Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Contemplative Prayer ~ Part One

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 cluttered with thoughts, frustrations, anxieties, that we can hardly think straight much less pray straight!

Our mind is inundated with chaotic images from our TV and computers. We’re on mental overload and many people go to churches with loud “rock” 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 for others, the chaos is tiring and we’re feeling that something is missing from our prayer life. And we wonder if the answer for us is not going “louder” in prayer but “deeper” in prayer.

To go deeper, we need to clear out the clutter to make space for God. Praying charismatically in tongues may take us there, but 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.

Dallas Willard, a Protestant theologian, points 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 is slowing down our conscious thoughts so that we are able to focus on our conversation with God. As we go deeper in prayer we find ourselves no longer engaging in shallow, repetitions of petition. We are no longer just giving God our “honey-do” list. We are coming into His presence. And, in doing so, 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 tradition of our faith. Come with me past our recent American 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 those ancient Eastern practices. Everything added since that time has been.. well.. “added.”

The Western Church replaced Eastern mysticism with dry ritual. The Reformation and age of Enlightenment replaced ritual with rational thinking and expository 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. 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.

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...

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

A Spiritual Retreat

Dear Friends,

God waits for us in the quiet. He speaks to us in the silence. On a Fall morning, a modern pilgrim prepared for a day-long retreat in silence and solitude by loading his day pack with an MP3 player with almost 12,000 songs, his Bible, a prayer book, a book on the contemplative lifestyle of a monk, a journal note pad, a mechanical pencil, a blue ink pen and a highlighter. Into the side pockets of his day pack, the pilgrim put a chilled bottle of water and the elements for the Eucharist.

You can make fun of all the things the pilgrim had to take for his spiritual retreat, but if day packs had been invented 2000 years ago, I'm sure Jesus would have taken the same things in the desert.

It was a warm day, but there always seems to be a cool breeze around the lake at Saint Andrews Abbey in Valyermo. I pull up two chairs. One for me and one for my day pack. No one else is here.  I selfishly thank God that no others are on retreat at the monastery. I need the solitude and silence.

Deep breaths of desert air scented with sage. I recall scripture from 1 Samuel and say: "Speak Lord, for Your servant is listening." I hear the small, still voice of God say to me: "Come into my presence."

I’m spiritually dry. I need to hear the voice of God speak to me today. I sit and wait for divine revelation. I sit and wait for a prophetic word from God. I sit and wait for clear direction. I sit. I wait. Nothing. God is silent for right now, but that's okay. I'm planning to be there for awhile so God doesn't need to be in a rush to tell me what I need to hear. The chaotic thoughts in my head have faded away. In fact, I'm feeling a peace that’s so deep, it's almost trance-like. I don't want to move.

I sit. But I’m soon restless. I certainly didn't drive all this way just to sit! I get out the book on the contemplative prayer life of a monk, but I can't seem to contemplate on anything right now. I’m unable to focus and I keep reading the same sentence over and over. I put the book away.

I wonder if my inability to read means that I need to write. I take out my notepad. I pray that the Holy Spirit would give me the thoughts to write down. My mind is a blank. I wait for the Holy Spirit to show me what to write. Nothing. God is silent. Journaling is supposed to be a good thing to do on a retreat. Nothing is coming to mind. Nada.

I put my notepad away and wonder if I should read my Bible. Yes! That's it! God wants to speak to me through His Word! I don’t have the energy to take out my Bible. So I sit some more while I figure out what I'm supposed to do on my spiritual retreat.

The chapel bell sounds. It's a large heavy brass bell and has a deep, resonant tone. It echos off the hills as it calls the monks to noon Mass. I wonder if maybe that's what God wants me to do. Should I go to the service? I decide to just sit for awhile. I relax, but after a few minutes, I again feel anxious about my inactivity.

The plan for my spiritual retreat so far isn't working. I can't seem to read and I can't write. I need to hear from God and He is silent. I so desperately need Him to be with me right now. All He told me was "Come into My presence" when I first sat down and then He ended the conversation.  I’m getting nothing from God now. All I've done so far on this retreat is to sit. What a waste of time...

I've been sitting by the lake for well over an hour when a new thought emerges. I slowly realize that there is nothing more I want to do. In fact if I could have a choice of doing anything at all right now, there is really nothing I'd rather do than just sit. Suddenly, something hidden has now been revealed. I see that this was God's plan for me all along.

God was showing me how to become silent and just sit with Him. My idea of a spiritual retreat was a day pack filled with “spiritual things” to read and do. God's idea of a spiritual retreat was just Him and me. God had spoken to me. He said, "Come into My presence" and then waited silently while I busied myself with more important things to do.

God knew what I needed and I was only going to find it by being in His presence. I was only going to find it in the silence and solitude. I was only going to find it by just sitting with Him. By the lake. At the monastery.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

How Do Your Friends Rate You?

Dear Friends,

As part of our continuing commitment to you as a member of New Hope Family Church, we will be providing you with an assessment of your Christian lifestyle. A comprehensive survey has been mailed to your family and friends giving them an opportunity to anonymously evaluate your attitudes, words and behavior. Included in the assessment will be their observation of how much time you spend reading your Bible, your prayer time, and time spent each day in worship to the Lord.

You will be evaluated on the spiritual fruit that is visibly demonstrated in your life i.e. love for God and love for others, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Your friends and loved ones will be encouraged to provide an honest and accurate evaluation of your Christian lifestyle. You will receive an individual rating for each survey dimension and an overall rating of your lifestyle and Christian maturity on a scale of 1-10.

As you read the above you’re probably thinking:
1) Awesome! I love this! Bring it on Pastor!  or..
2) That does it! I’m going back to my old □ Baptist □ Lutheran □ Foursquare □ (Other) church!

But honestly, what would your friends and loved ones say about you? Yes, you’ve been saved by Jesus but are you following Jesus? Too many Christians think that accepting Jesus as their Lord and Savior, buying a Bible, saying a quick prayer as their head hits the pillow at night and then coasting through life is about as much “religion” as they really need. But being “born-again” is only the beginning of the journey. And that journey is one of spiritual growth. If you have experienced a new birth in Christ, the fruit of that abiding fellowship with Him will be manifested in your life. (John 15:4-5)

When you have truly accepted Jesus as your Lord and Savior, the Holy Spirit comes to live within you and produces the fruit of a genuine spiritual life. (Galatians 5:22-23) Are you growing spiritually and  increasing in love for God and others?

You cannot expect to grow in the Lord if you only open your Bible in church on a Sunday morning. Without nourishment, a person will starve to death in about four to six weeks. All living things eventually wither away and die without the proper nutrients. We need the spiritual nourishment that scripture provides. God’s Word transforms our thoughts, shapes our character and creates within us a passion for living a Christ-like life. The apostle Peter encourages us to “..grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.” (2 Peter 3:18) You need a daily supply of His Word in order to spiritually grow.

In last week’s AMEN Corner we saw that prayer is an intimate conversation between two people who love each other. You need that daily conversation time with your Heavenly Father in order to spiritually grow. And hey, don’t you do all the talking! Listen for His voice.

An essential part of your Christian growth is engaging in the good works that God has prepared for you to do. (Ephesians 2:10) You have God-given gifts. They are not to be locked up in a vault for your personal use but were given to you for the purposes of helping one another. Christians are called to emulate Jesus who came as a servant. (Matthew 20:28) If you are preoccupied with your own needs and unable to think past your own agenda, pray that God will turn your self-centeredness into a Christ-like other centeredness.

If the thought of family and friends evaluating your Christian lifestyle makes you a little nervous, than the assessment that really has been scheduled for you in the future should cause you some concern. Please read about that one in 2 Corinthians 5:10.

Look at your yesterdays. Listen to what the Holy Spirit is telling  you about how you've lived your life so far. Now look at your tomorrows. What will you be doing differently? Because on that day when we’re standing before Jesus, what we want to hear Him say is, “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Matthew 25:21)  Amen?

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

The Patience of a Saint

Dear Friends,

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I snap at her, “I have the patience of a Saint.” She rolls her eyes and laughs, “Yeah! Saint Impatient!!”

They all thought as I got older, I’d become warmer, kinder, mellower and more patient. But somehow the age thing hasn't worked out for me as well as my loved ones had hoped. In fact, I may even be getting a little less patient and I’m blaming it on the internet that feeds a desire for instant gratification.

I used to drive my school-age step-children to the library to look something up in the encyclopedia. That was a one to two hour excursion. Resentful over the amount of time that took, we bought a set of the Encyclopedia Britannica. Now it took only five to ten minutes to go into the other room, find the right volume and look something up. I now use the internet and was incensed the other day that it took over ten seconds for the page to load with the subject matter I was looking up. Unacceptable!

We have become a culture of impatience. Our children have grown up with a diminished capacity for sustained activities. We've lost interest in detailed news stories and prefer summaries and sound bites. For some, having to read anything over 140 characters long is tedious and unnecessary. And, 3.5 minutes is way too long to have to wait for the popcorn in the microwave!

“Patience is a virtue,” we’re told and patience* is listed as one of the “Fruit of the Spirit” in Galatians 5:22-23. We know we need it, but what is patience and how do we get it? Patience is defined as “waiting without complaint.” Over the past weeks, we've heard how the youthful apostles were thick-headed, lazy, selfish and slow to believe. And, with those twelve, if anyone ever had the proverbial “patience of a Saint,” it is Jesus!

For us to become more patient, we may need to be a little more like Jesus and change our concept of “time” so that we too can wait without complaint. I can walk along the beach for hours and it seems like just a few minutes. I can walk on my exercise treadmill for just few minutes and it can seem like hours. I can sit by the lake at Saint Andrew’s Abbey, listen to the wind in the trees, and completely lose track of the time. I’m outraged when it takes an agonizing fifteen seconds for an application to load on my computer. The difference is my perception of time.  And how I perceive time is a matter of spiritual discipline.

Some of us need to step off the hamster wheel of life and just set-a-spell to adjust to the natural rhythms of God’s Kingdom on earth. The Greeks have two words for time. Chronos time means time that is linear. Chronos time is orderly and depends on schedules, calendars and clocks. The other Greek word for time is Kairos. If Chronos is the quantity of those successive moments in our life, Kairos transcends those linear moments. Kairos time has no beginning and has no end.  Kairos is God's time. It's the time for being, not doing. It is contemplative. When we become immersed in Kairos time – in contemplative time with God – we lose track of Chronos time. We come into His presence, into His Kairos time, and we are no longer aware of the clock.

I have to watch my Kairos time on a Sunday morning – it has made me late for church! In contemplative time, we become completely engaged by God. Life itself slows down and, for a moment, completely stops. We sit quietly in the presence of God. We hear His small, still Voice. This is the highest level we can reach in our spiritual relationship with God. This is your life being lived in the fullness. Your earthly life can never be any better than this.

The spiritual discipline of spending Kairos time in silence with God, changes our concept of time. And, while we may never have the patience of a Saint, our life slows down to God’s time. And now, as we respond to the present moment in the rhythm of the divine, we wait without complaint and respond with His grace.  Amen?