. As the bride walked down the dirt “aisle”, the “best man” played a Guns ‘N Roses heavy metal song on an electric guitar that, to my knowledge, was not a traditional wedding song. 

It was well above 100 degrees in Palmdale on that Saturday afternoon in June. There was no shade in the “garden.” The sun was beating down on us and sweat was pouring off my face. We were engulfed in the odor from the bride’s right boot and the maid of honor had her hand over her nose and mouth. Her stomach heaved and I took a couple of steps toward the groom’s side of the dirt patch in case the maid of honor did something dishonorable. Remember, the ministerial suit had just come back from the cleaners. I don’t want to say I rushed the ceremony, but I didn’t dawdle with any unnecessary niceties. The groom kissed the bride and left her standing alone as he rushed down the aisle to go relieve himself after too many pre-wedding beers. The bride and I adjourned to the blistering hot storage shed where I filled out the marriage certificate using an up-turned beer keg for a writing desk. The reception was burgers, chili dogs and all the beer you could drink. I expressed my most sincere regrets for being unable to stay.

I’ve read other pastor’s wedding stories where, during the vows, the bride thought for a moment and said, “No.” Where the bride and her father fought with light sabers coming down the aisle to music from Star Wars and neither the pastor nor the groom knew they were going to do that. There was the wedding where the bride had requested that 1 John 4:18 be read: “There is no fear in love; instead perfect love drives out fear.” Unfortunately, a confused lay-reader read John 4:18 at the wedding: “For you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband.” Where the pastor did an outdoor wedding and the bride chain-smoked cigarettes during the entire service. When in a church wedding the guy in the sound booth used the wrong CD, and as the bride walked down the aisle, everyone heard Tony Bennett singing “The Lady is a Tramp.” And where the bride and groom were both avid hunters and the pastor was asked to officiate at their wedding by talking through an animatronic deer head.

By the time you read this AMEN Corner, there may not be enough time for you to get married in June but I have some available dates in July to officiate at your wedding. You do need to know that after that first wedding ceremony, I did institute some pretty strict rules you’ll need to follow. I will not marry bride and groom in a biker bar. Guests may chew tobacco if it’s an outdoor wedding but must not spit during the service and both bride and groom must remain sober throughout the entire ceremony.  Amen?

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Finding God in the Silence ~ Part Three

Dear Friends,

“Are you doing okay?” asked my dentist with some concern in his voice. “You’re very still.” We were in the middle of a very uncomfortable and lengthy root canal, but I was completely relaxed. My breathing had slowed as I sunk deeper in contemplative prayer and I was reciting the Jesus Prayer: Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner. I hate having work done on my teeth and my dentist is always kind enough to offer tranquilizers and sedation. But so far, all I’ve ever needed was Jesus.

The Jesus Prayer can take you into contemplative prayer and it can fill the secular spaces in our life. When we’re out shopping. Doing laundry. Taking out the trash. Stopped at the light. In the doctor’s waiting room. That’s when our minds wander toward the trivial and these are the empty spaces in our day that we can fill with prayer. The Jesus Prayer redeems those moments and turns the secular into the sacred. As we go about our day, we pray the prayer of our heart and invoke the Holy Name of Jesus. The Jesus Prayer enables all that we do and all our interactions with others to be Spirit-filled. 

When we consciously recite the Jesus Prayer regularly, it will soon come to mind spontaneously and without effort on our part. There are times that I wake up praying the Jesus Prayer. In that hazy state, when my mind is not yet fully awake and I’m floating in a free-flowing stream of unconscious thoughts, I’ve found myself saying the Jesus Prayer. While I’m sleeping, the Holy Spirit is praying in me to Jesus and through Christ to the Father. Even in deep sleep, our spirit connects with His Spirit. Prayer is our intrinsic desire. Our souls cannot develop without prayer. As our lungs must fill with air, our souls must fill with prayer.

Praying the Jesus Prayer is avoided by some because of Jesus’ warning to not engage in repetitious prayers but a careful reading of Matthew 6:7 shows that He’s referring to “vain repetitions” – those that are meaningless and worthless. But, there is nothing more worthy than the name of Jesus! That’s why, from the 4th century, monastics have used a form of the Jesus Prayer throughout their day as a way to “pray without ceasing..” 1 Thessalonians 5:17 Over 1,000 years later, the Roman Catholic Church would develop the “Hail Mary”prayer and the use of the rosary. But the Jesus Prayer has remained the practice of the Eastern Orthodox for over 2,000 years and today, Protestants seeking a deeper connection with God are discovering this ancient tradition.

The Jesus Prayer is not a mantra or magic talisman. It is recited with fear (reverence) of God and with faith and love. Speaking the name of Jesus invites and instills His presence. Speaking forth the Holy Name, places the reality of God into our circumstances. Life happens. We get stressed. Thoughts can become unhealthy and can even be incapacitating. We worry. Obsess. Get angry or depressed. Praying the Jesus Prayer will break the bondage of those thoughts and bring the peace of God. 

One thing helpful to me when I don’t know what to pray.. When I’m too distracted or disturbed.. When I need to pray but can’t and don’t even know how to begin.. I start with the Jesus Prayer and soon the flow of prayer comes pouring from my heart.

The Jesus Prayer is LORD JESUS CHRIST, SON OF GOD, HAVE MERCY ON ME, A SINNER. Matthew 16:16 and Luke 18:13. Some people eliminate the last two words. For awhile I did too until I realized I was avoiding this penitential phrase out of a prideful spirit. The Orthodox practice combines the Jesus Prayer with deep breathing. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God (on the inhale) have mercy on me, a sinner (on the exhale). While you may not want to follow the Orthodox practice, I highly recommend it during a root canal. 

In contemplative prayer, we find a place of silence, solitude and stillness. We can pray the Jesus Prayer continuously without ceasing “until God’s love has been poured into our heart.” Romans 5:5 Greek Orthodox monks use a woolen prayer cord called a “komvoschinion” that has 100 knots tied in it and they use it to pray the Jesus Prayer hundreds or thousands of times per day. 

You and I don’t live in a monastery or convent. We live in a very secular, stress-filled world. But we can use the Jesus Prayer throughout our day to stay connected with God in both the daily mundane and in the most stressful circumstances. It's difficult to describe, but the Jesus Prayer will allow you to stay focused, relaxed and energized at the same time. This prayer can bring a sense of meditative calmness even in the midst of chaos. We do not disassociate from our conscious and discerning thoughts, but we invite the Presence of God into the center of those thoughts and into the ebb and flow of our life by invoking His name in all that we do. “You have made us for Yourself, O God, and our heart is restless until it finds its rest in You.”  Augustine of Hippo ~ 354 A.D.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Finding God in the Silence ~ Part Two

Dear Friends,

Today we boldly tread into the area of Contemplative Prayer that fundamental and reformed churches call “A Doctrine of Devils.” Contemplative Prayer grew out of the spiritual practices of the 2nd century Christian mystics and has been deeply embedded in monastic life for the past 2000 years. For the first sixteen centuries, Contemplative Prayer was intrinsic to Christian spirituality but the Reformation changed that for all of us who are Protestant Christians. Martin Luther was a disgruntled Catholic priest and monk whose (justifiable) anger at the church caused him to reject all spiritual practices he had learned during his 12 years in the monastery. Luther developed a religious practice that excluded any experience of God beyond reading our Bibles. He taught that you must “banish from your heart” contemplative prayer. Luther’s Works: AE Vol 24:257 For Luther, the academic and lawyer, the study of scripture was far more important than prayer as a direct communication with God. “Meditation,” as Luther described it, was simply the continual study of scripture. This is not to knock about the beloved father of our Protestant beliefs, but to explain why many of us scorn what our church believed in and practiced for the first 1,600 years.

Even us non-Lutheran Evangelical Protestants have been “Lutherized” and we banish spiritual disciplines practiced by the early church. And while much of the unbiblical church tradition that got Luther so riled up is rightfully gone from our Protestant practices, we’ve also replaced the experience of God in our lives with the intellectual study of His Word. I’ve known those who committed great passages of scripture to memory and could discuss and debate theology but their spirit was shriveled and starving. Their mind overflowed with God’s Word but their soul was empty. They were filled with an understanding of God but had never known the presence of God. 

For us Protestants who are uncomfortable with contemplation because it sounds a little too “Catholic,” please remember Jesus. When the Son needed to communicate with His Father, Jesus never ran to the Temple or the nearest Synagogue to read and study the scriptures. Jesus went off by Himself. To the mountain top. To the silence. The solitude. Jesus met His Father in the stillness. “So He Himself often withdrew into the wilderness and prayed.” Luke 5:15-16 (see also: Luke 6:12; Matt 14:23; Mark 1:35) So is meditative prayer really an appropriate way for us Protestants to pray? It is if you want to pray like Jesus...

Did you know that  many of today’s nationally-known Evangelical Protestant pastors have endorsed Contemplative Prayer? (Jack Hayford, Rick Warren, Charles Stanley, Chuck Swindoll and Bill Hybels) One of our Nation’s most respected, conservative theologians, the late Dallas Willard wrote a book titled, HEARING GOD: Developing a Conversational Relationship With God.  If this AMEN Corner ignites your interest in Contemplative Prayer, this is one book that will take you much deeper.

Contemplative or Meditative Prayer has been described as the opening of mind and heart – our whole being – to God. It is stilling your thoughts and emotions and focusing on God Himself. It is accepting God’s invitation to come into His presence, so that you are better able to hear His voice correcting, guiding and directing you. Focused attention on God is a meditative practice. Scripture is designed for meditation and our Bible is filled with exhortations to meditate. See Philippians 4:8 as an example. At the heart of meditative prayer is silence, solitude and stillness. We start by finding a quiet sacred space in our home (silence) where we can be by ourselves (solitude) so that we can just sit-a-spell (stillness). 

No one can possibly accuse Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren of teaching heresy or “new age” biblically unsound practices. Warren has said that “God wants us to connect with Him on a moment-to-moment basis.” He said we should “use ‘breath prayers’ throughout our day as many Christians have done for centuries.”

Contemplative Prayer starts with deep breaths to relax. Breathing in on the count of five. Exhaling on the count of five. Breathe through your nose and relax. In The Purpose-Driven Life, Rick Warren says to “choose a brief scripture or simple phrase that can be repeated to Jesus in one breath.” Repeat the word or phrase. After several minutes of focused breathing and repeating the phrase, we find that we have almost effortlessly transcended into a contemplative state beyond words, emotions, images or forms. Thoughts slow down and the sense of our separateness disappears. We come into a unitive experience with God. We’ve not abandoned our discerning thoughts nor taken leave of our senses. But our mind is clear of the clutter. In the silence, the solitude, the stillness, we come into the presence of our Heavenly Father.    To Be Continued...

Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Finding God in the Silence

Dear Friends,

“Pastor, my prayer life is such a struggle for me,” she said, “I want to go deeper in prayer and I just can’t seem to be able to do that.” Most of us have been there or that might even describe our prayer life right now. Our prayer time is dry and our prayers seem shallow, repetitive and insignificant. Our mind is so filled with thoughts, frustrations, anxieties, that we can hardly think straight much less pray straight!

Our mind is inundated with chaotic images from television and computers. We’re on mental overload and many people go to churches with loud “rock-style” worship, dazzling light shows, projected images and fog machines. We’ve been taught that effective prayer is loud, intense and fervent. For some of us that’s exciting! But others long for a quieter and more intimate connection with God. And if something is missing from our prayer life, we wonder if the answer for us is not going “louder” in prayer but with-drawing to a place “deeper” in prayer.

If we desire more of God in our life, we need to clear out the clutter to make space for Him. That’s why for 2000 years, pilgrims seeking the presence of God have relied on the spiritual discipline of contemplative prayer – silence, stillness and solitude – to go deeper in prayer.

The late Dallas Willard, a Protestant theologian, pointed out that these “spiritual disciplines are bodily disciplines analogous to the rhythms that sustain biological life – eating and breathing.” Silence, stillness and solitude sustain our spiritual life and bring refreshment from God.

Going deeper in prayer begins with slowing down our conscious thoughts so that we are able to focus on our conversation with God. When our prayer focus is on us and our own wants and needs, we can find ourselves engaging in shallow, repetitions of petition. But when we set aside our check list of requests and simply come into His presence, we are not practicing a new prayer tradition. This is ancient prayer.

To go deeper in our prayer life, we need to journey back to the ancient traditions of our faith as taught by the early apostles and church fathers. Come with me past our recent American prosperity-driven prayer traditions, past the Reformation, past the Western (Catholic) Church traditions and back to the mystic traditions of the Eastern Orthodox Church. Getting a little concerned over where we’re going? Remember, if you’re a Christian, the roots of your religion lie in the ancient Eastern church. Acts 11:26 Everything added since that time has been.. well.. “added.” 

Three hundred years after Paul had established the church in Syria, the Western Church in Rome replaced Eastern mysticism with priest-led ritual. The Reformation and age of Enlightenment destroyed icons and altars and replaced ritual with rational thinking and two hour sermons. And any leftover spiritual mysticism was squeezed out of the American church by strict Puritan extremism. 

Some of us have trouble with the spiritual word “mysticism” because that word has been used by pastors to describe practices that are unwise or unsafe. They are right to condemn unbiblical new age mystical practices. But I’m using this word in its literal meaning to describe having to do with transcendent realities – having a consciousness of the transcendent or ultimate reality of God. If we want to go deeper in prayer, we need to come into the presence of God. And that dear friends is what’s called, “mysticism.”

This is not recklessly descending into some kind of spiritual weirdness. In 1 Corinthians 14:15, Paul tells us to pray with both the mind and the spirit. The mysticism in Eastern Orthodox prayer traditions helps people “descend with the mind into the heart.” Another way of saying that is that we are to spiritually engage God from the very center of our being while keeping our conscious and discerning thoughts with us. That’s important. Please read that again.

In next week’s AMEN Corner we’ll continue to look at the spiritual discipline of contemplative prayer.  We’ll see how silence, stillness, solitude and second-century Christian prayer practices can enhance and deepen our own prayer time. to be continued...
The AMEN Corner is a weekly devotional for the family and friends of New Hope Family Church. It is intended for this devotional to be strengthening, encouraging or comforting and your comments too should be for the glory of God and reflect the intended purpose of these posts.

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