Science Mike, The Liturgists, and the Silence that is Saving My Life

Otto Greiner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Otto Greiner [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A good friend of mine sent me a link to something he’s been working on with the folks from the band Gungor. There’s a spoken word piece on the power of prayer, and in particular a practice called “Centering Prayer”. This is an ancient form of prayer practiced by many of the church fathers and desert monks. The spoken word piece talks about prayer from the point-of-view of science, and discusses some of the proven benefits of silence and meditation on our health.

This was so encouraging to encounter, because I had discovered centering prayer about a year ago, and it is a discipline that has taken root in a deep and powerful way in my life, and while I’m not a scientist, this approach to prayer has had profound and significant effects for me.

Mike can explain all of the silence behind praying; for me it has been all about me learning to recognize and quiet the pathology that is inside me. The prayer has helped me begin to recognize the lies that I so easily believe:

+ That I am the center of my world.
+ That I have more to say to God than He could ever possibly say to me.
+ That my words can somehow control or manipulate God.
+ That God—and grace—can be understood and controlled.

All of these ideas—in some circles they are known as “the false self”—and more start to crack and crumble in the face of 20 minutes of absolute silence and a quiet mind and heart. They evaporate in the presence of a God who dwell in “deep darkness” (1 Kings 8:12; 2 Chronicles 6:2; Psalm 97:2, ).

After a while, you can even begin to see that God is working in you to heal you, to grow and transform you in something resembling Jesus Christ.

(This is a good thing.)

If you wanted to get started with the practice of centering prayer, I’d suggest a few things:

  1. Check out The Liturgists: either live or recorded and rest in the peace of what they are doing.
  2. Read Richard Foster’s book Prayer, which has chapters on The Prayer of the Heart, Meditative Prayer, and Contemplative Prayer, which are somewhat related.
  3. Read Open Mind, Open Heart by Thomas Keating
  4. Have a conversation with someone who has experience with it. You can sometimes find these folks in monasteries, or in certain local faith communities (Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, etc.).

Two brief words in closing:

  1. Gungor/The Liturgists have taken this meditative approach to worship and prayer on the road, and I’ve seen some great responses to it. If they come someplace near you, you should definitely go, but at the same time, keep in mind that experiencing mystery, silence, and contemplation one time in a theatre or arena is not the same as incorporating it into your daily life. If you had to choose between a daily encounter and a one-time tour stop, choose the daily encounter.
  2. There is a certain nervousness in the west (North America) about disciplines like centering prayer and contemplation, and I suppose I can understand this. My response is first, this is not a new (nor a “new age”) practice, but one that has long standing connections to our faith tradition. Just because it is alien to us in our North American mindset does not mean that it is wrong, or something to be feared. Second, this is merely a way for us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling.” Jesus’ work on the cross was complete and takes care of the brokenness that is inside me. That being said, Jesus (and Paul as well) was also passionate about change and growth and maturity. Prayer is probably the key mechanism for that growth and maturity.

I’ll stay silent, and wait on God.

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Eugene Peterson on Spiritual Direction

For a season now, I’ve been pursuing a spiritual direction, and trying to be a better “director” of people’s souls myself.

I was recently going through Peterson’s Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integritywhich has shaped me as a pastor as much as any other book I’ve ever read—with a friend, and re-read what he has to say about giving spiritual direction.

(Incidentally, I think that “spiritual direction”—or mentoring, or whatever you’d call personal, spiritual influence—is one of the most desperately needed activities in our culture. I think much of 21st century North American culture has no need for a bigger, better, faster worship gathering. We need a more sober, consistent spiritual direction and discipleship for God’s people).

So here’s what Peterson says:

  1. Cultivate an attitude of awe with and for every person you meet with. Every meeting is a privilege, and an opportunity to see God work.
  2. Cultivate an attitude of ignorance. We can make assumptions about peoples’ motives and feelings. Most of the time they are wrong. We do better to assume nothing and ask questions. (This is something I’m trying desperately to grow in.)
  3. Cultivate a predisposition to prayer. Prayer is the furnace, and oftentimes what people really want from us is to learn to run the furnace for themselves. They don’t want our advice; they want to learn how encounter God for themselves.

Professional Faith 2: Have a Plan

I thought I might unpack what a “Professional” Faith might look like in everyday terms.

There are so many options out there, but there are some things that I’ve tried and/or heard about, so maybe they’ll help you get started if you want to get serious about doing the work of becoming a “Gospel Artist” (i.e., partnering with God to create a gospel-shaped life).

NOTE: I believe in the power of a positive secret, so I won’t share exactly what my daily practices are, but if you want to know, contact me directly and I’ll walk you through them. Otherwise, I’ll speak in general terms here and give some resources that have worked for me in the past, some of which I still engage with.

 FIRST A WORD ABOUT TIME…

Martin Luther said somewhere that he was so busy he simply HAD to devote 2-3 hours of every day to prayer.

I think it’s pretty obvious that most of us don’t think that way…

It seems to me that we allow busy-ness to take over, to give it the priority.

To put it succinctly, this puts first things second and second things first. A professional knows his priorities. I was looking through a “productivity system” that was designed by a writer, and at the bottom of every day of his calendar was a place where you write your “Life’s Theme”—the spine that your life is wrapped around. It’s so you constantly know what the most important thing in life really is. A professional faith knows owns up to the fact that the most important creative work we have is the one that produces the gospel-shaped life that God is calling us to produce.

For me that doesn’t just take time; it takes the first, significant portion of my best time.

For myself, I’ve found that I need somewhere between 30 and 70 minutes of focused spiritual time in the morning to maintain my sanity for the day.

I honestly don’t know if that sounds like a lot or a little; to me it’s just what is required.

As I got serious about being professional, I realized that I had these daily needs for the things that the spiritual life offers me—I constantly craved more peace, more humility, more sanity, more love—but that I seldom owned up to my part of the equation. I really just expected that God would swoop in like Superman and magically make my heart more peaceful. The time I offered him was in fits and starts: I’d say prayers in crisis, or a hurried line or two as I sat in traffic, or on my lunch break.

That’s like a professional writer expecting to write a brilliant novel by writing for 4 minutes every morning and then in 30 second spurts throughout the day: it may get done in 40 years, but it may have little consistency and excellence. Furthermore, when you consider how quickly the novel could have been written had the writer just sat down and done the work consistently and faithfully, it seems a bit tragic.

Poet Sylvia Plath used to wake up at 4:30 every morning to write because that’s when she could get her work done. Writer Haruki Murakami wakes up at 4am to get in five or six hours’ worth of work. When I was writing for Maida Vale, I’d wake up at 5:30 to do my songwriting exercises before the kids stirred for school.

An artist’s commitment to his or her work drives her time.

We have to really decide how important this God—and this life He offers us—really is, and then adjust our schedules accordingly. You’ll be amazed at the change you can feel when you can stretch out and REST a bit.

NOW A WORD ABOUT TOOLS…

After we manage to get our time sorted out, the bigger question remains: what do we do with it? This, in itself, is daunting because of the sheer number of options available: devotions, prayers, books, music, etc. The Bible itself is 66 books and a thousand pages of stories, prayers, instructions, letters.

Where do you start?

As I said, without necessarily telling you exactly what I do, I’ll just throw out some examples of what I’ve DONE in my journal towards becoming a professional. These are simple tools that the church has historically used. They are the “hammer and nails” of building a spiritual life—they may not be sexy, but they’ve been proven to work over time.

BIBLE

In so many ways, it all starts with scripture. Our spiritual life is one of RESPONDING to God, and in so many ways God’s first word to us comes through scripture. But where and how to begin with such an overwhelming book? In a way, the worst thing we can do is to sit down with this Book (or rather, these books) and simply start reading. There are a few options.

1. A reading plan. If you’ve never read “the whole story”, I’d say start here. Read the whole thing, preferably in chronological order so that you get a sense of storylines and history. I try to do this every 5 years or so, just to remind myself of how grand God’s work is.

2. One book at a time, one question at a time. This was one of the key pieces of advice I heard from a theologian. Anything else can lead to (a) being overwhelmed or (b) getting crazy answers from the text. So consider what questions you have of God and the Bible (“Who was Jesus?” “What does Paul have to say about living in community?” “How did the first followers of Jesus behave?”). Then pick a book and start reading with those questions in mind. Honestly, sometimes you won’t get an answer, but at least the processs is manageable.

3. Lectio Divina. This “Divine Reading” is a method of approaching scripture that the church developed over time. It’s a way of closely listening to the scriptures that can speak to your heart in a highly personal, intimate way. It involves using small chunks of scripture, reading slowly, and imagining yourself in the story. You can find additional resources on lectio here, or contact me for more info.

PRAYER

For me, prayer is the thing. It is the mechanism for communion and fellowship with the Father. There are tons of different ways to pray, but here are just two resources to get you started:

1. Common Prayer. This is the prayer that liturgical churches pray every day. You can find it online here, and there’s also an app. What I love about Common Prayer is that structures your prayer time with scripture and some prayers that have been written and tested, while leaving time for our own prayers and words during intercession. One thing that can be difficult about using this resource is that it’s meant to be done in community; when I use it I just read everything out loud. Many of us are predisposed to think that “reading prayers” is somehow less spiritual, but I actually find it very useful. I just direct my thoughts and words towards God as I read, and this has turned into a strong backbone for my morning time with God for a long time.

2. The Lord’s Prayer. I’ve mentioned this before, but one way to start structuring your prayer life is to use the prayer that Jesus taught his disciples to pray. The trick is to savor the words and to speak them slowly with meaning, occasionally “unpacking” a word or phrase as you pray. In truth this prayer could make up the whole of your prayer time in the morning, but it’s up to you how thoroughly you use it.
The point of all this is to have some kind of plan, to shrink the change that you’re trying to undergo. You don’t have to use these tools exactly, but as we begin to embrace a professional faith the point is to help ourselves with structure and tools.

Next up: Make It Easy.

It Still Hurts (sometimes)…

Chicago, from Jonathan's Boat

Chicago, from Jonathan’s Boat

I know I was supposed to start this series on Jesus today, but I decided to wait another day or two…

So today, I lost my center. I’d been a little a over the place all day, but what sent me (at least briefly) over the edge was a simple text from a good friend in Chicago. He just asked me how I was doing, and caught me up in his life (including this totally unfair shot from his boat on Lake Michigan).

Almost in an instant I was swamped with the practically physical pain of loss from my life in Chicago. It’s a pain I knew really well for about two years, from 2006 to 2008. During that time, I thought of my life in terms of some kind of giant joke that God was playing on me. So much of who I thought I appeared to be taken from me, and very little was given back.

It took years to work through those feelings; to begin to accept my life in Tallahassee for what it was/is, and to begin to see good things grow up around me.

But in that instant, those things were shaken, and I was transported back to that place 4-5 years ago.

It wasn’t pleasant; in fact it was almost strange and surreal to feel the (once normal) feelings of pain, loss, regret and hopelessness.

But some things have changed since then.

After a lengthy battle with those demons, I gradually developed some healthy spiritual practices that remind me of the truth of my life.

(It’s much, much too easy to believe the lies…)

Centering, contemplative prayer (I’m still a novice, believe me), meditation and praying the Daily Office have slowly begun to transform me; it’s easier now to remember that those feelings of homesickness for Chicago may be valid, but are simply not the whole truth of who I am.

There is a deeper truth to my being (and to yours as well). That truth is mostly covered up and obscured by a lifetime of lies and pain and mistakes, but it is still there.

However, most of the time it won’t influence our lives unless we do some kind of work to get out of its way. We layer our own false selves—Brennan Manning’s “Impostor”—on top of that truth and bury its life-giving breath underneath the heavy fabric of pride and arrogance.

We need, as I’ve discovered, practices that silence those unhealthy, false voices and let the voice of God, of Love, of Jesus whisper through.

And over time, day-to-day, minute-to-minute, moment-by-moment, we begin to recover that true self that is centered and rooted in God’s love and power.

At peace.

At rest.

In Tallahassee (or wherever).

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Just a Prayer

Full disclosure: I saw this prayer from Walter Brueggemann posted on Ryan’s blog. I have no other words.

Another brutality,

another school killing,

another grief beyond telling…

            and loss…

                        in Colorado,

                        in Wisconsin,

                        among the Amish

                        in Virginia

                        Where next?

 

We are reduced to weeping silence,

            even as we breed a violent culture,

            even as we kill the sons and daughters of

                        our “enemies,”

            even as we fail to live and cherish and respect

                        the forgotten of our common life.

 

There is no joy among us as we empty our schoolhouses;

there is no health among us as we move in fear and

            bottomless anxiety;

there is little hope among us as we fall helpless before

            the gunshot and the shriek and the blood and the panic;

we pray to you only because we do not know what else to do.

            So we pray, move powerfully in our body politic,

                        move us toward peaceableness

                                    that does not hurt or want to kill.

                        move us toward justice

                                    that the troubled and the forgotten may know mercy,

                        move us toward forgiveness that

                                    we may escape the trap of revenge.

 

Empower us to turn our weapons to acts of mercy,

            to turn our missiles to gestures of friendship,

            to turn our bombs to policies of reconciliation;

and while we are turning,

            hear our sadness,

            our loss,

            our bitterness.

 

We dare to pray our needfulness to you

            because you have been there on that

                        gray Friday,

                        and watched your own Son be murdered

                                    for “reasons of state.”

 

Good God, do Easter!

            Here and among these families,

            here and in all our places of brutality.

 

Move our Easter grief now…

            without too much innocence—

            to your Sunday joy.

We pray in the one crucified and risen

            who is our Lord and Savior.

 p.s:

“‘Come, Lord Jesus!’

May the grace of the Lord Jesus be with God’s holy people.” – Revelation 22v20-21

Faith Not in the Prayer, but in the One Behind It.

The issue of prayer is not prayer. The issue of prayer is God. (Rabbi Abraham J. Heschel)

I read that this morning…

That’s a heavy way to start the day.

How much do the words we speak (or sing, for that matter) reveal our true beliefs about God?

I think more than we realize.

Or how about this: how much do the words we avoid speaking reveal our true beliefs about God?

Same.

My wife and I are constantly debating this, but when I read the Bible—and especially the Old Testament—I see people boldly praying to God, even to the point of arguing and bartering with Him. At the very least, they aren’t afraid to be honest. Some of my favorite “honest” prayers are recorded in the Psalms, like this one:

O God, do not be silent!
Do not be deaf.
Do not be quiet, O God.
Don’t you hear the uproar of your enemies? (Psalm 83:1-2)

This is a gentle one, but Asaph isn’t afraid to basically tell God to wake up and see what’s going on.

At first glance, we tend to think that these words are more pious than they appear to be; that Asaph is calmly reciting words that don’t really mean what we think they mean.

But then we read some of Jesus’ words on prayer:

‘There was a judge in a certain city,’ he said, ‘who neither feared God nor cared about people. A widow of that city came to him repeatedly, saying, “Give me justice in this dispute with my enemy.” The judge ignored her for a while, but finally he said to himself, “I don’t fear God or care about people, but this woman is driving me crazy. I’m going to see that she gets justice, because she is wearing me out with her constant requests!”

Wow.

Jesus said that.

The implication is that we are free to be honest, passionate, and even a little bit brash in our prayers.

Where does this passion come from?

  1. belief in our cause
  2. belief in the character of the judge

Jesus goes on to ask that if this judge—who was lacking in love and justice—could eventually respond to this woman, how much more would God respond to us? 

Returning to Psalm 83, it’s easy to see the tension we live in. Though we might be afraid that God is being silent, or not hearing, or even somehow unaware of our situation, we don’t need to be afraid of His character that invites us to persevere in coming to Him.

The upside-down logic in this is that if I stop asking someone to act on something that is important to me, it’s because

  • I no longer believe that it’s important
  • I no longer believe that the person cares
  • I no longer believe that person is capable of acting on my behalf

Wow.

When you think about it this way, the brash honesty of Asaph, or Abraham, or Jesus is actually a radical statement of faith in the capacity of God to care for His children (not to mention His graciousness to allow them to come in honesty and freedom).

Are there areas in your life where you have “stopped knocking”? 

 

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THE Prayer Pt. 5 :: “Daily Bread”

Our Father, who lives in the heavens,
May Your name be kept holy.
May Your Kingdom come,
May Your will be done,
On earth just like it’s done in Your presence.

Give us this day our daily bread
And forgive our sins
As we forgive those who sin against us.
Don’t bring us to the times of trial,
But deliver us from the evil one.
Amen.

The first century had no ATMs.

The first thing I notice about “daily bread” is the sheer immediacy of the request.

In Jesus’ culture, daily bread meant just that: food for the day. In that culture, people more or less literally lived “hand-to-mouth.” If a worker didn’t get paid for a day’s work, they couldn’t use their checking or savings account to go the market… because there was no checking or savings account.

For that day, there would be no money, and more than likely no food.

“Daily bread” is a willingness (and an invitation from God Himself) to desperately go to God for our daily needs and say, “God I need this, and I need it now. Tomorrow’s bread will not do, Lord. I need this today.”

Now, sometimes prayers are answered. Sometimes they are not. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to speak to that. But regardless, God invites us into this immediate, urgent prayer.

Ironically, some of us don’t take God up on his offer to pray for “daily bread”, simply because we have become immune to the necessity of it. Another part of praying for daily bread is us waking up to the fact that we are much more fragile than we think we are.

We go through great pains to insulate ourselves from this fragility. We buy houses in certain neighborhoods; we buy safe (and large) cars; we buy expensive insurance and alarm systems; we vocally support national security. All of these things—in and of themselves—are good things, but we can never leave behind the thought that in an instant everything can change. As much security as we pursue, we are still frail creatures. A recognition of this frailty, of this relative poverty is necessary to respond to the invitation pray for “daily bread.”

  • Do your prayers have “daily bread” urgency?
  • What does it mean that God invites us to pray prayers of urgent desperation?

Five Ways to Develop A Leader

Not leaders

Leader.

I’ve been “thinking small” lately about “leadership development”: how can I invest more in smaller numbers of people?

At staff meeting today, we were talking about leadership development. It prompted my thinking about some ways that I’ve engaged with to develop some emerging leaders in our community.

  1. Slow Down. I used to try and “microwave” leaders. Find someone with potential and charisma, and then throw them into things as quickly as possible. Lately, I’ve been convinced that leaders are indeed made, but made over time. Not just popped like microwave popcorn.
  2. Pray. Like a lot of us, I’ve often tapped people on the shoulder for leadership roles. I’ve had conversations over coffee, I’ve encouraged, I’ve cast vision, and I’ve moved those people into positions of trust. Lately however, I’ve taken a slightly different approach, instead bringing people that I’m thinking about for leadership roles to God, and asking Him to break through to them, to light a fire in their hearts. Though it’s still a bit early to render a complete verdict, the method of bringing someone before God before I bring an opportunity before them feels more holistic, and (I daresay) successful. Ironically, the more I ask God to move in someone’s life, I often receive more insight to make that “tap” on his or her shoulder.
  3. Look for catalytic/transformational events. Though the culture of “conferencing” in evangelical churches (whereby staff members repeatedly attend roughly the same conferences with roughly the same speakers where they sing roughly the same worship songs in a highly charged, over stimulated environment) is a bit troubling, I can’t deny that they can be absolutely transformational for an emerging leader (at the very least, they haven’t sung the songs, heard the speakers, seen the laser beams or any other manner of silliness before). So seek ways to pull these folks into some kind of event where their world can be rocked a little bit, and God can speak into their lives in powerful ways. (By the way, it doesn’t always have to a be bigger/flashier/louder event; it could be a smaller/more peaceful/quieter event.)
  4. Don’t just seek to “be with”; try to “do with”. This is probably the thing that I’ve been experimenting with the most. I used to just talk to people about leadership. Lately, however, I’ve been actually pulling people with me on one-on-one meetings, where they can actually see (and participate in) what I do. The “up front” stuff is visible enough, but that’s the tip of the iceberg of my ministry; I remain convinced that the most valuable stuff I do often takes place Monday-Saturday, over coffee, lunch, or breakfast. I’m trying to find ways to take emerging leaders with me to see what that looks like.
  5. Finally, give constant evaluation and feedback. Most people I work with no that after any major undertaking, someone is going to get an email asking three questions: What went well? What needs improving? and What did we learn? Questions like these constantly evaluate events and projects, while still encouraging dialogue. (By the way: make sure whenever possible that positive evaluation isn’t overlooked or forgotten; “improvements” and “learnings” can easily overtake the successes, and cause some discouragement).

Obviously, this list isn’t exhaustive; there are countless ways to develop leaders. These just represent some of my current thinking on how to effectively invest in emerging leaders.

Enjoy!

“Low Frequency Living”


There is nothing, absolutely NOTHING, like hearing a master drummer lay down an amazing groove…

When it all comes together, it’s amazing: the drums become a groovy, powerful symphony that is practically irresistible to any listener. The cymbals, snare, toms and kick all blend together across a wide dimension of frequencies to make this happen. Each drum has its own space in the sonic landscape: from the high peaks of cymbal crashes to the thud of the bass drum. In turn, each of these frequencies have certain characteristics and effects on a listener.

High frequencies (high hats and cymbals) capture our attention instantly—like the whistle or chirp of a bird or the cry of a train—but they diminish quickly. The sound waves are small and tight, and do not travel far in the air.

Middle frequencies (snare drums and toms) are the “bread and butter” of the drum set—like our normal every day voices. Their sound waves travel farther distances then the high hats and cymbals.

The bass drum occupies the lowest frequency. Though they don’t always capture our immediate attention, low notes travel the longest in the air—like a fog horn, or the low moan of a tuba.

Each instrument works together to provide a sonic voice, a sonic message…

What if our lives have the same potential? I was thinking: there are things that I do that get great attention in the short run (playing and singing on stage), but ultimately don’t “travel that far”, spiritually speaking.

In the “middle frequencies”, there are things such as “every day conversations”, with friends and family over meals and coffee, that have much more resonance, much more power to linger. They may not grab the attention that singing and playing do, but they have more “legs”, sonically speaking.

Finally, there is “low frequency living”: things that may elude the notice of most people, but have tremendous staying power. They boom through my life, resonating for days, weeks, maybe months. What’s more, the sound usually carries over to the world around me. Things like…

… fasting

… secret giving (is it still secret? uh oh)

… prayer

… solitude

… silence

This is “Low Frequency Living”: doing things that escape the eyes of most people, but that “boom” throughout the moments and days that we live. We need the cymbals, and snare drums, but it’s that resonance, that reverberation, that makes the groove all come together, and makes it irresistible for everyone who is listening to our “song.”

What does low frequency it look like for you?