Hurry Up… and Stop

Advent starts tomorrow.

Maybe your “Christmas season” started at 4:30am on Friday morning; maybe it started online on Thursday night.

Maybe you are already running at 150 miles and hour.

Maybe you are already stressed out due to family tensions and too-many-parties.

But maybe it doesn’t have to be that way.

Here’s a reminder: Advent is about waiting. 

If you don’t come from a liturgical background (I don’t, by the way), you may not realize that Christmas actually begins on December 25 and lasts for 12 days (hence the annoying song). The season that leads up to December 25 is called “Advent”, which literally means “the coming into being.”

If you follow the Christian calendar, Advent is a period of time reflect on the significance of the arrival of Jesus Christ into the world.

(Which is kind of a big deal…)

So maybe your holiday season has already begun with a frenetic—even pathological—tone. However, it does not need to remain that way.

After all, it doesn’t take a ton of effort to engage in some moments of reflection and thoughtful contemplation this season.

So here’s my question/challenge: What will you do over the next 25 days to slow down, to reflect, to rise above (or stay below, as the case may be) the Christmas (not Advent) madness? 

What if you set aside 10-20 minutes in the morning to reflect and stay silent (or maybe even begin a practice of centering prayer)?

What if you lit a candle each evening at dinner to remind yourself of this light that is “coming into the world”? (see John 1)?

What if you went through a book of Advent reflections?

What if you chose to read through a Gospel (or 2 even) during this season?

Christians are fond of saying, “Jesus is the reason for the season”, but most of us really don’t do anything to actually act like it. We tend to go about our business in much the same way as the rest of the world.

Could this December be different?

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My Thoughts About IS and the Crisis in the Middle East

I thought I’d offer some ideas and thoughts regarding the unfolding human rights catastrophe in the Middle East. They are offered humbly: I am no expert on either the region or on Islam. I have, however, done a fair bit of reading over the years, and I have been “working out my salvation with fear and trembling” for even longer. So I’m writing as a pastor, as a history buff, as an American, and as a follower of Jesus Christ (though not necessarily in that order).

Let’s begin with the end:

  1. We are one body; when one part of the body suffers we are called to join with them in suffering and prayer.
  2. I believe that God is opposed to innocent suffering in any form. Violence done in the name of the religion is the worst form of injustice, whether it’s done in Germany in the 30s and 40s, Mississippi in the 50s and 60s, Belfast in the 70s and 80s, the former Yugoslavia in the 80s and 90s, or Syria and Iraq in the 2013-14. Crying out to God for an end to the violence and for justice to be done is appropriate and necessary for human beings.

Now for the messy part.

 Caution 1: Be Careful of Using the “Militant” Psalms as Examples of Prayer

The psalms are the model of prayer for God’s people. They run the full gamut of human emotion: from joy to despair from thanksgiving to lament. Surprisingly there are more than a few very militant, angry psalms that cry out for God’s vengeance, and for revenge. Psalm 10, for instance, asks God to “break the arms of those who are wicked and evil (v15 CEB); Psalm 54 asks, “Let death devastate my enemies; let them go the grave alive because evil lives with them—even inside them!”

There are other examples; you get the point.

The tension, however, is removing prayers like this from their context, namely that of a relatively small nation (Israel) which is often praying these prayers amidst defeat, oppression, and eventual exile at the hands of larger empires like Babylon and Assyria (later to be Rome). On the other hand, prayers for vengeance take on a markedly different tone when they are uttered from the lips of people of a superpower (In fact, it can be argued that the stronger Israel became, politically and militarily in the Old Testament, the more their troubles multiplied, culminating in exile). The question that has been going through my head lately is Where do predator drones come into these prayers?

I’m not saying we cannot pray them (well, I almost am), I’m simply saying that you cannot transfer the words of Psalm 137 (“Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks…”; btw, where does this fit into the idea that the Bible is “God’s love letter to you?”) into 21st century United States of America.

 

 Caution 2: Be Careful of Making This an Issue of “Christianity versus Islam”

Again, I’m no expert here, but I’ve read enough lately to understand that many (most?) mainstream Muslim clerics are condemning IS as heretical and “not Muslim.” Furthermore, at least a few clerics have outright condemned the “caliphate” that IS wants to establish similarly as heretical (in fact, the whole idea of a Muslim “caliphate” is more complicated than it might seem; it’s not a given that all Muslims want a physical caliphate, at least as its been portrayed by IS and in the press). In my opinion, groups like IS (or the Nazis, or the Taliban, or the conflict between the Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda) are really more about politics, and have just constructed a religious extremist view to cloak very worldly (even evil?) goals. If leading Muslim clerics can condemn them as heretics, I’m willing to follow their lead.

So How Do We Pray?

  1. Start with repentance. Calling out to God should begin with an examination of our own heart, and, like it or not, the West (USA included) has a troubled track record in the Middle East of supporting religious extremists in order to bring out a desired political end. We did it with the Taliban against the Russians in the 1980s, and we see where that led us. As this article points out, Great Britain was (directly or indirectly) responsible for the formation of Saudi Arabia, which was in turn established on the same brand of Islam that gave rise to IS. In fact, IS is merely an effort to return the Middle East to the “pure” form of Wahhabi Islam that the the kingdom of Saudi Arabia was founded on. So it’s not inappropriate for us to acknowledge that we have had a had in seeking short term political and gain financial (hello oil!) for the sake of long-term perspective on religious extremism.
  2. Pray for Muslim spiritual leadership to unite people against the violence and heresy of groups like IS or the Taliban. Repression, violence, torture and murder are no more part of Islam than they are of Christianity (there are some nasty parts of the Bible that could be used in some crazy ways if someone wanted; trust me).
  3. Pray for the long-term development and sustenance of the region. The Middle East has a recent history of turmoil and upheaval. Before that (again, hello oil!) however, the region was a leader in tolerance, scientific and literary development. To put it bluntly, young men with no future except poverty and political disenfranchisement can be motivated to do any manner of things. A CNN report recently said that ISIS recruitment relies on “cars, guns, cell phones, and cash money.”
  4. Pray for justice. Now, in this case praying for justice is going to necessarily involve physical, violent confrontation. In all honesty pray for this, for God’s Kingdom to come, for His will to be done, and for those who are killing and torturing to be brought to justice. However, again, I must acknowledge the fact that I pray as a member of a super-power, a nation who can pilot an unmanned drone into a building from 7,000 miles away. We are not Israel. We are not an oppressed minority.
  5. Pray with an eye towards the cross. This throws a wrench into everything. We profess to follow a man who—as he was dying on the cross in the face of his torturers and murderers—said, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing.” In their own minds, the Romans—just like ISIS and any number of people perpetrate violence and murder in the name of religion (Islam or Christianity)—knew exactly what they are doing, but Jesus knows better. As we pray, we need to pray, somehow and some way, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.” 
  6. Know that it’s not about praying “correctly”, it’s about praying. The Spirit, in fact, does intercede for us when we don’t know what to pray. There are just a few thoughts to get us started, and to maybe free us from some of the spiritual paralysis that is easy to fall into in situations like this.

This is simply not easy. We recoil at the images and the stories, but we also have to look inside our own hearts and consider the Story we live in: a world that is moving towards redemption at the hands of a King who suffered and died and said, “Blessed are the peacemakers.”

I’ll close with a prayer from theologian Walter Brueggemann; maybe his words can be yours (and mine) today:

The Threat upon Us

Summertime…when the living is easy.

You give us summer and winter,
cold and heat,
seedtime and harvest,
but summer is special—
grills and patios and pool
and baseball.

We take our ease,
even amid terrorism.
The threat is mostly remote,
and the war in Iraq (or Afghanistan or Sudan or . . . )
scarcely calls us in our privilege to attention.

And then, right in the middle of our easy living,
the bombs burst on the street corner,
on the bus,
on the train.
the smoke, the fire, the shrieking,
the dash of emergency vehicles,
all brought very near, all brought right up
against our easy summer living.

We experience a sinking sense
that the world is not safe,
that our life is not free of threat,
and we wonder where and when next
will come assault on our well-arranged lives.

We turn to you, partly out of need,
partly out of habit, partly out of trust.
We know you to be Creator, who maintains order,
Redeemer, who loves us more than we love ourselves.

But we are so self-sufficient,
we do not easily turn from our ways to yours
And so amid our trust in you
comes our fated self-confidence,
our urge to manage,
our wish for self-sufficiency.

So we, unsettled in deep ways,
want to believe more than we do.
But even now we believe enough to know that your
good way does not depend on our trust.
So be our God—yet again—
this time, and
we will be honest in our double-mindedness
as we turn to you in our fear.

 

peace

+e

 

 

 

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.

========================

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).

========================================

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