Category Archives: Spirituality

Good Friday

Reflection on John 19

John tells us that this is all happening on Passover, the annual celebration of Israel’s liberation from slavery, God’s victory over Pharaoh through the Exodus, which was always potentially a politically sensitive time. It isn’t hard to connect a few dots in your mind between Egypt and Rome, in other, if you were in Pontius Pilates place, you never knew when some Galilean hothead would stir up riots against the hated Empire. (Barabbas in Luke’s account as an example of this!)The religious leaders knew this and were taking advantage of it in how they were bargaining with Pilate.

Pilate’s job was to make sure that an uprising would not happen. There was enormous pressure on him to maintain order.

How does the conversation between Pilate and Jesus go? When asked if he’s a king or what he has done to upset the Jewish priests, Jesus tells Pilate, “My kingdom is not of the world.”

Pilate, who only knows of one world, this world — not Jesus’s world — doesn’t understand what Jesus is talking about, and only manages to grab hold of the word he does understand, and asks him: “So you are a king?”

So he totally misses it. “My Kingdom of not of this world.”

Friends it doesn’t matter how many times we hear this. Christians have always struggled with how to interpret Jesus’s statements about the Kingdom of God. Even if we think we’ve got it nailed down conceptually — practically, we’re never quite sure how to work it out. What does this mean, we want to ask Jesus? Many of us have probably heard the saying, “in the world but not of the world,” but the implications of this are rarely clear. Most of the time, we take choose one or the other — in or of — and run with it!

Because, on the one hand, when we’re looking for redemption, as Israel certainly still was, the temptation is to trust in their effort to acquire or benefit from worldly power. The power of Rome’s political and military might. The religious leaders were trying to manipulate it for their own purposes so they could keep the Temple life and Jewish community the way they wanted it to be!

I mean, how many times do we do this! Obviously, it’s happening right now in the political arena in our country. But it also happens in every area of life. We resort to manipulation, deception, passive aggression, resentful treatment of each other in order to get our way. We make power moves and play these political games to fight over getting our share of the pie. This is human nature. Or, on the other hand, we want a savior, a messiah, who just goes and gets these things for us! Gives us what we want.

And finally, there is also the path that lets us check out altogether when it comes to concern for the kingdoms of this world. It’s a way that we look for escape, so that we can create our own separate, uncontaminated space in the world on the sidelines, where it’s safe from harm. It’s how we can sometimes mistakenly understand what it means to not be of the world — by looking to escape it.

Now, Pilate doesn’t seem too alarmed at first, when Jesus says he’s a King, because he doesn’t appear to be very threatening. He doesn’t have armed followers. He’s not talking about a political revolution. But then the religious leaders say that “if you let this man go, you are no friend of Caesar’s. Anyone who claims to be a king opposes Caesar!” Again, they’re playing the power game.

And then we’re told that Pilate becomes afraid. And when he asks them, finally, “shall I crucify your king?” What is there response? “We have no king but Caesar.”

The question that I think this poses to us is fairly straightforward: whose Kingdom are we living in? Because how easy is it, to want Jesus to be a king that looks more like Caesar? I mean do we not want that? Of course we do. We want Jesus to be in control, and in charge of everything that’s happening. We want him to command everyone’s attention and allegiance and worship because of how grand and majestic his works are on the earth. We want Palm Sunday, but without the donkey. Let’s put Jesus on a high horse!

Yeah, because what we don’t want… is the call that comes with citizenship in his kingdom. And that is the call to follow him. It makes me a think of story from earlier in the Gospels.

If you look in your booklet at the beginning in the section that walks you through the stations of the cross, I want to call your attention to two statements in the liturgy there. First the passage underneath the heating of the Fifth Station — the second half of that first paragraph.

If you’re familiar with the Gospels at all, you’ve probably heard these words from Jesus, so I’ll read them:

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me.”

Stopping there for just a moment.. (Jesus says this in Mark 8, Matthew 14, Luke 9)

Jesus says this to Peter right after what’s called the transfiguration. It’s the turning point in Jesus’s public ministry.  He’s been teaching and healing people, and now he’s turning toward Jerusalem with a mission to go to the cross. But Peter doesn’t want him to do this, does he. What does Peter want. Peter wants to build an altar, a place of worship, to stay there and probably have some good church services every week in this sacred and holy place, where he can always be reminded of what happened and what he saw there, when God showed up in a powerful way. This is what the Temple had become!

But honestly, Jesus seemed much more interested in teaching people to follow him than to worship him. But I think what we actually learn from the passion narrative is that we are supposed to worship Jesus, and the way we do that, is by following him. We do not follow Jesus, by worshiping him, we worship Jesus by following him.

Ok but then look what it says after that: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” Now, this is not the next verse in any of these passages. Whoever worked to compile this liturgy pulled this verse, from a totally different place (three chapters earlier in Matthew 11). Which can be a little bit misleading, because as you’re reading this, you might think the verses are right next to each other in the Bible, but they’re not.

But actually, I think this is very good theology. See this is what theology does. It backs up a little bit from the zoomed up view, and tries to connect the idea in one revelation in Scripture, with another, and from what is often a very different place — one that might even seem to contradict the first one!! But it tries to then make sense of how the two can be part of one and the same  truth.

The truth is paradoxical, in this case. Y’all know what that means, if something is a paradox, right? It’s not a contradiction rather an apparent contradiction. In fact, there is a deep resonance between them! It’s like hitting a high and a low note on a musical instrument at the same time. As long as they’re in the same key, they be can octaves apart and still sound good together. And they can be different notes too! Because they make a chord! That’s what harmony does. The beautiful harmony that we enjoyed from the band last night and today.

Flip back one page now to the write-up for the First Station of the Cross in your bulletin to the prayer portion in the middle of the page — it’s the second paragraph. Halfway — about three lines down:

“Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace.”

Friends, this is the scandalous claim that the whole Christian faith hangs on: somehow, in mysteriousness of God’s wisdom and love, the way of the cross, is also the way of life and peace.

And we actually, like Peter, don’t like that. We don’t want it. We don’t really understand it. Most of the time we reject it. It scares us, it disturbs us… so we turn the cross into something else. We make it into a mechanism, and a means, rather than the path itself that we’re called onto.

We heard this last night too: when Jesus washes the disciples feet. Aren’t we supposed to wash Jesus’s feet?! This doesn’t make any sense. The God of all creation, comes to us, to serve and unconditionally give of himself.

This the good news of the Kingdom of God, the Kingdom that Pilate has no way of understanding, because he lives in a world of fear and preoccupation with power and control. This is the world that God’s love subverts and undermines — not with worldly force, but with divine love, which, as the cross shows, is more powerful than worldly force. This is the way of the cross, and somehow, it brings peace and life. It feels like dying at first, and it is a kind of dying. But it’s what produces transformation.

There is no transformation without great love or great suffering. On the cross, Jesus embraces both, and calls us to be ready to do the same. That’s the mystery of the Kingdom of God, and that’s the good news.

A Christian Spirituality of Public Life

I gave this lecture at the Ridley Institute, Saint Andrew’s Church, Mt. Pleasant, SC on March 15.

This subject, if I understand it correctly, is one of special significance to me. For whatever reason, God seems to have given me a particular burden for asking questions about how we as Christians and as the church are to be related to the rest of society, and these questions are rarely simple, and, not only are the questions not simple, but then actually the work that is entailed in doing that relating is also quite challenge. So I think it’s a tall order, and I’m hardly the expert or the authority on the matter, but I do hope that some of my reflection on this that I share with you will prove useful, and if nothing else, at least interesting.

And maybe it would be best to begin by simply clarifying what this topic of spirituality in public life is really about. Because at first it might seem like, when we say, “public life,” that what we’re talking about is, one the one hand, just what Rob presented on last week with regard to vocation — in the work place, in the home, as individuals — which is an important aspect of Christian spirituality, but still not quite what we’re talking about tonight.

Or, on the other hand, you could think that the spirituality of public life is about ethics, or more specifically social ethics. But that is its own distinct subject — Christian social ethics. And I suspect there might even be a time in the future when that is own whole separate class at the Ridley Institute — Christian social justice or social ethics. Because ethics is about the actions we take, and why, and spirituality, by comparison has more to do with the posture we assume. What is the our relationship with God as human beings such that it informs our public life?

And that’s what I want to focus on — what is the posture, the attitude, the nature, of our engagement with society, and in the public domain, as Christians, Because we have an identity as a community of faith, and our witness must shows itself as a group and not just individually. Our individual witness probably pertains somewhat more so to the topic last week, which asked about spirituality with respect our particular vocations, occupations, professions, etc. So what form must our public witness take as the people of God, as followers of Jesus? What kind of spiritual posture does it require? Ok, that’s where I’m headed.

And to try to answer that question, I want to discuss three things:

  1. First, revisiting the subject of sanctification a little bit, which I know was brought up last time — what does it do and how does it help us relate to the public in the way that God intends for us to. So sanctification.
  2. Secondly, what are the most dominant cultural forces today in our society that stand in the way of this sanctification
  3. And third, what spiritual dispositions should we take to respond to those dominant liturgies, scripts, stories, narratives?
  4. Alright — sanctification. I do think it is correct that our posture begins with the journey of sanctification. Ok, and so we are sanctified, made holy, set apart by our spiritual practices and the disciplines that are part of this great tradition we have inherited as Christians — a tradition that includes our commitment to Scripture, prayer, observing the sacraments, and so on.

I was recently at a clergy retreat for my Diocese, which is called Churches for the Sake of Others, part of the Anglican Church of North America, and our bishop is Todd Hunter, who spoke here last year, and a Christian philosopher named James K. A. Smith was there at the retreat as our keynote speaker. Some of you may be familar with his work. I think Rob took a class with him. Smith shared some of his insights from his forthcoming book called “You Are What you Love.” And it was good enough to justify my borrowing a good deal from it, so that’s what I’m going do for a moment as it relates to our thinking about sanctification — and sanctification as the mediating factor between us and our public life together.

With this title, “You Are What you Love,” Smith is drawing on Saint Augustine maybe more than anyone else, and he’s saying that, as human beings, made in the image of God, we are not first and foremost thinkers or even doers. Though of course our lives consist of much thinking and doing. We are above all, lovers.

Augustine famously asked, “What do I love when I love my God?” Which is similar to asking, “What do I worship when I worship my God?” What is ultimate for me, in other words? What do I seek above everything else? What is that thing that I believe will make me happy if I could just have it, achieve it, find it? The thing that could give me my heaven and help me escape this or that hell.

That was what Rob talked about with idolatry last week and he gave several examples of this — the thing that we seek might be the approval of a parent. It could be many other created or finite things: a romantic relationship, the accomplishments of one’s children. Wealth, power, status and so on.

So the question is not whether we love, but what do we love. Because we are lovers. St. Thomas Aquinas said that love is the virtue that order all other virtues.

So if our love is not directed Godward — true north — then the trajectory of our life is going to be off-course.

We are lovers and we are worshipers more so than what we knowers, thinkers, or believers. This means we are always desiring something and moving toward something. The question is where?

So much of what determines where we’re headed is not something we’re conscious of. The large majority of our life’s trajectory is determined by habit more so than choice. Only a very small percentage is affected at the level of decision. The example that Smith gives is learning how to drive. For us as adults, we can get in the car (explain).

 In the same way, and I’ll talk this a little bit more in a moment, take the problem in our society of consumerism — we do not decide to be consumers, necessarily. We don’t reason it out. We behave our way there. It’s the power of habit and we’re lead by our desires, our bodies, and our physical propensities, and so forth.

So the essential thing for Christian spirituality is that we must attend to our loves, look at what we’re worshiping — because we’re all worshiping something — and begin to develop, both corporately and individually, a re-appreciation for the power of habit and how those habits are either producing virtues or vices. Ok, this is why the practices and the disciplines that we follow in church in our daily devotional lives in the home, at work and at play, are so important. We’re all loving and worshipping something, and so as Christians we submit ourselves to a process by which God and the Spirit can re-calibrate and re-habilitate, rehabituate, our hearts and our bodies — not just our minds.

From there though, we must also recognize, however, that not only are we lovers, formed by our habits and by what we seek, but we’re also all being spiritually formed by the cultural liturgies that are all around us and that we’re immersed in.

So the journey of sanctification and spiritual formation is also a journey of unlearning what we’ve already absorbed from our cultural surroundings. Just as all of us are lovers and worshipers going somewhere, so too we should say that every group, every culture, even every subgroup and subculture, every society and every nation, has its own liturgy. And unless we recognize and identify what these liturgies are, they’re likely to have more power over us than we’d like.

And just to clarify, when I say liturgy, I know some of you know what that means, but sometimes it’s a new idea even for folks who have grown up in church that isn’t as traditional or sacramental. What I mean by liturgy is broader than the prayer we pray, and lyrics — though it is that — like a prayer of confession, the Lord’s prayer, the Nicene Creed, hymns and so on — but I’m talking about any set of stories, images, symbols and songs that serve to give meaning and purpose to life for people. We all carry some governing story that guides us, even if again, it’s not conscious to us.

Families have liturgies, corporations, universities have liturgies, nations, even a city like Charleston South Carolina probably. And of course in this crazy season of electoral politics, everybody’s fighting about who’s gonna get to say what the true liturgy really is for this nation. Smith gives examples of other liturgies that are more spatial, physical, architectural. Churches certainly have a liturgy based on how they’re designed, but so do football stadiums, and malls — government — there’s a liturgy to the use of our smart phones. Swiping, swiping, clicking, enlarging, watching — this is at least a ritual of the larger liturgy of consumerism.

Acknowledging of course that not everything you do with your phone is consumeristic — you know what I mean.

The point is, there are these competing and rival liturgies, and there are competing and rival exemplars — Jesus vs. Taylor Swift, I don’t know — but there are rival exemplars for how we as human beings and citizens should live our lives.

  1. Now though I think we have to ask more specifically about what some of these dominant cultural liturgies actually are — what are their hidden values and messages that are shaping us our desires and disciplining our habits?

We could also call these dominant liturgies, scripts, because they tell a story! What are the dominant scripts that inform behavior in our society today?

I’ll just name three: the first one I’ve already mentioned: Consumerism. Secondly, Individualism, and, third, Militarism. I’ll very briefly say something about each one, but really only insofar as they relate to each other. These are huge topics, and I’m barely going to scratch the surface, but the main point is that I hope we see their interconnectedness and the way they reinforce each other.

So I’m going to try to describe the core impulse or assumption behind each one, and I think that will still be worthwhile:

2. Consumerism – We live in a culture that believes that the whole world and all its resources are available to us. It assumes, of course, that more is better and that “if you want it, you need it.”

Two descriptive words that go with the value of consumerism, and I’m getting some of this from the work of the Old Testament scholar, Walter Brueggemann — our consumerism is technological and it’s therapeutic. I’ll explain those as well.

The technological side is that the assumption that everything can be fixed and made right through human ingenuity; there is no issue so complex or so remote that it cannot be solved. The enemy of technological consumerism is inconvenience.

On the therapeutic side, if you have a desire or a discomfort that needs alleviation, there’s something to alleviate, and it’s only a credit card purchase away. Whether it’s medicine, media, a shiny new object, clothing, gadgets, whatever. Thus there is now an advertisement that says: “It is not something you don’t need; it is just that you haven’t thought of it.” For therapeutic consumerism, the cardinal sin that must be resisted at all costs is discomfort.

You know, in many cases — not all — the technology of “safe abortions” is one of the most damaging consequences of this. Of course, on the flip side of that, in many cases — not all — the technology of “safe sex” is also morally devastating.

2. Individualism – Individualism is a very complex and sophisticated phenomenon, and there’s been great work done on interpreting what it really means in our society in the West. One scholar who comes to mind for this is Charles Taylor in his book, “The Secular Age.”

This is because the reference point for concern about one’s interest in an individualistic society is no longer one’s tribe, group, religion, or nation, but simply one’s self. And there are many facets of individualism, but for the sake of simplicity I just want to name one — and that is its relationship to consumerism.

Ok, if consumerism says the whole earth and all its resources are available to us, then individualism says yes, these are available to us and they’re available to us without regard for what effect that availability has on our neighbors. So implicit in individualism is disconnection from and disregard for the consequences of consumerism for our neighbors — locally and globally. It isn’t malicious though — this is the trick. It really doesn’t know any better, because the habit of individualism has been disciplined to not have to worry about my neighbor!

3. Militarism – Thirdly and finally, with militarism, once more I’ll just say one way it’s connected to consumerism and individualism as well.

And when I say militarism, I should clarify, I’m not saying that as Christians I believe we should necessarily be anti-military. We should love the people who have served and are serving in the armed forces, certainly respect them, just like we love and respect everybody else. And I suspect we have veterans and men and women in uniform even in this room. But that doesn’t mean we get to uncritically support what the military is commanded to do.

The word militar-ism, means is the worship or love of what the military does or can offer us. It’s the absolutization or idolization of the military — making it a kind of ultimate. And the same should be said about consumerism and indivdidualism — there’s nothing wrong with consumption, as such, or individuality. In fact, with a political ideology like communism, one of its greatest shortcomings is its failure to celebrate and protect individuality, as a form of social organization and government.

Ok, so with that disclaimer in mind, though, again, if consumerism says, the earth’s resources and the products we can make are available to me, and individualism ignores the impact on my neighbors.

And militarism, finally, as it relates consumerism and individualism, just says, those resources, that are available without regard for my global or local neighbor, must be guaranteed. My way of life. It must be secured by force, if necessary, and by violent force, if necessary. Militarism is not defense, it’s offensive.

So militarism is intimately connected to the desires for security and safety,  meaning, to have my life protected from harm, disruption and so on, which is of course a desirable thing, but at what cost to others?

In sum, concerning all three of these forces and values, or liturgies, stories: to quote Brueggemann, “It is difficult to imagine life in our society outside the reach of these script; they are everywhere reiterated and legitimated.”

III. Now turning finally to the question of how sanctification and how our spiritual life aids us on toward resisting these dominant scripts and liturgies:

One of the things at the heart of all three of these dominant cultural values is clearly a kind of collective self-interest and fear-based outlook on life that just wants to preserve itself, self-medicate and keep things away that are threatening, right? something like that.

And, sanctification, publically speaking, is about getting free from this self-interest — this dominant script and these cultural liturgies. It’s how we discipline ourselves into reliance on mercy beyond judgment. And get freed instead to live in the Kingdom of God. By turning to the liturgies of the Kingdom of God.

So how does this work? What is our alternative story in many ways? This is the most constructive question I’m asking, I hope, as the third and final part of the talk. To answer it, I want to look at just some high points in the biblical narrative.

In the reformed tradition, especially, a common answer of “why sanctification,” might be that we do it for God’s glory, and that’s true, or maybe we would say, it because it’s what God has commanded and we are to be obedient, which is true as well. But there’s another reason.

And we find it first in the Hebrew Scriptures. Starting with the Creation story in Genesis was a counter-cultural claim in many respects. The Babylonian creation story, by contrast, has the earth arises as a result of the god Marduk conquering and killing another god, Tiamet, and then the earth arose from Tiamet’s remains. The Genesis account of creation has no such violent content in order for God to create. In fact, violence is introduced by human beings, not God, when Cain kills Abel.

In addition to that, in Genesis, God says that creation is fundamentally good! The material and physical world is sacred, and so is our work in it. God dwells in creation, especially in the Garden of Eden, where God is imagined as walking and talking with Adam and Eve.

In Augustine great work, The City of God, he recognizes that the movement throughout the Scriptures, the dramatic direction that the whole Bible is taking, is towards, as the title suggests, “The City of God.” Unlike most earthly cities, nations and empires, God’s calling of Israel is for the expressed purpose of building a “city,” “nation,” or “house,” where God dwells with people and people with God.

We see this in an important juxtaposition of Genesis 11 and 12. In Genesis 11, which is the tower of Babel story, it represents humanity’s effort to use their common language and agenda to build a city that reaches to the heavens — in other words, to build a city that rivals God rather than honors and worships God. And as a result, God’s judgment comes on them in the story by dispersing them and giving them different languages and nationalities.

So Genesis 12 serves as the correction and alternative to Babel, when God calls Abraham and makes the following promise:

1 “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you. 2 I will make you into a great nation, and I will bless you; I will make your name great, and you will be a blessing.”

We learn that Israel’s call is essentially this:

They are to be different from other nations for the sake of other nations. They’re blessed to be a blessing! This is what sanctification is all about.

Jesus talks about the Kingdom of God in this way in several of his parables.

Matthew 13

31 He told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. 32 Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

33 He told them still another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like yeast that a woman took and mixed into about sixty pounds of flour until it worked all through the dough.”

The great 20th Century Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s explains this parable of the unleavened bread in this way:

“The dough to be made into bread is a lifeless lump of dull, inedible matter; but the yeast, too, it by itself completely inedible [as well], despite the fact that it is the [means by which] the lump is to be turned into bread . . . The yeast must be plunged into the dough; it must sink into it and disappear, in order that its energy may be released and the dough transformed into bread. Alone, it is nothing; buried in the dough it is quite the opposite. But, note, separateness, and indeed a strict separateness, is . . . preliminary to the unity that is being attempted and that alone will result in something palatable . . .”

And so for us as Christians, our sanctification, is what gives us the power to be like leaven in the world.

And this forces us to remember something crucial. We don’t have anything to give to the world on our own. What makes us Christian is something that is first utterly gifted to us — it’s something we possess. The gift of Jesus’s incarnation, life, death and resurrection. And this gift of course is grace.

Christ is the yeast, in our dough, and we are the yeast, as Christians and as the church, we are extending his incarnation into the dough of the world.

So must be very careful not to run ourselves ragged just trying to do good in the world all the time. We will fail miserably and just end up hurting ourselves and others.

Rather, there is rhythm outline for us for public life, and Jesus is the exemplar of this rhythm. In his public ministry, Jesus exhibits models the ebb and flow of contemplation and action! Into the city, back to the mountain or the garden to pray. Into the city with the people, away with his disciples for a little while. Early in the morning while it was still dark, he goes to pray. From Solitude and stillness. To action and engagement. Solitude, retreat and stillness, and then, go do something.

So as a closing line of thought — practically, our spirituality needs countermeasures along these lines that resist and outlast — subvert — the dominant liturgies and scripts of consumerism, individualism and militarism, which I want to suggest can show themselves in three different postures, each of which is a response to those three dominant values.

And to get back to the dominant liturgies and narratives, the dominant scripts of our time that I mentioned for a moment — consumerism, individualism/tribalism, militarism — I believe that an effective Christian countermeasure to these cultural forces, will show itself through three spiritual postures, all of which are understood to be produced by a church that both recognizes itself as having been blessed to be a blessing — ok — called to be different from the world for the sake of the world, and to extend the incarnation of Christ, the yeast of Christ that’s in us, into the dough of the world, the essence of which is grace. These three spiritual postures are:

  1. The first one is just to repeat what Rob said last time: a commitment to be inconvenienced by our neighbors. And I mean, in order to do this well, we of course have to exhibit all of the fruits of the spirit: peace, patience, kindness and so on. It also requires hospitality and generosity. It means a willingness to suffer and to sacrifice.
  1. Secondly, combating individualism, is the formation of community and genuine shared life in which we make the problems of our neighbors, our own problems. Of course this entails actually getting to know our neighbors as well — locally, and globally — especially our most vulnerable and victimized neighbors.
  1. And I’ll just go ahead and say the third is also like the other two: The courage to take risks. To risk ourselves for something good! Something that looks like the Kingdom of God advancing in, breaking into our midst. And this isn’t always some big grandiose vision. It’s oftentimes more like sowing mustard seeds, you know, little community gardens that call attention to our interdependence, our simple, local life and need for companionship and caring relationship. But there is risk involved, and sometimes that risk is big. It could mean living in a neighborhood that isn’t quite as safe, if God calls you to it — putting our kids in a school system isn’t necessary the best in town. It’s going to cost us something.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote about how without risk, there is no faith. Faith is a leap, it is a risk taken, in response to a subjective, inward assurance and passion — one that ultimately demands love. And as such, it is then willing and able to face any uncertainty that life throws at us. All of the external and material unknowns.

I’ve thought for a while now that one of the things that makes Christians different, and makes us like yeast, is if we truly live into this hope and this confidence that even that even if things don’t turn out ok, that’s still ok! It’s a gospel assurance, that moves us to try anything. Because we’re coming from a place of total trust.

And again, because we’re not worried about the outcome, necessarily. Not ultimately. So our politics, for example, will be much less anxious. We’ll have hopes and goals, and we’ll even strive for them with deep resolution, but without fear and with a peace that frees us from having our hope tied to the temporal results. Because we know the “already and not yet” nature of the manifestation of the kingdom of God in history.

Dorothee said that a Christian is one who noticeably lives in such a way that would only make sense if the gospel and the resurrection were true. It goes back to the “different from the world” part of Israel’s calling. And then it might become appealing. But it will be appealing because people will see a beauty to it. Because of the positive difference, not the negative difference, primarily, the Christians make. In other word, because we’re known for what we’re for and what we do, more so than what we’re against. There’s a quote from Reinhold Niebuhr that I want to read as a kind of closing theological statement:

 “The final majesty of God is contained not so much in [God’s] power within the structures of history as in the power of [God’s] freedom over the structures. This freedom is the power of mercy beyond judgment. By this freedom God involve himself in the guilt and suffering of free [human beings], saving them from having, in their freedom, come in conflict with what God intends.

So this is our assurance, for spirituality in public life. That God’s own self-investment in Christ and through the Spirit never leaves or forsakes us, but rescue us, set us apart — make us different from the world for the sake of the world.

I am Thirsty

The audio for this sermon can be found here.

“I am thirsty.”

In almost feels underwhelming statement, for someone who is being crucified. It reminds me of other times when the Bible seems to have a way of understating things. Like, after Jesus fasted for 40 days, it just says, he was hungry. Yeah, I imagine he was! And “I am thirsty,” is certainly not as dramatic as the saying from last Sunday: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

And I guess what I’m most struck by is simply that, “I am thirsty” is not really what you’d expect Jesus to say right before he dies. He’s enduring this agonizing death, and thirst was no doubt an extreme part of that — he would have lost a ton of bodily fluid through what he had endured even prior to crucifixion. But of all the different pains he’s experiencing, why the emphasis on thirst?

John tells us it’s to fulfill Scripture, and of course that’s part of it — John would have been conscious of writing to Jewish audience who still didn’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, so showing how he fulfilled Scripture is important. But surely that’s not the only reason he says this.

It’s also kind of challenging as a verse in Scripture to focus on in a sermon because it’s not giving us a moral teaching. And it’s not a big claim about doctrine or theology either, at least not directly. On the surface it’s more of an existential cry about his physical condition.

But we know that John is always making use of symbols and metaphors and choosing words with layers of meaning. And Water and thirst are literary themes throughout the gospel of John.

In his conversation with the woman at the well in John chapter 4, Jesus talks about the difference between physical and spiritual thirst when he refers to the living water that he provide for us — the kind of water that quenches our thirst permanently.

As human beings, we have a spiritual thirst and longing for meaning and purpose, and significance in our lives. We want to be whole. We want there to be abundance in our lives.

In the story of the woman at the well, in her case, she had apparently been trying to satisfy that spiritual thirst through her relationships with the men her life, and she had made a total mess of things!

So there’s definitely a spiritual meaning to this idea of thirstiness, and I want to come back to that. But I think it’s also appropriate to stay with the literal and physical nature of his statement for at least a little while. Because sometimes we overlook it, and sometimes as Christians, especially in church, we rush to the spiritual, we focus on the spiritual — for obvious reasons — but we can do this to the neglect of the physical. Or more dangerously, we risk dividing the spiritual and the physical.

So here are three things I want to suggest to you that we can see from this statement about Jesus’s thirst:

  1. First, God is with us in the physical, and Jesus fully experiences it.
  2. Secondly, the spiritual and the physical are inseparable — they’re not the same, but neither are they separate.
  3. And third, that God through Christ on the cross, is reuniting the spiritual and the physical, and healing the false divide that gets put between them.

Since moving to Charleston almost two summers ago, we have not had drinking water in our house because we’re on a well. I mean the water’s fine, we use for everything else, but even when it’s filtered, it’s not quite up to the standard of what you want for drinking. So I go to the grocery store every week, because there’s a place to refill water jugs in the back of the store. And it’s pain, I’m so spoiled, but it saves money by not paying to have water delivered, and it’s super close to our house, so I have no reason to complain. But it’s like this small discipline in my life that reminds of my physical need for water that I would normally just take for granted — I can’t just turn on the faucet.

So again, it’s a small thing, but it’s a good practice, even though it’s pathetic as I get annoyed by having to do it, but it’s a reminder of this basic physical need and dependency in my life.

You know there are also these crazy statistics about water, and it’s hard to make sense of them unless you’re a chemist or something, but supposedly our bodies are made up of 60%-70%.  Water really is our life source — that and oxygen, which are the two things that kill Jesus — his lack of oxygen and loss of water.

If anyone saw the movie, The Martian this past year, it’s a pretty visceral depictions of the severity of the physical world and the elements that we need to survive. It was originally a book, I’m told, which I’m sure was better than the movie like everybody always says. But in this movie, and this doesn’t give anything away, the main character Mark Watney played by Matt Damon, gets stranded on Mars, and has to survive on a limited amount of water for several years. He has some water, but he has to make more — he actually makes water! — not only to drink it, but to grow more food, because there’s no vegetation. He literally has to make water.

And I guess it just put in perspective how fragile life is on our planet, how much it depends on all of these incredibly fine-tuned conditions, like the availability of water, oxygen, the right temperature the right pressure.

We hang in this delicate balance between existence and non-existence, and it’s just incredible that life came to be and that there’s something rather than nothing. I know I’m getting all philosophical, but I think it’s appropriate. When Jesus says, I am thirsty, it’s a profound. Because as Christians, what we believe about that is, somehow, God can relate to thirsting. God enters it, blesses it. Calls it good.

Jesus subjects himself to frailty and dependency on something as specific as water and oxygen, on this one little planet, in this gigantic, vast, expansive universe, for this one tiny little span of time. This Christian story that we’re telling and believing in is extraordinary and so remarkable, I just think we have to stop and meditate on the gravity of it, for a minute. Letting ourselves be made to wonder, and be awed by it.

II. The second thing, the thirst of Jesus shows, is the inseparable link between the physical and spiritual. The physical and the spiritual are not the same, they are distinct, but they’re deeply connected.

“The Bible’s aim is not the freeing of the spirit from the world. It is the handbook of their interaction.” – Wendell Berry

The story of the Bible is one that tells of the relationship between God and humanity, the divine and the human, and how we through our physicality, and our bodies, our material existence, get to receive and to participate in God’s redemptive work.

In the late first century when the gospel of John was likely written, there had started to develop in its early stages of what would become a popular movement or school of thought called gnosticism.

Gnosticism took many forms, but at its root was essentially the idea that the body and the soul, or the material and the immaterial world are separate, and that the significance of the immaterial far outweighed the material. In fact, you could even say that in its most extreme forms, gnosticism held that the physical world was bad, and the spiritual world was good.

So in the worldview of some ancient Greeks during Jesus’s time, this was the assumption — They separated the physical and the spiritual, the bodily and the mental/intellect, and the physical world was almost like a trap that you needed to escape in order to find salvation — in order to be free.

And so what gnosticism tended to teach as well was that knowledge was the key to salvation. What you believed, in your mind, was more important, more lasting, than what you did with your body, you could say. For this reason, too, there were some people who were saying, for example, that Jesus couldn’t have actually had a body, because if he did, then he would be corruptible like the rest of us. This was a heresy called Docetism. The claim was that in fact, he actually only appeared to have a body, and that he was really just a spirit.

The gnostics also believed that God couldn’t suffer, so Jesus couldn’t be God! But the writer of the Gospel of John is saying exactly the opposite of that:

“The Word became flesh and dwelled among us.” (John 1:14)

This is a staggering claim, really, that Christians make. It always has been. It’s the most distinguishing claim, I think. Because, if you look at other religions, both Jews and Muslims reject the idea that God could share in human nature, because that would go against God’s nature. On the other hand, Eastern religions like Hinduism and Buddhism, tend to say that God is not really God at all — not in a personal sense, and not in a way that distinguishes between the physical and spiritual. For them, the physical and the spiritual are virtually the same. Whereas, for us as Christians, we still want to make some distinction, and Jesus gives us the picture of that.

You know it’s a common thing for non-Christians to question how it is that Jesus as a human could also be divine — that God could be fully in him. And that’s an understandable question. It’s a question we try to wrestle with in the Alpha course each fall at Saint Peter’s. But what’s more surprising is not that non-Christians question Jesus’s divinity, but that Christians forget Jesus’s humanity.

We tend to at least subconsciously, maybe, assume that Jesus was like superman or something because he the power of God is in him, so that it wasn’t very hard for Jesus to do the things that he did or go through what he went through in his life — not just his death, but everything else as well, and the ordinary things that we all go through. But I think we risk misleading ourselves if we assume that.

You know in the letter to the Philippians in the Bible, the Apostle Paul writes that Jesus humbled and emptied himself of his glory, taking on the very form of a human being to be with us, to live on earth, and so on. Ok — he gives us the advantages of divinity without losing his shared nature with God, which is of course a very mysterious doctrine, but as Christians I think we need to try take it seriously!

The past two Sundays, I had the privilege of leading us in the celebration of communion for the first time. And here are some of the words from the liturgy that we’re using right now: that Jesus “was tempted in every way as we are — and he is ultimately able to resist those temptations — but not because he has special powers. I’m serious! It sounds shocking at first, for Christians especially, but I think it’s true.

This may sound kind of crazy to say, but we forget that Jesus is able to live the way he does by accessing the same resources that you and I have. Namely, through his dependency on the Holy Spirit, and his intimately close relationship with God the father. He lived so much in step, so much in tune with God, that he was able to do what he did.

III. Thirdly, God’s reunion and healing of the physical and spiritual divide. There’s a famous quote for early church history around the time that the Nicene Creed was written — toward the middle of the Fourth Century, by a church Father and theologian named Gregory of Nazianzus:

“What is not assumed, is not redeemed.”

When Gregory wrote this, he was still fighting the old Gnostic battle against those who were suggesting that Jesus might not have been fully human. But Jesus had to assume all that it meant to be human in order to redeem humanity. He had to take on the physical in order to redeem the physical. God in Christ covers the deepest and widest possible distance between the sin, darkness and horror of the cross and the beauty and glory and goodness of God.

Through Jesus, God is stepping into the world in the most complete way, touching and taking on everything that human beings go through, absorbing it into himself and, and transforming it, so that there’s no longer any separation between us and God — between the physical and the spiritual.

Here’s a final thought: When Jesus says, “I am thirsty,” the guards take it as a request for something to drink. In response, the soldiers gave Jesus “sour wine” (v. 29), a cheap wine that was commonly drank by the lower class at that time. It would not have quenched his thirst at all. It would have been bitter. Most scholars that John had in mind Psalm 69 when he wrote this, which says,

Their insults have broken my heart,
and I am in despair.
If only one person would show some pity;
if only one would turn and comfort me.
But instead, they give me poison for food;
they offer me sour wine for my thirst. (vv. 20-21)

It makes me wonder what this passage might means to people who thirst or who have to drink unclean water in the world. Water that’s more like poison. Water Mission International here in Charleston reports that 842,000 people die each year globally from diarrhea due to inadequate drinking water, sanitation, and hand-hygiene. That’s about 2300 per day. And 2.4 billion people are living with unclean water. That’s about 35% the world population.

So this is another part of what I think we can see happening in the death of Jesus. It’s the kind of sin that Jesus dies for, and he tastes its sting. No child who dies of preventable, waterborne disease is alone. Jesus suffers with them. He too says I am thirsty, and then is given this sour drink.

Or I even just think of the stories of suffering in our own church. People getting cancer, cancer coming back, parents facing infertility, those who’ve lost children — there is this pain and this thirst, that you have, and Jesus identifies with it.

TJ talked last week about sin and judgment, and the hope that we have because God is judging the world for all of its sin — the sin that leads to children dying of waterborne diseases, malnutrition, the sin that leads to people living in sexual slavery or being exploited for their cheap labor, as was talked about at the Illuminated event this past week.

Jesus suffers the consequences of our broken relationships with God and each other, the consequences of which are what send people to the cross. You see, God doesn’t crucify Jesus! We do. And he dies for our sake, even though we reject him.

There’s a spiritual thirst, and there’s a physical thirst — they both matter, they can’t be separated, and God in Christ heals the divide between them by embracing and fulfilling our thirst.

You know when the woman at the well asks Jesus about the water he says he can give her (John 4):

13 Jesus answered, “Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”

There’s this song that I know some of you will remember it from growing up in church. I’m not going to sing it, but it’s goes like this. I’m going to let it be the closing thought here. About thirst. About the source of life. And about the living water that Christ gives.

I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me. Makes the lame to walk and the blind to see. Opens prison doors, sets the captives free. I’ve got a river of life flowing out of me. Spring up oh well, oh my soul. Spring up oh well, and make me whole. Spring up oh well, and give to me, that life, abundantly!

Thinking, Feeling and Doing: Three Kinds of Repentance for the Truly Human Life

[This post originally appeared last week on the Missio Alliance blog]

In the Christian liturgical year, Lent is a season especially dedicated to spiritual discipline and repentance. The purpose of this discipline is movement toward the resurrection life that is made available to us in Christ, and we repent because the path we naturally follow doesn’t lead to this life. But repentance is a hard thing to manufacture. If the prompting doesn’t come from a place of genuine conviction, discipline is likely to either be motivated by guilt or to produce self-righteousness. In either case, the outcome doesn’t sustain real change.

Three Kinds of Repentance

This is why the repentance that the Christian life calls for is more than behavioral. In Hebrew, there are two words for repentance: שוב shuv (to return) and נחם nacham (to feel sorrow). In Greek, the word metanoia is used, which basically means “to change one’s mind.” So shuv refers to doing differently, nacham to feeling differently, and metanoia to thinking differently.

Thus, repentance, and the change that follows it, touches on all three of these dimensions of human life: thinking, feeling and doing. Those who use the enneagram as a tool for spiritual growth might speak of these three dimension in terms of personality groupings or centers: head, heart, and body. Obviously, everybody engages in all three of these activities, but we are usually most dependent on one of the three – especially in stressful situations. For most people, one center is dominant, another is suppressed, and the third is idle. Much spiritual flourishing, therefore, depends on awakening our idle center in order to resurrect the one we suppress.

Our Greatest Strength and our Greatest Weakness

One big challenge for people on their faith journey then is figuring out which area needs work and how to work on it. It’s actually easier to resurrect the suppressed center than it is to discipline the dominant one. Why? Because the dependent center is not only the activity that is dominant, but it’s also the part of us that other people tend to like the most (if and when they like us). It’s the part of us that we’re known for. It’s the part that’s closely connected to our personality – our small self, as some would say (which is the same thing as the ego-centered self). Paradoxically, this self is called “small” because it tends to be strong, but only when it comes to survival and success in the world.

So the small self “strength” is actually at the same time a weakness when it comes to living a truly human life. This is one of the ways in which the gospel is “foolishness to the Greeks.” Jesus’s call is for a different and more abundant life that inevitably runs counter to the world’s expectations, but it is unexpected not only in terms of the end but also the means. As God says through Isaiah 59, which Paul later quotes in 1 Corinthians 1, “I will destroy the wisdom of the wise; the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate.” Jesus brings this prophecy to a head with the command to die to or lose ourselves, pick up our crosses, and follow him.

Some people are feeling or doing-dominant. Figuring out which center you live out of is not very difficult, but it’s not always totally straightforward either. Consulting a spiritual director or counselor is a good idea. In my case, I am thinking-dominant. I deal with anxiety by gathering information and trying to gain understanding. The mind is the “control tower” of the thinking-centered person. As stress increases, I become more detached from reality by retreating into my thoughts. This leads me to stop feeling and suppress doing. So instead of doing whatever needs to be done, I fall into a mode of passively thinking about what’s happening, rather than engaging it in a relational and active way.

Fear not, Judge not, and Peace be with You

It’s interesting that the New Testament and Greek word for repentance starts with the call to change our minds. The majority of people in the world are thinking-dominant, but they are also fearful, and Jesus’s most common command comes from the “fear not” genre. Most people who depend heavily on thinking do not think productively, wisely, or contemplatively. They think anxiously. As such, fear may very well be the biggest human barrier to repentance. The Pharisees were almost certainly a very fearful group.

For others, anger or shame are the great hurdles to overcome for repentance to take place, and Jesus speaks to these as well. Jesus never shames people who are shamed by others. Instead, he takes their shame away by forgiving and healing even the most shamed people in Jewish culture (tax collectors, Samaritans, Roman Centurions, and the sexually or physically unclean). With respect to anger, Jesus only rebukes those whose anger arises from a place of judgment or resentment rather than righteous indignation. To the angry, Jesus says “peace be with you” and “blessed are those who are persecuted.”

A Path to Repentance

We all have strengths and gifts based on our personalities. The trouble comes when we equate our strengths with our identities or use them to chart our path to truly human life. In the market place, good employers hire people based on their strengths — as they should. By contrast, good spiritual leaders, for instance, identify over-dependence on those same strengths, and put forward an alternative program for repentance that disciplines our center of strength.

One of the practices for the thinking person’s repentance is daily silence, meditation or contemplation for about twenty minutes. Over time, this discipline enables the suspension of critical thinking and movement into a more peaceful, trusting state. Another helpful practice for the thinking-centered is reading or listening to stories of others who have done meaningful, courageous work for those who are in need. Stories awaken feelings and move us to new action. They empower us to feel differently and act differently, ultimately causing us to think differently. This is why teachers like Richard Rohr are fond of saying, “We don’t think ourselves into new ways of living; we live ourselves into new ways of thinking.”

The Role of the Church

Because there are at least three different ways that people need to repent, and many more than three different kinds of people, one of the church’s mistakes when helping people along in their Lenten journeys has been to preach only one kind of repentance (usually behavioral) to one kind of person (usually the person who struggles with shame). It’s common, for example, for churches to prescribe one model of mission or growth, or to draw primarily on one theological stream or tradition (the liturgical, evangelical, charismatic, etc.). Is it any wonder, then, that churches are some of the most homogenous communities in our culture today?

The truly human life is about a transformed way of thinking, feeling and doing in the world, freed from fear, shame and anger, and supported by a community who takes courage, trusts and forgives together in the way of Jesus. The whole sweep of Scripture testifies to how God’s grace redeems the full range of human experience, and the gospels bear witness to Jesus’s call for repentance in all dimensions of human activity. Let us as the church, then, be bold and creative enough to make room in our theology and in our practices for the gospel to reach every aspect of people’s lives.

Social Media, Sabbath and Silence: Three Ways to Counter Misshaping Cultural Currents

This is a repost from an entry I made on the Missio Alliance Blog last month, and it has also been curated on the Baptist News Global Perspectives Page:

The community group that I co-lead in our church has recently been talking about and experimenting with how to better spend our time and money on what matters most in God’s economy. At this point, we’re not very ambitious, but I think that’s a good thing for now. It’s easy for me to lose sight of the little ways in which we are called to be faithful. I enjoy thinking about the big picture — about the global economy, the ecological crisis, and geopolitical conflicts. Of course, Christians need to be involved in and concerned about these things. It’s just that I’ve learned how much my own personality is prone to introversion, abstraction and disembodied faith. I’ve learned that I need practices and people to keep me grounded and focused on the tangible responsibilities in my own little life. So we’re helping each other ask, what are the areas and opportunities for change right in front of me?

Last week we assigned three simple tasks, each of which is intended to challenge the cultural currents that are misshaping not only the church’s engagement with its mission but also community life in general in our society today.

First, in an effort to free ourselves from the cultural currents of our polemical political climate, some of us agreed to take a social media fast, and re-think the way we use social media altogether. On the surface, this seems like a harmless way to simply disconnect for a time and enable reconnection through face-to-face relationships. While that is certainly part of the goal, there is more to it than that. In her book Blog Theory, Jodi Dean has argued that social media is actually part of a force of what she calls “communicative capitalism.” This force functions to capture critique and resistance, and reformat it back into the social media circuit only to then have it broken up into smaller bits. At this point, the smaller bits of thought and insight can still be shared, but not in such a way that adds up to anything that might aid us in understanding, critically confronting or restructuring our present life. Dean explains that the

“deluge of images and announcements, enjoining us to react, to feel, to forward them to our friends, erodes critical-theoretical capacities — aren’t they really just opinions anyway? Feelings dressed up in jargon? Drowning in plurality, we lose the capacity to grasp anything like a system. React and forward, but don’t by any means think.”

One of the purposes of a social media fast then serves to cut us off from the pressure release valve that is clicking, “liking,” “favoriting,” “sharing,” and “commenting.” Notwithstanding the irony of writing about this through the medium of a blog post, the hope is that our time away reveals not only our egoistic tendency toward self-promotion, but also the drive to minimalistic, low-risk involvement in relationships and in the public sphere. The ultimate aim of such a practice is the transformation of politics and culture itself, but it has to start with our own individual, daily lives.

Secondly, we invited each other to take a real, 24-hour Sabbath. Of course, Sabbath is always an important practice for Christians to observe, but it is especially fitting in our culture today for at least two reasons. In the first place, as Walter Brueggemann puts it, “Sabbath is not simply a pause. It is an occasion for reimagining all of social life away from coercion and competition to compassionate solidarity.” Sabbath makes time and space for people to become related to each other once again as people. It’s a shift from commodity-centeredness to covenantal relationship. So it serves us personally to be more richly related corporately.

In the second place, this invitation is reciprocated to others when we encounter them. Sabbath-keeping shares Sabbath. According to Sam Wells and Marcia Owen,

“Those who learn … stillness find that their lives become a Sabbath for those who encounter them. … Their lives become an embrace of the qualities and gifts in those around them that others have been too busy or too threatened or too self-absorbed to see and encourage. Their lives become an invitation into a place of depth, but an exhilarating invitation because it is depth without fear, depth as an adventure in which you are expecting to be met by God. Their lives become a place and a time of renewal in which others rediscover who they are and who God is.”

The end goal is to signal toward a new economy, a new environment, and a new creation. But again, it starts with the church actually becoming a pacesetter for this alternative rhythm of rest — one that counters busyness and consumerism, and one that rehumanizes our relationships.

Finally, we were instructed to spend anywhere from five to twenty minutes a day in stillness and silence. This could be a time for meditation or contemplative prayer, but regardless, the aim is the same: powering down what Thomas Keating has aptly called our “emotional programs for happiness.” We all have a pre-programmed self that is governed by instinctual values and conventional ideas. Unless recalibrated, this program will run us into some form of legalism or individualism. Silence and stillness — not just of body, but of thought — begins the journey of installing a new program. It takes patience, discipline and plenty of failure before this program gets fully uploaded and running, but God’s economy won’t operate on the version of that program that we were born with.

Just like fasting from social media and observing Sabbath, practices like meditation and contemplative prayer are not only intended to further our own spiritual formation. They are meant to grow us into our authentic selves, and into our authentic voices. Only then can the church participate in its mission in a way that shapes, rather than gets misshaped by the dominant culture. Cynthia Bourgeault talks about the mission behind stillness and silence in this way:

“The world will never listen to an arrogant voice that pronounces from a position of power and privilege. The world will listen only to the authentic voice that speaks from a place of deep sensitivity and openness to the real wisdom that is already present in the hearts of people who do not find a place in the church.”

This is not a battle cry to make our faith more palatable to the cultural currents. Practices like those just described are hardly accommodations. They are tools to help us live our faith faithfully enough to actually be heard.

Nor as a church are we supposed to “right” the “wrongs” in the world. There’s plenty that needs to be done to address the problems in the world for which North American Christians are more than partly responsible. But if we don’t start with disciplines that are as simple and concrete as these, we’ll never get anywhere.

Contemplative Prayer and Lectio Divina: A Short Introduction

“We do not build the kingdom of God on earth by our own efforts (however assisted by grace); the most we can do through genuine prayer, is to make as much room as possible, in ourselves and in the world, for the kingdom of God, so that its energies can go to work. All that we can show our contemporaries of the reality of God springs from contemplation.” – Hans Urs von Balthasar, Prayer

I. Communicative, or “Thinking” prayer (Consciousness-centered Prayer) consists of

Prayers that make use of our conscious mind, such as adoration, thanksgiving, confession, petition. These kinds of prayers are intended to increase awareness of dependence on God and trust in God for everything. They also enable us to become agents who desire what God desire at the level of our thinking, doing, feeling and sensing (i.e., at the level of consciousness).

II. Non-Communicative, or Non-thinking Prayer (Unconsciousness-centered Prayer)

Evangelical Protestants have traditionally emphasized verbal prayer, preaching and singing as a means of encouraging a life-changing encounter with Christ. In the process, we have downplayed many of the practices that deal with the unconscious dimensions of the human personality. Slow, quiet, simple prayers, whether through meditation, contemplation, or simply listening to God, serve to open the unconscious self to God’s healing grace.

Awakening to our Authentic Self:

Why “open the unconscious self”? Because this is how we can grow free to live out of the authentic self as opposed to the small self.

  • The small self is what some might refer to as a social construct. By and large it is created externally and has a great deal to do with what others expect of you, what’s fashionable, and what is valued in the community.
  • So this “self” tends to be fashioned and controlled by (when we’re unaware of it) the world. And by “the world” we mean, expectations of others, demands of the culture, inner conflicts, insecurities, and deep wounds, habits… Sin and sins — all that is in the physical realm (the world of sense). As a rule, when the authentic self is unknown… the small self will be controlled (Burt Burleson).

Thomas Keating says that we will find the needs of the small self (or “false” self) in one of three areas:

  1. Needs for security and survival. (some would add pleasure here)
  2. Needs for esteem and affection.
  3. Needs for power and control.

Not coincidentally, these are the same three areas in which Jesus is tempted by Satan in the gospels before beginning his public ministry. Once we have identified with our small self “thinking,” and are blind to the way these three desires entice us, we will have no choice but to be swept up into the mainstream current of these felt needs.

Contemplative Prayer equips us to Resist this Current:

  • In quiet, contemplative, or non-communicative prayer, we are forced to stop trying to control things. We stop asking God to do stuff. This stillness and silence, in which we wait before God, is pregnant with presence (Betty Talbert). Prayers with words or images reduce our awareness of God to what our conscious (read thinking) minds can conceive, which is infinitely less than God is.
  • Contemplative prayer is a gateway to the non-ego-driven life. The ego reigns supreme in most of our everyday endeavors that are constantly focused on analyzing, doing, or emoting something. With practice, contemplative prayer slowly brings us into union and participation with the Divine Life — that is, it sanctifies us. Communicative or thinking prayer is simply not as effective at accomplishing this.
  • Contemplative, non-thinking prayer also frees us from the tyranny of being controlled by time, and allows us instead to simply be. In practicing what is a completely non-performative form of prayer, we’re trying neither to come up with nor read the right words. This creates a safer place for honesty and growth.

In many ways, Contemplative prayer comes after we know God as a Parent who knows everything about us, and yet still chooses to be our permanent Caretaker. Protestants have stressed that, though we are undeserving sinners, we are nonetheless loved unconditionally by God through Christ. The parallel promise of Contemplative prayer is the discovery that, though we are not control, but we are nonetheless safe in God through Christ.

Contemplative prayer is not, however, 1) a relaxation exercise (though over time, it should lead to peace, rest and reduced anxiety), 2) a charismatic gift, or 3) a para-psychological experience.

A Few Types of Contemplative Prayer practices are:

  • The Jesus Prayer, which comes from Scripture and the Fathers of the Eastern Orthodox Church: “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.”
  • Lectio Divina, which began in the Western monastic tradition, and is a four-part process that starts with 1) reading Scripture and 2) meditating upon it with the mind. Then, 3) one responds with feelings and will to the Word one has heard. Finally, 4) one moves through the Word to rest in the presence of God. In this way, it is both apophatic and cataphatic. It also tends to appeal especially to Myers-Briggs types with SF, ST, and SJ personalities.
  • Centering prayer is a modern form of the fourteenth Century practiced outlined in the “Cloud of Unknowing” in which the Christian tries to reach out to God in silent love. It consists primarily in meditation on one focal word or phrase for extended time (5-20 min).

Lectio Divina: Preparation for Prayer

  1. Spend a few minutes in silence, clearing your mind and heart. Concentrate on releasing concerns of the day. (Sometimes it is good to make a list of concerns and problems during this period and promise yourself that you will deal with them later in the day).
  2. Spend a few moments being aware of your body. Ask yourself where you are uncomfortable. Be certain that you are allowing your chair to bear your full weight. Ask your body to relax as you concentrate on your breathing. Breathe in and out slowly ten times.

Examples of Verses that Encourage Silence and Centering Prayer before God:

“Be still and know that I am God!” Psalm 46:10a

“In the path of your judgments, Oh Lord, we wait for you; your name and your renown are the soul’s desire. My soul years for you in the night, my spirit within me earnestly seeks you.” Isaiah 26:8-9a

“One thing I asked of the Lord, that I will seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple.” Psalm 27:4

Jesus answered him, “Those who live me will keep my word, and my Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them.” John 14:23

“I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead.” Philippians 3:10-11

“Listen to me in silence, O coastlands; let the peoples renew their strength.” Isaiah 41:1a

“For it is the God who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge o the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” 2 Corinthians 4:6

Christian Wiman Quotes: “O Thou Mastering Light”

I share the following quotes that struck me as I was reading Christian Wiman’s book, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. They come from the chapter entitled “O Thou Mastering Light”:

mybrightabyss“Life is always a question of intensity, and intensity is always a matter of focus. Contemporary despair is to feel the multiplicity of existence with no possibility for expression or release of one’s particular being” (p. 48).

“You can certainly enjoy life . . . you can have a hell of a time. But I would argue that [if] life remains merely something to be enjoyed, [then] not only its true nature but also something within your true nature remains inert, unavailable, [and] mute” (p. 59).

“Spiritual innocence is not naivete. Quite the opposite. Spiritual incense is a state of mind – or, if you prefer, a state of heart – in which the life of God, and a life in God, are not simply viable but the sine qua non of all knowledge and experience, not simply durable but everlasting” (p. 64).

“The void of God and the love of God come together in the mystery of the cross” (p. 68).

“The frustration we feel when trying to explain or justify God, whether to ourselves or to others, is a symptom of knowledge untethered from innocence, of words in which no silence lives, of belief occurring wholly on a human plane. Innocence returns us to the first call of God, to any moment in our lives when we were rendered mute with awe, fear, wonder. Absent this, there is no sense in arguing for God in order to convince others, for we ourselves are not convinced” (p. 71).

“The minute you begin to speak with certitude about God, he is gone. We praise people for having strong faith, [but] strength is only one part of that physical metaphor: one also needs [the strength that is required for] flexibility” (p. 71).

“Perhaps the relation of theology to belief is roughly the same as that between the mastery of craft and the making of original art: one must at the same time utterly possess and utterly forget one’s knowledge in order to go beyond it” (p. 72).

“This is how you ascertain the truth of spiritual experience: it propels you back toward the world and other people, and not simply more deeply within yourself” (p. 75).